Chartered

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“Chartered” is an odd sort of word to describe the beginning of the school now known as Norfolk Academy.   We use it because the form of our creation was, if not unique, at least very different from that of most independent schools. The story of the origin of Norfolk Academy involves an act of the House of Burgesses, a surveyor from Chipping Camden, an ancient French word, an extended family, and quite possibly roasted oysters and sangria.

We begin with the Virginia colonial legislature’s 1680 “Act for the Co-Habitation and the Encouragement of Trade and Manufacture” (the “1680 Act”).  The 1680 Act represented a sort of colonial push-back against the mercantile policies of the Crown.  Because colonizing Virginia was always seen as a commercial enterprise, the British government tried to suppress any development of town centers in Virginia.  The notion was that the colony should serve only as a source of raw material while the mother country reaped all the profits of trade and manufacture.  Three generations in, the leaders of Virginia were beginning to resent this – we would do just fine making our own goods and selling them to our own citizens, thank you!  One of the obstacles to increasing such trade and manufacture was the colony’s lack of cities with accompanying workforce and port facilities.

And so, among other things, the 1680 Act called for each county to designate an area of 50 acres to act as a town center.  As to what was then called Lower Norfolk County, a parcel owned by one Nicholas Wise lying along the Elizabeth River “at the entrance of the branch” was perfect.  The County acquired the land and designated prominent citizens to act as “feoffees,” that is, trustees having fee simple title to the land but obligated to sell parcels to whoever wanted to buy, and thus Norfolk Town was born.  Ironically, King Charles II vetoed the 1680 Act when he heard about it, but it took a full three years for word to get from Virginia to London and back again, and by that time the urban cat was out of the bag.

The original feoffees hired one John Ferebee, surveyor, to plat out the fifty acres so that the town land could be sold in an orderly manner.  Ferebee had arrived some years earlier from the little town of Chipping Camden, in the Cotswolds.   By October, 1680, Ferebee’s plat was ready for recording.  It showed a planned community with 51 lots, as well as the one or two existing structures, most notably the Parish Church.  Ferebee added specific descriptions to the plat in two places; a “public market” was indicated where Commercial Place now lays, and the word “school” was placed upon lot 51, just across the “Road that Leadeth out of Town” (present-day St. Paul’s Boulevard) from the Parish Church.

The original town of Norfolk.

The highlighted area encompasses the original 50 acre plat. The designated lot for the school house is shown in the upper right section across from the church.

The designation of a spot for a public market made perfect sense, but the addition of “school” was more curious.  The 1680 Act had absolutely no provision regarding schools.  As a matter of fact, there were no schools per se anywhere else in the entire colony. Any teaching of the three R’s was done in those days by private tutors or local priests. In that sense, then, locating a school next to the church made perfect sense, but the notion of any kind of free-standing school was at the very least radical.  No one knows why Ferebee called for a school.  It is true that there had long been in Chipping Camden a grammar school called “Ferebee House,” but we can find no direct connection between that institution and our John Ferebee.  Partially because of the eventual veto of the 1680 Act, and partially because Jamestown remained “the place to be” until Williamsburg took its place in 1693, Norfolk Town grew very slowly, and for decades the designated school lot remained unimproved.

Finally, on November 13, 1728, Samuel Boush and George Newton, acting as successor feoffees, deeded the school lot in trust to Samuel Boush, Jr., Nathaniel Newton, and Samuel Smith, as trustees “for the Erecting a School house” on lot 51.  The two grantors, Sam Boush the elder (often called “Col. Boush”) and George Newton, were long-time Norfolk leaders, cousins, and great friends.  Samuel Boush, Jr., was obviously Col. Boush’s eldest son, and Nathaniel Newton was George Newton’s younger brother. Only Sam Smith, who had arrived recently in Norfolk and was making a fortune selling English linens, was from outside the family.  The Trust Deed conveyed basic powers for the three new trustees as well as limitations.  The most significant power was to select and employ “any Schoolmaster or masters.”  Equally important, the trustees were required to reserve “Actuall” possession of the lot only “for and in the behalf of the said Inhabitance of Norfolk Town.”  The rest of the Deed contained nothing more than the standard legal verbiage of the day.

Norfolk Academy charter, dated November 13, 1728

Norfolk Academy charter, dated November 13, 1728.

