South Boston

     South Boston in 1800 was known as Dorchester Neck, and was a peninsula of land that extended north from Dorchester, but was separated from Boston proper by water. It was chiefly used for the grazing of livestock.

     In 1803 a group of prominent Boston businessmen, who foresaw the need  for more acreage for an expanding city, bought land on the neck and proposed building a bridge to access it. They petitioned the legislature to annex the neck and lay out a couple of cross streets. This occurred in 1804, and from then on it was known as South Boston. That group of investors eventually became known as the South Boston Association. A 1550 foot long bridge was completed in 1805 (known as the Dover St. Bridge). Streets and lots were laid out and South Boston was opened for development.

     From the beginning South Boston with its easily accessible shoreline presented a prime location for an expanding New England glass industry. The Boston Crown Glass company had incorporated in 1787 and established  two factories – a crown window glassworks on Essex St. in Boston and a cylinder window glassworks in Chelmsford. They reorganized as the Boston Glass Manufactory in 1809, and in 1811 proceeded to buy lots in South Boston on which to further expand their production. They acquired two contiguous parcels between 1st and 2nd  Streets bordering on B Street. There they erected a furnace for crown glass production and on the adjoining lot a six-pot furnace for flint glass.

      Crown-glass was the name given to one  technique for producing flat glass. A glassblower would blow a gather of glass into a sphere, flatten one side of it into a disc, and then spin it on the pontil (rod) to enlarge it to a thin flat disc four to five feet in diameter. Once this “table” of glass was hardened it could then be cut into individual window panes of various sizes.



(from “The Glass Industry in South Boston” by Joan E. Kaiser)

Flint glass was a generic term for products made from a high quality colorless glass usually hand blown or blown into molds.  The Boston Glass Manufactory  recruited an accomplished English glassblower, Thomas Caine, as foreman for the flint glass works and by the end of 1812 both Boston Glass Manufactory furnaces were in production. Cain’s furnace produced oil lamps, bottles, tableware, as well as apothecary and laboratory equipment. These finer products were marketed under the name South Boston Flint Glass Works.

    But the American glass industry soon fell on hard times . In 1816 protective tariffs on foreign imports expired and the country was quickly flooded with foreign glass. Despite Caine’s competence, management decisions had often led to the issuance of inferior products. And in 1819 there was a major worldwide financial panic, leading to the near collapse of the Boston Glass Manufactury.

    Although they struggled on, Thomas Cain eventually decided to set up his own business, known as Cain’s Glass House ( #5 on the map below),  which he operated quite successfully from 1822  until 1870.  It was located across from the South Boston Crown (#1) and Flint Glass works (#2) on the other side of B Street, on land he had purchased in 1817.  

     It was at this juncture, in September of the year 1822,  that James and Ann McDermott and their four children arrived in Boston from Halifax. There is no record of James’ location in the early Boston Street Directories, so I suspect he quickly made his way to South Boston (South Boston residents were not included in the Directories until 1827).

     The first concrete record we do have of the McDermotts occurred with the birth of their son Michael on Nov. 20, 1824.  His baptism was recorded at Holy Cross Cathedral on Franklin St. in the South End on Dec 2. The sponsors were William Lynch, Rose Galloway and William Taylor.

     Holy Cross was the first Catholic church in Boston.  Planning for the church had begun in 1799, under the leadership of two pioneers in the history of Catholic Boston, Father Jean Cheverus and Father Francis Matignon. Preliminary construction started on March 17, 1800, but then stopped. After more fundraising, which included generous donations from Protestants, construction resumed in March of 1802. In 1803, the Holy Cross Church was dedicated in the presence of Bishop John Carroll from Baltimore.   

Holy Cross Cathedral


    The Holy Cross Church stood at a site in downtown Boston known as Franklin Square. The building was designed by noted Boston architect Charles Bulfinch. Among his other works in Boston are the present state house and St. Stephen Church in the North End. The brick exterior was highlighted by a bell tower over the main entrance and ionic columns. The interior was rather simple and included a gallery above the vestibule for the choir and along both sides of the nave. In April of 1808, Boston was raised to the status of a diocese and  Father Cheverus was appointed the first bishop, establishing the Holy Cross Church as the Cathedral Church of Boston. 

     South Boston received its own house of worship in 1818.  Bishop Cheverus created the St. Augustine Chapel and its surrounding Cemetery for the interment of his beloved friend and faithful helpmate in the organization of the Catholic Church in New England, Reverend Dr. Francis Anthony Matignon (1753 – 1818). This would be  the first time Boston Catholics, and Irish Catholics in particular,  had a central place to hold funerals and bury their dead. Attracted by the Saint Augustine Chapel and Cemetery as well as the land development and the presence of glassworks offering employment, many Boston Irish, and subsequent waves of Irish immigrants, began to settle in South Boston.

St Augustine’s Chapel and Cemetery

     Unfortunately Michael McDermott, the McDermott’s first child born in the United States, did not survive long enough to be recorded in the 1830 Census.  Although we don’t know exactly when he died,  it seems very probable that he would have been buried in St Augustine’s Cemetery.

    It is unlikely that James McDermott had any previous experience as a glassblower in Ireland given that the Irish centers for glass production were in Waterford, Cork, Dublin and Belfast.  However, it did not take him long to find work in one of the glass houses in South Boston –either in one of the Boston Glass Manufactory works or in Cain’s Glass House.  Once the Boston Directories started listing South Boston residents (1827) a James McDommott appeared, living on A St., a block from the furnaces.

