Sir William Gooch (1681–1751)


Sir William Gooch served as lieutenant governor of Virginia, the colony’s chief administrator at the time, from 1727 until 1749, and is the namesake of Goochland County. Born in England, Gooch served in the army during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701­–1714) and later during a Jacobite uprising in Scotland. Appointed lieutenant governor by George I in 1727, Gooch was one of Virginia’s ablest and most successful chief executives and was second only to Sir William Berkeley in the length of time he lived in the colony. Succeeding where his predecessors had failed, Gooch worked with, rather than against, Virginia’s strong planter class to implement new policies. The most significant legislation Gooch engineered was the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, which created a network of warehouses that graded the quality of the harvest and destroyed low-quality product. The program, combined with market forces, helped spur profitable harvests. Gooch’s tenure coincided with a period of prosperity and population growth most associated today with large plantation houses. Gooch was wounded in both ankles in the English attack on Cartagena in what is now Colombia, which he helped to lead in 1740, while still lieutenant governor; he subsequently suffered poor health for the rest of his life. A staunch member of the Church of England, he focused on what he perceived as threats from new Protestant denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists. He retired from political life and sailed back to England in 1749, where he died in 1751.

Early Years

Beakers Owned by William and Rebecca Gooch

Gooch was born on October 21, 1681, in Great Yarmouth (also known as Yarmouth), Norfolk County, England, and was the son of Thomas Gooch and Frances Lone Gooch. He may have been related to the William Gooch who sat on Virginia’s Council of State shortly before his death in 1655. By age fifteen, both of his parents had died. He was very close to his elder brother, Thomas Gooch, who supervised his education, became a clergyman, and was successively bishop of Bristol, Norwich, and Ely. William Gooch may have planned to enter Queen’s College, University of Oxford, but instead purchased a commission in the army. He served in the major engagements of the War of the Spanish Succession, sometimes referred to in the North American colonies as Queen Anne’s War, including the important victory at Blenheim. Following the end of the war, Gooch married Rebecca Staunton, of Hampton Parish in the English county of Middlesex, on or shortly after April 14, 1714. The ceremony took place in Fulham Palace, the residence of the bishop of London, suggesting the high social standing of Gooch and his new wife’s family.

Gooch returned to the field in 1715 when the English repelled the so-called Jacobite uprising in Scotland in which Scottish rebels attempted to regain the British throne for the namesake son of deposed King James II. Gooch won promotion to the rank of major, but probably because peacetime promotions were notoriously slow in coming, he resigned his commission not long thereafter and retired to Middlesex County, near London, where he and his wife had one son.

Political Career

King George II

On January 23, 1727, no doubt through Gooch’s connections with the politically powerful duke of Newcastle, King George I appointed him lieutenant governor of Virginia to succeed Hugh Drysdale, who had died in July 1726. The following summer, shortly before Gooch and his family departed for Virginia, the king died. His successor, King George II, renewed the commission. As lieutenant governor, Gooch exercised all of the authority in the colony that the king’s commission had granted to the absentee governor, subject to instructions from the king’s Privy Council or the Board of Trade. He received a portion of the governor’s salary and fee income. Gooch took the oaths of office as lieutenant governor in Williamsburg on September 11, 1727.

Gooch’s affable personality and the experience exercising responsibility that he had gained while in the army enabled him to earn the respect of the proud and experienced political leaders in Virginia without affronting them. He liked the Virginia planters, and they liked him, allowing him to enjoy a happier administration and a better working relationship with the political leaders of the colony than any governor since Sir William Berkeley in the seventeenth century. Gooch was patient and kept his opinions to himself when it was to his advantage, as he revealed in the many letters that he wrote to his brother. In one letter, the governor related how he had neutralized the bad temper of James Blair, who was the president of the College of William and Mary, a member of the governor’s Council, and the bishop of London’s commissary, or personal representative, in the colony, by persuading him with kindness. On the whole, Gooch and his family were happy in Virginia. His son lived in the colony for the remainder of his short life, married, fathered a child, and became a well-regarded Virginia gentleman.

Lewis Burwell's Appointment by Sir William Gooch

Rather than press his own agenda on the General Assembly, Gooch cooperated with the legislators to achieve their objectives. He also did nothing to offend the land speculators who applied for and received grants of land in the West. In the first General Assembly that met during Gooch’s administration early in 1728, the legislators passed a law limiting the number of tobacco plants any farmer or laborer could tend, one in a long sequence of such laws the assembly had passed since the 1600s to limit production in hopes of raising tobacco prices. The assembly also passed and Gooch signed a bill to impose a tax of forty shillings on every enslaved person imported into the colony. The Crown disallowed the bill, although it permitted a later act that placed the tax burden on buyers of slaves in Virginia to stand.

