The following article, by Terry L. Meyers, is reprinted (slightly revised), with permission from The Virginia Gazette, June 19, 2004, pp. 1A, 12A-13A.

This Old House

Moved, mislabeled, and misplaced,
building at the college dates to 1700s

by Terry L. Meyers

In a town with 88 original colonial buildings, who needs one more? Surprise, another one has turned up. A nearly 300-year-old cottage has been owned by the College of William & Mary for 74 years.

More than a forgotten home, the cottage brings with it the possibility of meaningful history. In the 1760s it may have housed a school for the religious education of local black children.

My search for the house was inspired by Ed Belvin's mention of a mysterious building in "Williamsburg Facts & Fiction: 1900-1950." Belvin wrote of a "Brown Hall" that had been moved "across the street" to the W&M campus from the site of the present Brown Hall on the southeast corner of Boundary and Prince George streets. Belvin claimed that this first Brown Hall dated from the 18th century and had been the home of the patriot Dudley Digges (1718-1790).

I knew the Dudley Digges House in Yorktown but had never heard of a Digges House in Williamsburg. Neither Louise Kale, director of the historic campus at W&M, nor Kris Preacher, proprietor of and author of "Williamsburg in Vintage Post Cards," could identify this house any more readily than I.

Preacher had nominated the Davis House at 110 N. Boundary. Kale and I looked at Davis House, but it didn't seem likely. She wondered if the Military Science building at 524 Prince George could be the Digges House. Once again, neither of us could see the lines of an historic house.

Searching further, I found two other references to a local Dudley Digges House. One was in a memoir by John S. Charles (1851-1930) in the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library at Colonial Williamsburg. In 1928 Charles meticulously described the 19th century Williamsburg he grew up in and recalled the house, "now 'Brown Hall,'" as "a little vine-clad, single-story frame house." A second reference was in a 1930 Flat Hat story that Gina Woodward at Swem Library's Special Collections brought to my attention. This article also said the building had been moved to the campus.

We now had three apparently independent reports of such a house, and two of them spoke of its being moved. But we still had no house to point to. I decided to look further.

This process (with lots of help) took several months and led me to Colonial Williamsburg's Special Collections at the Rockefeller Library; CW's York County Project in the Department of Historical Research, and the archives in the Goodwin Building. Also helpful were files and microfilm of newspapers at W&M and in Williamsburg, Newport News and Richmond. I also screened college records, building files and presidential papers at Swem Library, along with annual reports of the Methodist Woman's Missionary Society. W&M yearbooks and aerial photographs of Williamsburg were also helpful.

I concluded that Belvin and earlier writers associated the house with the wrong Dudley Digges, and that the college does own what may be one of the oldest houses in Williamsburg. Altered and dilapidated though it is, the building still stands.

The Digges House was built on one of several lots in the west end of town that William Craig acquired in 1712 from the trustees of Williamsburg. It came with the usual stipulation that he build a house within two years. Such stipulations were not always followed, in which case the lots returned to the trustees to be resold. But in his will of June 1719, Craig left to his "daughter Sarah my back Lott with all the houses and appurtenances thereunto belonging."

Sarah and her husband sold the house in 1733 to Hannah Shields, whose sons sold it in 1763 to Dudley Digges. As newspapers reported in the 1920s, tradition dates the house to 1717. The house is depicted on the famous Frenchman's Map of 1782 and supposedly billeted French soldiers after the Siege of Yorktown.

The Dudley Digges House at its original location without additions, late 19th century.
[Courtesy Rockefeller Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation]

The multiplicity of the name Dudley Digges in early Tidewater complicated identification. After consulting with Linda Rowe, a Colonial Williamsburg historian, I believe this Dudley Digges, of Williamsburg, to be an uncle to the more famous one, of Yorktown.

Family house, charity school

Of the Williamsburg Dudley Digges and his family we know relatively little. His father in his 1710 will left him 2,000 pounds upon his majority. In Williamsburg, our Dudley was a member of Bruton Parish, where church registers show the births of two daughters in 1739 and 1746, and the baptism of a son, Dudley, in 1749.

Early in 1748 he saw smallpox infect seven members of his household, possibly including the three slaves his wife, Mary Hubard, inherited. All recovered, but he was not as lucky in 1768 when his son Dudley died of smallpox at the family home.

Just the week before the son's death, the mayor had assured readers of The Virginia Gazette that Williamsburg was safe to visit and do business in, and that the Digges home and another house nearby with two other smallpox victims were "in a retired [secluded] part of the city." Both houses, he emphasized, had "guards on constant duty, to keep off idle and imprudent people." What carried the father off and when is not certain, but he was dead by Jan. 21, 1771 when his wife filed to administer his will. Almost immediately, she died too.

In reduced circumstances, one of Digges's daughters, Maria, became Mistress of the College. Her brother Edward and two sisters, Elizabeth and Susanah, appear to have remained in the family home, which itself figures briefly in a series of complaints against Maria in May 1775. None was found to be justified by W&M authorities.

An overlay of modern streets and buildings shows the Digges House on both the Frenchman's Map (1782, left) and the Desandrouins Map (1781, right). The Digges House is in the upper left of both maps.
[Thanks to CWF for these illustrations]

One of the charges was "Partiality to her Brother in indulging him in all the Delicacies & conveniences of the College," especially candles and "Vegetables, Meat, and other Articles out of the College." A witness claimed that he had seen "a Girl go to Miss Digges's House with something cover'd." In her defense, Maria Digges admitted to nothing more than that "sometimes from the want of company, and sometimes from a desire of improving her said Brother, she has invited him to dine with her."

In October 1785, Maria had the York County sheriff summon Murvin Hallam for the 2 pounds he owed her, perhaps a sign of continuing financial need.