     In 1826, with an eye towards the needs of his growing family, James had purchased a house on the corner of A St. and 3rd St. (The location is designated in blue on the map above).  A fellow glassworker (a glass mixer),  Alexander Clarke, had bought the property from the South Boston Association on Feb. 28 of 1826 for $1047.60. The plot ran 72’9” along the Northwest side of A St. and was 20’ deep and its purchase price could be paid off in installments.  Two weeks later, on March 15th,  Alexander sold a half interest and half obligation in his purchase to James McDermott, and they each made a downpayment of  $120. The McDermotts were listed as living on A Street in the Directories from 1827 through 1830 ( Mr. Clark also appeared in the 1827 Directory as  Alic Clarke, glassmaker, S Boston).  It seems that the McDermotts and Alex and Honora Clark were close friends from very early on (more on this later), so much so that Ann McDermott was chosen to be godmother to the Clark’s son William when he was baptized in January of 1824.

               On January 2, 1827 James and Ann McDermott’s daughter Catherine was born, and she was baptized on the 21st  at Holy Cross Cathedral. The sponsors were listed as John McDermott and  Bridget Gilligan. Who were those sponsors? Well one immediate assumption is that John McDermott must have been a brother of James. There was a John McDommott (same spelling as James’ 1827-30 listing) listed in 1825 and 1826  living at 194 Hanover St., Boston. In 1828 he moved to a house (in the rear) on Sea St., and in 1829 he joined James on A St. in South Boston. After that point the tracking of John McDermott becomes increasingly hard.

     Information on Bridget Gilligan is likewise sketchy. There were two Gilligans listed in Boston at the time – a Bryan (cooper) and a John (laborer). Perhaps she was the daughter of one of these men.

     By 1827 James and Ann had five or six children to care for. But James had a viable trade and  a residence of his own. Things seemed to be on a good trajectory for the McDermotts, but soon the South Boston glass industry was floundering again. In 1824 the Boston Glass Manufactury had reorganized and had begun running its two South Boston furnaces under separate management – one was incorporated as the South Boston Crown Glass Company, the other as the South Boston Flint Glass Works. Both groups realized their future was a bit tenuous. The parent company had used the properties as collateral for a $15,000 loan in 1825. That loan didn’t come due till 1829, but suddenly in May of 1827 The Boston Glass Manufactory declared bankruptcy and shuttered  all of its plants. The real property reverted back to the South Boston Association, and the remaining glass stock was sold to the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, which had been formed two years earlier, and which was operating a glassworks out of Sandwich on Cape Cod.

   The closing of two major glassworks in South Boston must have sent shockwaves through the working community that provided the labor, materials  and services for those industries. Cain’s Glass House was now the only substantive producer of glass in South Boston.

     In 1829 half the former Boston Manufactory site was purchased by Edmond Monroe, a securities and real estate broker, who had interests in not only the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company, but in three companies with furnaces in east Cambridge – The New England Glass Company, the New England Crown Glass Company, and the New England Glass Bottle Company.  But in 1830 Monroe sold this site to a chemical distilling and refining company.

     The Flint Glass portion of the site was sold in August of 1828 to Edward Pearson, the former agent of the Boston Glass Manufactory. Production was resumed, but probably without showing   much of a profit, because  by March of 1830  Pearson was once again offering to sell it to the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company. They relieved him of all of the glass stock, but declined to purchase the site.

          On December 3 of 1828 James and Anne had had another child.  James (Jr.) was baptized at Holy Cross Cathedral in January of 1829. The sponsers were John Clark and Ann Ryan.

     The 1830 Federal Census listed a James McDurmont (age 40-50) in Ward 12, Boston. His household consisted of a male 15-20 yrs. (Thomas), a male 10-15 yrs. (Patrick), a male under 5 (James ), a female 10-15 yrs (Mary),  a female 5-10 yrs. ( Ann), a female under 5 (Catherine), a female 40-50 yrs. (his wife Anne). There was also a female 60-70 yrs.  This last member of the household was presumably Anne’s mother Nancy Maliff.

    We also  have another record from 1830 – James’ petition for naturalization as an American citizen. Congress had passed the first law regulating naturalization in 1790. As a general rule, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of 5 years. After residing in the United States for 2 years, an alien could file a “declaration of intent” (so-called “first papers”) to become a citizen. After 3 additional years, the alien could “petition for naturalization.” After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued to the alien. These two steps did not necessarily have to take place in the same court.


On the first page of his naturalization petition James McDurmott revealed that he was born December 15, 1792, emigrated from Longford, Ireland and arrived in Boston on the 15th of September in the year 1822. The witnesses attesting to his good character were Michael Maher, glasscutter, and Alexander Clarke, metal mixer (“metal” here signifies molten glass). Alexander, of course, we already know from the joint purchase of the property on A Street. Michael Maher also appeared in the 1830 Census in the 12th Ward . He was much older than James (born about 1775 – he later died in 1838 at the age of 63.)

    The slowing economy apparently did not hinder James and Anne from expanding their family, however.  On February 6, of 1831 their fourth daughter, Elizabeth, was born. Although she was baptized at Holy Cross, later records attest to her being born in East Cambridge, so apparently James had already made a move to get out of South Boston. Then shortly after Elizabeth’s birth,  James packed up his whole  family and moved to Brooklyn, New York. My guess is that the deterioration of employment opportunities in South Boston brought on by the demise of the big glassworks probably motivated him to look for opportunities elsewhere. John Gilliland had established the Brooklyn Flint Glass works in 1823 and had a stable enterprise with an outstanding reputation for quality products.

     The move to Brooklyn  anticipated a new start for the McDermott clan from Longford, and, though unforeseen, it was soon to result in an alliance with another clan from Longford – the Keenans.