A Portland widow armed only with a frying pan held off the British navy

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

Not much is known of Alice Greely (sometimes spelled Greele). We do know she ran a tavern in Portland at the time when the British burned it down 242 years ago this week, on Oct. 18, 1775.

For a full run down of what the British did, see this post from a few months back.

Greely’s tavern sat in what’s now the Portland Food Co-op’s parking lot at the corner of Congress and Hampshire Streets. It’s said she didn’t run from the British and scooped hot cannon balls off her roof with a frying pan.

After the British were done, her tavern was one of the few buildings left standing. The city and county governments were run out of her place for months afterwards.

Because the facts of the story are so thin, I wrote a song to fill in the gaps and pay tribute to the woman’s bravery. I roped my colleague Seth Koenig into helping me, with it. I hope you enjoy the tune. Feel free to sing along.

Here’s to Alice Greely.

A sketch of Alice Greely's tavern by Charles Quincy Goodhue. He spent the last 20 years of his life sketching Portland as it looked before the fire of 1866. (This image is Maine Memory Network item no. 22428)

A sketch of Alice Greely’s tavern by Charles Quincy Goodhue. He spent the last 20 years of his life sketching Portland as it looked before the fire of 1866. (This image is Maine Memory Network item no. 22428)

In Alice Greely’s tavern, Portland’s men would drink their rum
With drunken boasts, they talk about the war that was to come
They’d vow to fight for liberty if there ever came the day
But little did they know the coming hell there was to pay

‘Cause in the fall of ’75, the British sailed to town
Captain Mowatt sent word ashore to everyone around
He said he’d blast the town and then put it to the torch
To bring the rebels to their knees to bow before King George

But the men they fled in wagons with everything they owned
They ran away from the coming fight, abandoning their homes
But one old widowed lady, she put every man to shame
She stood her ground, refused to run, let me tell you of her name

Here’s to Alice Greely and her gallant frying pan
She stood defending Portland while the others up and ran
May her tavern doors never close and her rum always flow free
Here’s to Alice Greely, wherever she may be
Yes, here’s to Alice Greely, wherever she may be

Mowatt kept his promise and the cannons loudly roared
That’s when Alice Greely she came striding out her door
With her frying pan in her hand, she scooped up red hot shells
From off her roof, from out her yard, and through the flames of hell

After six long wicked hours, silence fell on Mowatt’s guns
There was nothing left but ashes when the British they were done
Except for one old tavern that all alone did stand
And one old widowed barkeep, brandishing a pan

For it’s not the talk you talk while you drink your rum
It’s what you really do when finally facing down a gun
So, think of Alice Greely when you’re afraid to make a stand
And what you can do with just courage and a pan

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.