Increasing penury and a steady dedication to her brother are evident in a letter Maria wrote Oct. 25, 1801, to the new President, Thomas Jefferson. Having known him in Williamsburg, she wrote with easy familiarity as Jefferson's "once happy Freind" and described her "Distrest and Melancholy Situation." For 10 years she had maintained her brother, his reason gone, who had "Parted with what he could in defence of liberty and wee three Sisters distressed ourselves in tending him."

Herself ill for 10 weeks and with both sisters dead, Maria turned to Jefferson, "My Dear Freind to Ask your Freindship and Attention" and a contribution: "I live in a Cottage that I feare will Crush us, and have it not in my Power to Mend. One Hundred Dolalars would mend it so as to make habitable but I feare being troublesom."

I had been intrigued by several gifts Jefferson made "in charity" after endorsing Digges' letter as received on Oct. 31, but Jefferson scholar Charles Cullen pointed out that all signs suggest that Jefferson sent no response to this early appeal to restore a colonial home in Williamsburg.

Partly inferential evidence suggests that the house may also have another interesting history. Before moving into it himself, Dudley Digges appears to have rented it between 1763 and 1765 to an English philanthropy, the Associates of Dr. Bray. At Benjamin Franklin's suggestion, the Associates had located in Williamsburg one of their schools to Christianize black children.

Mrs. Anne Wager, the schoolmistress, rented the house for 8 pounds a year and lived there. Giving up teaching the children of several white families in Williamsburg, she taught as many as 30 slave and free black children at a time. Among those enrolled at the "Negroe School" or the "Charity School" in 1769 were two slaves, Adam and Fanny, owned by the college.

Wager was to teach the children to read and speak properly and how to conduct themselves in church, namely Bruton Parish. The girls also learned to knit and sew. School rules called for Wager regularly to conduct the students "from her School House, where they are all to be first assembled, in a decent & orderly Manner to Church."

An agent of the Associates, Robert Carter Nicholas, complained that the Digges House was "much too small for such a Number of children," and the school moved to a larger one before closing in 1774, after Wager died.

Digges House on the move

The eventual peregrination of the house began in 1926 when the president of the Woman's Methodist Missionary Society, Virginia Conference, M.E. Church, South, Mrs. Lee Britt, of Suffolk, persuaded the society to buy it from Mrs. Alice Pollard Stryker. The society sought a dormitory for Methodist girls attending W&M. The purchase price was $11,000. College alumni chipped in $3,000, but the major benefactions came from legacies established by Miss Lizzie Dyson and by Mrs. Jane Brown and Cornelia Brown. Renamed Brown Hall, the house was renovated and expanded at a cost of $2,500 to accommodate up to 14 students, an adult counselor, and a Bible teacher.

The Dudley Digges House at its original location, c. 1928.

When the Missionary Society got the house, it had already been enlarged and renovated. Mrs. Stryker had created an L-shaped wing at the east end of the building. The society's expansion extended the house to the west. Both additions made internal what had been external chimneys. The roofline was much altered, but the four rooms and hall of the original house were as they had been built. The old walnut staircase with its square spindles in the balustrade and the old doors and their hinges remained as did the distinctive fireplaces and broad oak floor.

In 1930 the society sought to build the larger Brown Hall it had anticipated when it bought the property. After many meetings with officials of the Williamsburg Holding Corporation and fruitless offers to exchange properties, Mrs. Britt finally wrote in 1930 to WHC Vice President Kenneth Chorley, emphasizing the historic importance of "one of the oldest houses in Williamsburg."

She assured him that the chain of title was unbroken from William Craig, that the house had never burned, and that though "the capacity of the house was doubled when we purchased it," "the four rooms of the old house are unchanged." The history and age of the house, she suggested (thinking then, as all did, of the Yorktown Dudley Digges), surely justified "a good price," which she left unspecified. She added, "It would be a good business venture to make a tea-room of it."

The Dudley Digges House in its original location, January 12, 1928.

Chorley replied by regretting that even after one last meeting with Williamsburg's Methodist minister, the Rev. H. E. Cromer, the corporation was "unable to reach an agreement" with the Society. He gave no reason.

W&M President J.A.C. Chandler offered to buy and move the house. Though Board of Visitors minutes do not record the purchase, the college bought the house and in early May 1930 moved it a short distance west on Prince George Street. The society realized $1,600.

These aerial photographs taken May 8, 1930 capture the Dudley Digges House in transit down Prince George Street.

[Courtesy of the University Archives, Warren E. Burger Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary]

A contemporary article in the Gazette reported that the college's acquisition of the Digges House "insures its preservation for posterity" and that the college would use the house for faculty housing. A Flat Hat article said that "Pappy" Gooch, the college's first athletic director, had moved in.

Local historian and guide J. Luther Kibler (1867-1953), believed fervently that the house had belonged to the Yorktown Digges and for years had written newspaper articles about the house. In several guide books, one as late as 1936, he cited its new location. Visitors to restored Colonial Williamsburg, he suggested, should detour to see the house.

In the minutes of the Board of Visitors, the Digges House was called Brown Hall until 1939, when the College bought the present Brown Hall (because of the Depression the Methodists had been unable to fill the dorm and pay the mortgage). For a while the house bore the generic name "Prince George House." A 1974 inventory of college buildings lists it simply as "Brown Annex" and dates its construction to 1915. Confusion is apparent in one college publication where the present Brown Hall is noted as "named for the home of Revolutionary War patriot Dudley Digges."

Over the decades, the college used the building to house both faculty and students. In 1988 it began its use by the Military Science Department and Army ROTC. Upkeep has been minimal, and with the age and history of the house out of mind, renovations have little respected its 18th century fabric.

The Dudley Digges House today, at 524 Prince George St.

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