Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial WilliamsburgDana Huntley

For anglophiles and fans of British history, it is not even necessary to cross the Atlantic puddle to experience historic Britain.

Editor's note: Originally published in 2016

In fact, perhaps nowhere in Britain can you step so completely into the life of Georgian England as at Colonial Williamsburg. After all, the largest living history museum in the United States is devoted to portraying life in an 18th-century British colony.

Understandably enough, the specific period in Williamsburg’s history that is portrayed through the enactors, interpreters and programming at Colonial Williamsburg is the period of foment and revolution in 1775 and thereabouts. For many of the several million people who visit Virginia’s colonial capital every year, it is easy to see how the Britishness, yea, Englishness of Williamsburg can get lost in the patriotic fervor that is then seizing the colony.

Through most of its colonial life, however, Williamsburg was a pleasant and affluent provincial town, striving like every other such British town to keep up with the times and the fashions of London. Behind the political air of the days reenacted in its living history, life in Williamsburg in many ways resembled life in any stylish English social center and market town—say Tunbridge Wells.

“Tunbridge Wells is a good comparison,” said James Horn, vice president of research at Colonial Williamsburg. “It’s a place where the gentry of society strolls the Pantiles to see and be seen. Williamsburg was a social center as well as a political center.”

Horn himself is English, a British academic with a specialization in Virginia colonial history. “Where better to study Virginia history than here at Colonial Williamsburg?” he asked rhetorically. Indeed. A part of Horn’s responsibilities is to put the final stamp of approval on the historical authenticity of every program and reconstruction in the colonial capital.

Of course, unlike fashionable English spas and county towns, Williamsburg was the capital of the Crown Colony and, as it happens, of the richest and most economically important of the American colonies. “There are a lot of people who probably don’t understand quite as well as they might about what took place here and its importance,” Horn said with typical English understatement.

Horn is one of eight Brits on the staff at Colonial Williamsburg. After Patty Mathiesen’s recent British Heritage story, going from Colorado to Kent as a National Trust volunteer at Ightham Mote (March 2008), I thought their experience might give us a true “Hands Across the Sea” perspective on this colonial outpost of Georgian England.

I met up with historic interpreter Heather Daly at the Capitol building, where the Royal Council and the famous House of Burgesses met as a bicameral legislature. She has been at Williamsburg 21 years, and loves what she does. “Sometimes visitors think I am putting on the accent. And I’m sure it has softened over the years,” she said. “I come from Cambridge, where the American invasion set up its air bases.” Daly came over as a war bride. “No, not the Revolutionary War,” she laughed.

“Lots of guests ask me, ‘How can you work here when you lost the war?’” Daly said. “But I don’t think of it like that. Everything here from the goods to the government came over from England. They exported crops and raw materials from Virginia to England and imported all their manufactured goods.”

Daly reflects the pride that Williamsburg must have felt as the social capital of the most populous of the Anglo-American colonies: “You’ve got a society in Virginia very much like English society—a very small upper class and gentry.

"There’s a social season in Williamsburg, people meeting at balls and mingling. They are trying to keep up with the fashions and what’s happening over there. Everyone takes their cues from London. We may have been a little bit delayed here, but everyone here wanted to be up to date.

“What will impact life here most after the Revolution is the loss of trade goods from England. It will take many years for commercial life in Virginia to recover.”

“I love to tell a story,” she explained. “You have to weave a story to keep people interested.”
Like all of the historic interpreters and craftspeople I met wandering around the 18th-century town, Daly is enthusiastic about Williamsburg, friendly, and eager to share the story. “I don’t think there’s any-place in the world like Williamsburg, where you’ve got 88 original buildings, and you’re looking at the town just as it looked in the 18th century - except that it’s cleaner. We don’t have the dirt and smells.”

“British visitors are always very interested. They really like Williamsburg. The only complaint I hear is about our long, hot summers. They never get into the politics,” Daly added, “and I never rock the boat. I’m what you call a ‘woos,’” she laughed. “I want everybody to have a good time.”
Barbara Shearer is an 18th-century chef in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic foodways program. She was stoking up the cooking fires in the back kitchen at the Peyton Randolph House. “What we are doing here is re-creating the way they ate in the 18th-century,” Shearer said.

Originally from Knutsford, Cheshire, Shearer came to Williamsburg through the peripatetic life of a chef and has been here nine years. Every day in the Peyton Randolph kitchen and at the Governor’s Palace, Shearer and the team of six in the historic foodways program prepare 18th-century foodstuffs into 18th-century meals over open flames and in Dutch ovens.

“This is a wealthy man’s house. And wealth means meat, and wealth means hospitality,” explained Shearer. “It really would be social suicide to put out any less than four meats in any one course.” Today they are cooking tripe.

“This will be my ninth year, and I luv it,” Shearer exclaimed enthusiastically in a broad Cheshire accent. “I had family here and have been coming here since I was a young child. I’ve always loved Williamsburg,” she gushed. “They’d have trouble trying to throw me out.”

“In the period we depict here, around 1775, Williamsburg is at its peak. Everyone is eating and living well here compared to back in England,” Shearer said. “Ironically, when the gentry went to England, they were looked down upon as being colonials. They couldn’t crack the top tiers of English society.

“But anyone could come over here and get land. Whether they came paying their own way or as an indentured servant, anyone could end up with 50 acres of land. Tenant farmers back in England could never hope to own their own land.” Like Daly, Shearer is proud of Colonial Williamsburg in and out of her historical character, today and as it was in the 1770s.

That same promise of a better life that brought the colonists to Virginia continues to infuse the American spirit today, according to Horn. “It is an optimism that really still defines America to the world,” Horn commented. “Britain is a post-empire country that does not know how to define ‘Britishness’ today, but in America there is still that sense of promise that anyone can come here and better themselves.”

Communicating that promise, that sense of hope and optimism of a better life seems to be the unspoken mission of Colonial Williamsburg. It is a story that everyone here shares a passion for telling. Horn summed it up well: “It’s really that challenge of how do you reach people. How do you get people hooked on stories? Think about Colonial Williamsburg, it’s all about the stories of people who lived here, which become part of the tapestry of the broader, bigger story of the last 20 years of the colonial period here. I think it’s a great story.” He’s right.

Explore Colonial Williamsburg for yourself at

* Originally published in 2016