Gooch also supported and signed a bill to impose a tax to pay part of the cost of erecting a lighthouse at Cape Henry. Even though he personally endorsed the bill in hopes that the king would approve it, merchants in England and legislators in Maryland objected to the taxes and the Crown disallowed that bill, as it did a bill Gooch later signed to impose an additional tax on imported alcohol. By cooperating with the planters and risking the displeasure of the Crown by signing the revenue bills, Gooch gained prestige and influence in Virginia.

Tobacco Inspection Act

On the critical issue of tobacco, Gooch took the lead and pressured the assembly to pass a controversial measure, the 1730 Act for Amending the Staple of Tobacco; and for Preventing Frauds in His Majesty’s Customs, popularly known as the Tobacco Inspection Act. The most important law passed during his long administration, it established a system of tobacco warehouses throughout Virginia and required every person who raised tobacco to have the crop inspected and graded before it could be exported. The assembly repealed the 1728 act that had failed to limit tobacco production. The new law required instead that the poorest quality tobacco, usually referred to as trash tobacco, be destroyed to keep it from depressing the market.

Alexander Spotswood

Gooch and the legislators who voted for the law intended for the inspections to improve the overall quality of tobacco exported from Virginia and thereby raise its price. Unlike the attempt to reduce tobacco production that could not have succeeded without the cooperation of Maryland, the 1730 law depended on Virginia inspectors only. In its most important provisions, the law was similar to an act that Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood had pushed through the assembly in 1713, but the Board of Trade disallowed it in 1717. Unlike Spotswood, who had attempted to increase his political influence by appointing burgesses to the potentially lucrative posts of tobacco inspector, Gooch prudently agreed to the assembly’s provisions that prevented burgesses from holding such paid government offices.

The 1730 act was initially unpopular with many farmers. In several counties north of the Rappahannock River, mobs burned at least four new inspection warehouses. In order to quiet the minds of the law’s opponents and reconcile doubtful planters to its provisions, Gooch wrote the first piece of political propaganda of its kind to be published in Virginia. The recently established printing office of William Parks issued it in 1732 without disclosing Gooch’s authorship. It was entitled A Dialogue between Thomas Sweet-Scented, William Oronoco, Planters, both Men of good Understanding, and Justice Love-Country, who can speak for himself, Recommended To the Reading of the Planters. By a sincere Lover of Virginia. In seventeen pages of imagined conversation, Gooch allowed his fictional trio to explain plainly but not condescendingly how the act would work to raise tobacco prices by improving the quality of the tobacco that English merchants purchased. He also attempted to quiet the fears that apprehensive men entertained about how the inspection system would function.

It is not clear whether Gooch persuaded many doubters, but for a few years after passage of the law the crops were good but not so good as to drive down the price per pound. On the whole, prices rose and remained relatively high, a consequence of the law operating as intended in combination with other market factors. Higher prices reconciled most planters to the inspection system, and Gooch refrained from making the appointment of inspectors a political issue as Spotswood had done.

Military Service

Following the death of Governor George Hamilton, the earl of Orkney, early in 1737, Gooch had reason to hope that his nearly a decade of successful administration in Williamsburg would be rewarded with appointment as Hamilton’s successor. The position would have given him the full governor’s salary and fees and substantially increased his income. Politics and patronage worked as usual in London, however, and the king’s ministers selected William Anne Keppel, the second earl of Albemarle, as Hamilton’s successor. Disappointed, Gooch worked out with Keppel a new arrangement for payment of a part of the governor’s salary and fees, and continued as lieutenant governor in Virginia.

A New & Correct Map of the Trading Part of the West Indies

In 1740 the British government prepared a major expedition against the Spanish South American seaport of Cartagena (later part of Colombia). The government allowed Gooch a large role in selecting the Virginia officers for the American regiment. Former governor Spotswood commanded the regiment with the rank of brigadier general, but he died before the campaign began, and Gooch succeeded him in command but in the rank of colonel. Gooch was on active duty with the army by October 1740, until he returned to Williamsburg in July 1741, preparing for and taking part in the assault on the Spanish port. After rendezvousing in Jamaica, the expeditionary force began its campaign in March 1741. It failed miserably, and the force withdrew in May. Gooch had no responsibility for the defeat, and his reputation did not suffer. During a battle, however, a cannon ball grazed both of his ankles, which partially crippled him and gave him pain for the remainder of his life. References to fevers and other poor health afterward suggest that he may also have contracted malaria.

