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From orphan to colonial leader

The story of Thomas Everard, Virginia's most famous foundling

By Toni Guagenti

Everard

For more than three decades in the 18th century, Thomas Everard signed his name to many important documents of the day – from deeds to probated wills – as York County Clerk of Court.

He served as Mayor of Williamsburg for two, one-year terms, once in 1766, the other in 1771, appointed by his aldermen peers. Everard also served as a vestryman for Bruton Parish Church.

“You can say that Mr. Everard knew everybody and had his hand in almost everything,” said Gene Mitchell, site supervisor of the Thomas Everard House in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic district, near the Governor’s Palace.

Though Everard was a solid citizen of Williamsburg and the colony of Virginia and recognized by many, his early life in London had decidedly humble beginnings.

A humble beginning

Everard became an orphan by the age of 10 in 1729, when he lost his father, a skinner by trade; the whereabouts of his mother were never recorded. At the time, a child was considered an orphan if his or her father died, regardless of whether the mother was still alive.

Listen to the podcast, "Orphans of Williamsburg."

Everard - thanks to the vision of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and Bishop of London Nicholas Ridley in the 16th century - had a place to go. He entered Christ’s Hospital, a charitable school established for poor children.

As a member of the “Blues” - which the boys were called because of their uniforms, Everard learned how to "read, write clearly and cast accounts," according to a 1988 article in the Colonial Williamsburg magazine article.

In 1735, Thomas was discharged to his uncle, Edward Everard, who had secured his place at Christ’s Hospital years earlier, and London merchant Edward Athawes.

Journey to America

This was the beginning of Thomas Everard’s journey to America. In his early teens he began an apprenticeship to Matthew Kemp. Kemp served as clerk in the Secretary’s Office, clerk of the General Court, clerk of James City County, and clerk of the Committee for Propositions and Grievances of the House of Burgesses.

With Kemp, Everard “learned how to be a clerk of court,” Mitchell said. And he met many people, given his dealings as county clerk, including three years as clerk of court for Elizabeth City County.

Cathy Hellier, a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation historian, can attest that Everard was a “hard-working clerk.”

As part of the York County Project years ago, Hellier researched York County records from the 17th century up to the time of the Revolutionary War, and noted that Everard’s signature appeared on hundreds of documents. Curious, she said, because many county clerks would “toss off the basic job of recording orders to assistant clerks.”

Not Everard.

“He wrote out the orders,” Hellier said, adding his writing was a bit difficult to read. “He certainly knew what was going on the county.”

Twice a mayor

In Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony at the time, Everard served twice as mayor, Mitchell said. And in his role as vestryman of Bruton Parish Church, Everard and fellow vestrymen were responsible for taking care of orphans, Mitchell said, often placing them with parishioners.

Everard also was a member of the Directors of the Public Hospital and served on many committees during America’s fight for freedom, including a committee to choose the delegates to the Continental Congress.

During his stay in Williamsburg, Everard purchased in the 1750s the home built in 1718 by John Brush, the first keeper of Williamsburg’s Magazine.

He married Diana Robinson, the daughter of a York County justice of the peace, and the couple had two daughters, Frances and Martha, Mitchell said. He also owned 1,136 acres in Brunswick County and as many as 600 acres in James City County, Mitchell said.

Everard died sometime between Jan. 30 and Feb. 19, 1781.

After his death, the house went through several owners. Today, though, the home bears Everard’s name and looks as it did in 1773, when Everard lived there with his two daughters. (Diana Everard had died sometime in the 1750s or 1760s.)

During the winter season, the Everard House is open to the public on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., through March 16.


Toni Guagenti is a Norfolk-based freelance writer.