Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
Copyright. All rights reserved.

A Man Named William Goodchild
Borough of Norfolk, Virginia

Artist-architect Benjamin Latrobe, March 1796
Norfolk, The First Four Centuries
by Parramore, Stewart & Bogger

As a historian, I am always having my nose in a book or an old newspaper. When I am searching out certain genealogical information for my many patrons at the Wallace History Room. surprisingly, I always end up finding something unique and special for myself. I call this, “A little Gold,Nugget that is just for me.” A few weeks ago I discovered this interesting man named, William Goodchild, a man that reminded me so much of the book I read so long ago called, Silas Marner by George Eliot.

I was quickly transported back to the classroom at Blair Junior High School here in Norfolk, Virginia.  I was in the 9th grade and our assignment was to read and analyze the remarkable classic called Silas Marner by George Eliot, published in 1861.

Reading the short synopsis about William Goodchild of the Borough of Norfolk, I realized how Silas Marner and William Goodchild were so much alike. Both hid their money under the floor boards of their small quaint, little houses. Every night after dinner they would count their shiny gold coins.

But, looking back at William Goodchild’s life, I am reminded about poor old Job in the Bible who lost everything in life but never lost his faith in God. Through his hardships, he was blessed richly. As a young man, Goodchild was living on an island when a category 4 Hurricane came roaring through. He lost his family and his home.

According to William S. Forrest’s book, Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk & Vicinity, published in 1853, Forrest mentions the devastation of the bombardment and burning of Norfolk by the British on that cold day of January 1, 1775. I am sure this left behind a memory which stayed in the minds of the inhabants of Norfolk for many years, as well as old Benjamin Franklin, an American Commissioner who negotiated the treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War and secured the United States ownership of a vast territory between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi River. In settling the Peace between Great Britain and America (Treaty of Paris), Franklin mentioned compensations given to the people of Norfolk. “Look at the bombardment you did to the town of Norfolk, and to the people of the colony of Virginia.” Norfolk was bombarded and burned to the grown. 

What was it like for the many of the inhabitants of Norfolk who returned to their burned out town?  We shall never know, but I am sure despair was written all over their faces. I am sure it was complete terror for the inhabitants returning to the smoldering ruins of their Borough with tears rolling down their cheeks, a complete horror? Norfolk town was engulfed as fire spread from all sides. Fire was everywhere.  It’s horrible to see a war-torn town and everyone struggling to just get shelter and a meal. This was the Borough of Norfolk after Dunmore’s raid, not to mention the rampaging smoke from the burning buildings that fogged up the air. We as historians sometime forget about this. The dense smoke prevented many inhabitants from getting out of Norfolk. After the Bombardment of Norfolk, only one Anglican Church and two or three houses were standing. Unfortunately, most of the homes and buildings were made out of wood, making the fire spread rapidly throughout the Borough. Men, women and children sought out shelter in Norfolk County.

In his book, Forrest tells us about William Goodchild (d. 1793) who was the first man to build house on the Northside of Main Street after Norfolk had been completely bombed out and leveled by fire. Mr. William Goodchild, like many of the early inhabitants of Norfolk, returned to salvage whatever they could in personal belongings. William Forrest tells us that Mr. Goodchild had hid a small trunk with his precious metals, Spanish gold coins and doubloons, under the floor boards of his house. We see Mr. Goodchild searching, combing and poking through the ashes of his bombed-out house until he finally finds his treasure under the scorched floor boards.

As Norfolk prospered over the centuries, old Norfolk houses were yielding to new department stores, parking lots and many a building contractor, in raising old buildings, has found silver and gold coins and other precious metals under floor boards of old homes, horded away for safe keeping. And many old chimneys have yielded up a delightful surprise of coins and coin silver behind an old bricks. One such story was when workers found a number of old coin silver spoons in the old Llewelyn house not far from 38th Street and Llewelyn Avenue. Coin silver (flatware) is quite unique for in colonial timers many a woman would save the silver coins from the pockets of their husbands and have a local silversmith melt-down the coins for spoons. Thus he phrase, coin silver.

But who really was this man named William Goodchild? We know on October 19, 1772, a sloop arriveed from the Caribbean with news (letters) about St. Croix describing the worst devastation of a hurricane that leveled the whole island.  The violent hurricane is printed in the Virginia Gazette and mentions William Goodchild and family; “the family is to be pitied, for they have suffered inconceivably, their house was leveled along with the Anglican Church.”  One of the descriptive letters was written by Alexander Hamilton describing this horrible hurricane.

Could one of the passengers on board this sloop have been William Goodchild? We do not know this, but we do know that he was very familiar with the Borough of Norfolk.

According to the Virginia Gazette, on December 5, 1771, a John Jones received a mortal wound in a Norfolk house from a pen knife by a William Goodchild. What could have happened? Apparently, it was self-defense. Why did he pull a knife on John Jones history does not tell us.

On September 10, 1772, Goodchild is a business partner with a Mr. Nathaniel Stevenson, in the wig-making business here in Norfolk. But Nathaniel Stevenson is a loyalist and makes frequent trips back home to England letting the public know through the Virginian Gazette.

After the bombardment of Norfolk we see him as a patriot. and in the Militia during the early part of the American Revolutionary War. He furnishes a gun to Capt. Thomas Walker, a Militia Company, equal to 10 pounds, date, June 18, 1776. He is a patriot now in this Revolutionary War.

March 7, 1779, we see Mr. Goodchild helping settle the estate of a Mr. Samuel Bews of the Borough of Norfolk who had died. He is the executor of the estate along with the widow Mary Bews, wife of Samuel Bews.

On July 15, 1779, William Childress marries a Mary Childress, listed as a spinster. This is the only time his wife is mentioned.

In looking at the Legislative Petitions of the Norfolk Borough, on Nov. 14, 1782, William Goodchild is petitioning the Mayor of Norfolk (an agreement) to regulate the streets of the Borough of Norfolk, making the streets wide and straight enough for carts, wagons and gigs.

On December 24, 1793, William Goodchild made out his will on Christmas Eve. A month later William Goodchild was dead.  He passed away around the 18th of January 1793, and on January 21, 1793, his will is probated in Norfolk County.  He leaves two children, Polly and Tommy Goodchild. He requests that all his houses and lands be rented out for income for his children. In reading his will, there is no mention of his wife Sarah. Apparently, his wife was dead. All property and money goes to his two heirs, Tommy and Polly Goodchild.

Unfortunately, there is no obituary for William Godchild, nor his wife Sarah Goodchild. And no one knows where they are buried. There is a possibility he was buried in old St. Paul’s cemetery, but no record or tombstone has been found.

Like Job in the Bible, William Goodchild accepted his misfortunes, and was able to triumph over much difficulty during his life, especially being wiped out twice, once by a hurricane and once by war. Overcoming adversity is by no means easy. Goodchild had the patience of Job to overcome all his bad luck. Despite all his misfortunes, William Goodchild passes away a prosperous man, and the first man to build a house out of the ashes of a war torn Norfolk.  

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com