In 1746 George II appointed Gooch a brigadier general and commander of an American regiment given the task of driving the French out of Quebec. Gooch’s health prevented him from taking the field, however. Later in the year, on November 4, the king made Gooch a baronet, entitling him to be addressed and referred to as Sir William, the only governor or lieutenant governor of Virginia so honored during his term in office. The following year, Gooch received a promotion to major general.

Later Years

Print Made from Bodleian Copperplate

During the night of January 29–30, 1747, the Capitol building in Williamsburg caught fire and burned. Gooch assumed, on what evidence is not clear, that the fire was an act of arson, and the next day he offered a reward of £100 to any person who could identify the “Authors of this Hellish Villany” and promised to pardon any convicted free or enslaved person who testified against “his or her Accomplice or Accomplices … in contriving or executing this most horrible Scheme.” No evidence of arson was discovered, and during the remainder of his term Gooch watched as members of the General Assembly hotly debated whether to rebuild the Capitol in Williamsburg or move the seat of the colony’s government to another place. He had left Virginia by the time the second Williamsburg Capitol was completed.

A Methodist

Gooch took seriously his responsibilities as the personal representative of the head of the Church of England (the king) in Virginia. He kept the bishop of London informed about the quality of the clergymen in the colony and was diligent about inquiring into the characters and abilities of men who applied to him for the necessary endorsements to travel to England for ordination as ministers. The church was a strong and important institution in the colony, but dissenters (Protestants such as Presbyterians, Methodists, and the first of what later became a flood of Baptists) were increasing in number. To some devoted churchmen like Gooch, dissenters appeared to threaten the religious unity that they believed was essential for social and governmental stability. About two months after the Capitol fire, and while he and other Virginians were still suspicious and fearful, Gooch issued a proclamation against the “mischievous Consequences” of unlicensed dissenting ministers who preached their “shocking Doctrines.” The governor required all magistrates in Virginia “to discourage and prohibit as far as they legally can all Itinerant Preachers whether New-Light Men Moravians, or Methodists, from Teaching Preaching or holding any Meeting in this Colony.”

Cartouche on Fry-Jefferson Map

Gooch’s proclamation against Protestant dissenters reflected anxieties that changes had brought to Virginia. The colony changed a great deal during Gooch’s twenty-two-year residence. The free white population increased, and settlements spread westward beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. During Gooch’s administration the assembly created fifteen new counties, and the population in a previously created county increased enough so that it gained a seat in the House of Burgesses. The importation of enslaved African laborers continued, which together with a falling death rate for enslaved men, women, and children persuaded more planters that investing in slaves would produce increased profits. The two decades were generally prosperous and relatively peaceful. Easy credit and profitable earnings from tobacco enabled the most ambitious and wealthy planters to construct large and elegant new mansion houses. Many of those changes were not directly attributable to Gooch, but the good times and positive changes contributed to his popularity. In 1728, the year following his arrival in Virginia, the assembly named the new county of Goochland in his honor, and in May 1749 he signed a bill to create a town in the western county of Augusta that its planners had named Staunton, his wife’s maiden surname.

The many changes were partly responsible for the General Assembly’s making the first complete overhaul of the laws of Virginia in decades. Gooch probably did not attempt to exercise any influence on the new code. His health had remained poor since the Cartagena expedition, and some of the work consisted of technical legal amendments, although the assembly members enacted some substantive changes to Virginia’s laws. When adjourning the assembly in May 1749 after it completed the revision, Gooch complimented the assembly members on their work. “The Patience and Judgment you have shewn,” he told the burgesses and Council members, “in going through that arduous Undertaking, the Revisal of the Laws; and the Spirit and Prudence with which you have transacted the other weighty Concerns of the Government, this tedious session; afford me the fullest Satisfaction, and intitle you to my most hearty Thanks.”

Miniature Portrait of Sir William Gooch's Son

Gooch also informed the assembly that he was retiring from the office of lieutenant governor. Believing that his health had been irretrievably ruined during the Cartagena campaign and deeply saddened at the deaths of his son and infant grandson, he had applied for and received permission to return to England. Gooch boarded a ship in the York River late in August 1749 and was waiting for a favorable wind when he learned of the sudden death of John Robinson, the senior member of the Council of State who had just taken office as president and acting governor. The next senior member, John Custis, was too feeble to take on the responsibility and refused to do so. Gooch therefore attended one more meeting of the Council, in Yorktown. On August 26, 1749, on the recommendation of the remaining Council members, Gooch suspended Custis from the Council, allowing Thomas Lee to take over as president and acting governor.

