History of Ravenscroft

Detailed Chain of Title

Lots 267 and 268, owners and tenants. Owners are outlined in blue, tenants in orange.

During the seventeenth century, when Williamsburg was known as Middle Plantation, the Ravenscroft property was part of an extensive parcel owned by John Page. Page’s brick home, built in 1662, was located was less than a half-mile northeast of the Ravenscroft site. Although archaeologists have not found seventeenth-century buildings on the Ravenscroft site, they have found seventeenth-century artifacts, including clay roofing tiles that, according to chemical tests, were manufactured in John Page’s tile kiln in the 1660s.

In 1699 Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg and established as the colony’s second capital, replacing Jamestown. The town was gridded into orderly north-south and east-west running streets, and numbered, half-acre parcels were offered for sale. The present-day Ravenscroft site consists of two of those lots, numbered 267 and 268. Off the main street, and on land sloping sharply to the west, these lots would not have been prime real estate. Still, their proximity to the Capitol would have worked in their favor.

The earliest documented owner of lots 267 and 268 was surveyor Christopher Jackson who, in 1713, purchased six lots (267, 268, 172, 271, 12 and 43) from the Trustees of Williamsburg for £4 15 s. In accordance with common practice, the Trustees specified that Jackson must build a structure of specific size and materials on each lot within 24 months, or else the undeveloped lot would revert back to the Trustees as if the sale had never been made. Written records and recovered artifacts lead archaeologists to believe that Jackson bought the property with a house already on it, though no physical evidence for that building has yet been recovered.

In 1715 Jackson sold one of his lots (268) to Thomas Ravenscroft, with “all houses, buildings, orchards” for the price of £7. A carpenter by trade, Ravenscroft held positions as Sheriff, Burgess, and Justice of the Peace in surrounding counties during his lifetime. Two years later (1717) Ravenscroft added neighboring lots 269 and 270 to his holdings, accumulating 1 ½ acres along Nicholson Street. For nearly 15 years Ravenscroft held this parcel, and may indeed have responsible for substantial construction.

In 1739, a reference to this lot was made in a mortgage transacted eight years earlier (1731) between Dudley Digges and Robert Wills, both prominent residents of nearby Yorktown. For at least a decade, from 1721-1731, Wills operated the Swan Tavern in Yorktown. The agreement between these two men, and their relationship to the Ravenscroft lots are still somewhat unclear. It seems, however, that Digges and Wills shared an interest in this property and that Digges, by 1739, owed Wills £91. Unable to pay, Digges apparently forfeited his interest in the lots to Wills.

Although the mechanics of this transaction may be inconsequential, a larger and more interesting story may lurk in the details. Between 1721 and 1731 Wills applied for (and received) annual licenses to run a tavern in Yorktown. The Court of York County issued Wills his final tavern license in 1731, the same year that his name is first connected with Digges and the Ravenscroft lots in Williamsburg. Could Wills have acquired the three lots in Williamsburg to establish a tavern? Additional historical research will be required to answer this question.

Within the early months of Wills’ ownership the lots were again transferred, this time to Thomas Nelson, whose tremendous landholdings in Yorktown included the Swan Tavern where Wills had been tavern keeper. Thomas and (after his death in 1745) his son William Nelson retained the property for more than 20 years, leasing to a series of respected tenants:

John Holt was a Williamsburg merchant who, in 1745, signed a lease agreement with William Nelson for lots 266, 267, 268, and 700 for a period of 25 years. Although he also owned two lots in Williamsburg (lots 49 and 50, where his storehouse stood), Holt apparently lived on the leased lots with his wife, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s younger sisters, Roseanna and Mary. From 1752 to 1753 Holt served a term as Williamsburg’s mayor, but seems to have encountered financial difficulties soon after. In 1754 he left the colony for New York (where he eventually became the printer of a newspaper) having lived on the property for only eight years.

The remainder of Holt’s 25-year lease was granted to William Hunter (Holt’s brother-in-law) in 1754. Hunter business was located one block south of the Ravenscroft lots at the printing office where he served as “Printer to the Public” (producing all public forms and documents), as well as publishing the Virginia Gazette. The position of Public Printer, appointed by the royal governor, carried with it a degree of prestige. Hunter lived on the lots with his sister, Roseanna Hunter, and the foreman of his printing shop, Joseph Royle, until his death in 1761.

Joseph Royle assumed the “Public Printer” title, the role of publisher of the Virginia Gazette, and the remaining lease on the property upon Hunter’s death. Royle had also, by that time, married Hunter’s sister, Roseanna, making him (as was William Hunter before him) brother-in-law to the prior tenant.

Over time, Royle established himself on the property purchasing, in 1763, the four lots that he had been leasing from Nelson. Unfortunately, not everything was going so well for Royle. By the mid 1760s criticism of Royle’s Gazette was mounting. Some, including a few members of the House of Burgesses, felt that his paper was biased, and that its content was too closely monitored by the royal governor. In response, William Rind, a partner in the Annapolis Maryland Gazette, was encouraged to move to Williamsburg to establish a rival newspaper. But in early 1766, before Rind’s first edition could be published, Joseph Royle died. The four lots were left to his older son, two-year-old William Royle. Until William Hunter reached the age of 21, the property was leased to a string of tenants whose names we do not know… with one exception. In April 1785, immediately upon reaching his majority, William Hunter offered the property for sale, including the house “now occupied by Mrs. Nelson.” William describes a dwelling "very pleasantly situated, and very convenient for the reception of a family, [with] four lots adjoining, and every convenient out-house" (Virginia Gazette and Independent Chronicle, Dixon and Holt, eds. Richmond, April 9, 1785). Although the records are not clear about who purchased the lots from Royle, by 1791 the Tyler Map labels lots 266, 267 and 268 as belonging to “Jackson” (whom we believe is George B. Jackson).

During the nineteenth century the Ravenscroft property had three owners: Robert McCandlish, William Vest, and M.R. Harrell. Although the nineteenth century history of the lots has not been studied exhaustively, a potentially important piece of information has been extracted from the account books of carpenter Richard Booker, recording the construction of a post and rail fence for McCandlish at the "old bake house lot" in 1827. This reference has raised the intriguing possibility the Ravenscroft site’s small cellar foundation with a large “external” fireplace, may once have functioned as a bake house. This would certainly explain a number of the structure’s more puzzling physical characteristics.

In 1896, during Harrell’s ownership, a large fire destroyed an entire block of Duke of Gloucester Street between Colonial and Botetourt Streets. This fire completely destroyed the Ravenscroft property’s “main house” (Structure B, now lying partially under Botetourt Street), and brought to a end the property’s history as a multi-lot “townstead.”

As this northeastern portion of town was rebuilt in the aftermath of fire, it developed a new character as an important center for the African American community. At various times during the early twentieth century, the Ravenscroft property supported a barbershop, a church, a pool hall, private homes, and the Crump Hotel. Across Botetourt Street (which was extended through this block in the early twentieth century) was the James City County Training School which served the African American community beginning in 1924.

Gradually, between 1930 and 1950, private owners sold these properties to Colonial Williamsburg as the restoration got underway. By 1950 this had ceased to be an active neighborhood, and the Ravenscroft lots were integrated into what we now know as the Historic Area.