Gooch then sailed back to England and probably lived most of his final years in his wife’s native Middlesex County near London. He visited Bath several times in hopes of improving his health but without success. Gooch died on December 17, 1751, probably on the way home from Bath as reported in several death notices, and was buried in Saint Nicholas Church in his native town of Great Yarmouth. An elaborate funerary monument that his widow had erected displayed his birth and death dates and the highlights of his career until a 1942 bombing raid during World War II (1939­–1945) almost completely destroyed the church.

Major Work

  • A Dialogue between Thomas Sweet-Scented, William Oronoco, Planters, both Men of good Understanding, and Justice Love-Country, who can speak for himself, Recommended To the Reading of the Planters. By a sincere Lover of Virginia (1732)

October 21, 1681
Sir William Gooch is born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk County, England, the son of Thomas Gooch and Frances Lone Gooch.
By this year, both of Sir William Gooch's parents are deceased.
Sir William Gooch serves in the War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne's War.
April 14, 1714
Sir William Gooch and Rebecca Staunton marry in the English colony of Middlesex.
Sir William Gooch fights with the English to quell the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, and resigns his commission soon after. He returns to Middlesex County, near London, to live with his wife and son.
January 23, 1727
Sir William Gooch is appointed the lieutenant governor of Virginia, succeeding Hugh Drysdale.
The General Assembly names the new county of Goochland in honor of the lieutenant governor, Sir William Gooch.
May 1730
The General Assembly passes An Act for amending the Staple of Tobacco; and for preventing Frauds in his Majesty's Customs, outlining a controversial plan for the inspection of tobacco before it goes to market.
Sir William Gooch anonymously publishes a propaganda piece in the form of a dialogue and supporting the Tobacco Act of 1730.
Lieutenant Governor William Gooch administers the government in Williamsburg in the absence of Governor William Anne Keppel, second earl of Albemarle, who remains in England.
October 1740—May 1741
Sir William Gooch commands the American regiment in the failed British expedition against Cartagena (later part of Colombia). He suffers ankle injuries that leave him partially crippled, and possibly contracts malaria.
By this year, Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch has begun to call for the suppression of illicit "ministers under the pretended influence of new light, extraordinary impulse, and such like fanatical and enthusiastic knowledge."
Sir William Gooch is appointed brigadier general by George II, with the assignment to drive the French out of Quebec. Gooch cannot maintain active duty because of poor health.
November 4, 1746
Sir William Gooch is made a baronet by George II.
January 31, 1747
Sir William Gooch offers a reward to anyone who can identify an arsonist in the fire destroying the Capitol building in Williamsburg. No evidence of arson is ever discovered.
Sir William Gooch receives a promotion to major general.
May 1749
Sir William Gooch signs a bill naming the town of Staunton, after his wife, Rebecca Staunton Gooch.
August 1749
In poor health, Sir William Gooch sails back to England after retiring as lieutenant governor.
December 17, 1751
Sir William Gooch dies in England. He is buried in Saint Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth.
  • Brydon, George MacLaren, ed. “The Virginia Clergy: Governor Gooch’s Letters to the Bishop of London, 1727–1749.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 32 no. 3 (July 1924): 209–236, 321–337 and 33 no. 1 (January 1925): 51–64.
  • Flippin, Percy Scott. “William Gooch: Successful Royal Governor of Virginia.” William and Mary Quarterly, 2nd ser., 5 (1925): 225–258, and 6 (1926): 1–38.
  • Lorenz, Stacy L. “‘To Do Justice to His Majesty, the Merchant and the Planter’: Governor William Gooch and the Virginia Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 108 no. 4 (2000): 345–392.
  • Prinz, Andrew Karl. “Sir William Gooch in Virginia: The King’s Good Servant.” PhD dissertation, Northwestern University, 1963.
  • Riley, Edward M. “Governor William Gooch, A Faithful Trustee for the Public Good.” Goochland County Historical Society Magazine 6 (Spring 1974): 5–13.
  • Shrock, Randall. “Maintaining the Prerogative: Three Royal Governors in Virginia as a Case Study, 1710–1758.” PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 1980.
  • Williams, David Alan. “Political Alignments in Colonial Virginia Politics, 1698–1750.” PhD dissertation, Northwestern University, 1959.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Sir William Gooch (1681–1751). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/gooch-sir-william-1681-1751.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Sir William Gooch (1681–1751)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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