What prompted old George Newton and his great friend Colonel Boush to execute the Charter that fall of 1728?  Why not 1726 or 1730?  Certainly all the ingredients were there.  Political leadership had changed dramatically on both sides of the Atlantic.  Parliament was now a permanent institution, as was the Virginia Colonial Assembly. The Crown espoused a new, pro-business attitude.  A philosophy favoring the rights of the individual and the advantages gained by his education was growing in popularity.  More and more individuals were feeling the tug of philanthropy.  And Norfolk was finally growing – growing fast.  All of the original Town land had been sold. Colonel Boush was even creating the first suburb north of the Town by subdividing and selling off the west side of Church Street. There must have been a growing number of school-aged children. But again, why 1728?  Here’s one possible explanation that is fun to consider.

In the spring of 1728, all of Norfolk was agog with the news of the impending arrival of Colonel William Byrd II of Westover and his surveying team.  It seems that Virginia and North Carolina had chosen Mr. Byrd to settle the long-running dispute as to the exact location of the line dividing the two colonies.  Both in historical and physical terms, no one could agree precisely where one colony ended and the other began.

Of all the figures in either Virginia or Carolina, Byrd alone had the reputation and the political clout to force acquiescence of both colonies.  Westover was arguably the grandest plantation on the James.  Byrd could be counted as one of the wealthiest men in Virginia.  More than that, he had successfully styled himself an “aristocrat.”  From his elaborate wigs, perfume and dress to his ostentatious life-style, everything about him reeked of class.  No expense was spared at either decorating or entertaining at Westover, and when Byrd traveled, he traveled in style.  Beneath the show was a man of classical education, razor-sharp business sense, and keen wit.  In his diaries he professed to read “a chapter in Hebrew and 400 verses in Homer” (in Greek, of course) before breakfast just to stimulate his mind.  In addition to his diaries, Byrd wrote several modest texts which still read well today.  Born in this rough colony, he had acquired all the trappings of upper class.      

Byrd and his fifteen-odd surveying companions arrived in Portsmouth midday on Friday, March 1, 1728.  All but Byrd, his servant, and the expedition’s chaplain decided to remain on the south bank of the Elizabeth.  Frankly, from across the river Norfolk did not look as though it would have a pub big enough to provide them all food, much less drink. But across the river the three came for dinner at the house of George Newton.

No one can be sure who was at this modest meal. “A clean supper without any luxury,” Byrd called it.  He also commented on Mr. Newton’s wife, Aphia, who “appeared to be one of the fine ladies of the Town, and like a true fine lady to have a good deal of contempt for her husband.”  It is more than likely that George’s younger brother Nathaniel was there, and perhaps Colonel Boush and his son.  Byrd spent Saturday equipping the expedition and returned with several others of his team for a party at the home of Samuel Smith, whom Byrd described as “a plain man worth 20,000 pounds.” The entertainment consisted of “some Oysters and a Bowl,” Byrd wrote.  More than likely the oysters were pulled out of the Elizabeth and roasted, while the bowl was filled with rum punch, usually a strong, sugary mix akin to Sangria. Evidently Byrd and the chaplain survived the party intact, but not his servant “Tom, who broke the rules of hospitality by getting extremely drunk.”  Finally, after an interminable and sobering sermon at the Parish church the next day, Byrd took Sunday dinner with “Col. Boush, who stirred his Old Bones very cheerfully in our service.”  No doubt young Sam was also there for the family meal.  By Monday, the expedition was off from Powder Point (Berkley) and paddling up the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.  We know for certain, however, that the single most influential continental figure in the Colony had had the ear of all of the Trust Grantors and Grantees at least once that weekend in the spring of 1728.

Byrd would comment shortly thereafter that “Norfolk has the most ayr (sense, feel) of any town in Virginia.” One would like to believe that Byrd passed these sentiments along to his several hosts.  Byrd was a true celebrity; he wrote that “common folks in church could not attend to their devotion for staring at us, just as if we had come from China or Japan.” Messrs. Boush, Newton, and Smith may not have stared, but at least they had to be impressed with the man.  Picture Mr. Byrd, pushing back in his chair across a pine-beamed floor, puffing on a pipe, telling the “who’s who” of Norfolk that in their Town they have something special and that they must work to help it prosper.

“For instance, where’s your school?” you can hear him ask.

“Well…there’s a lot set aside for one.  We, uh, just haven’t started it yet,” comes the halting reply.

“Well, get to it,” the gentleman from Westover intones.  “You don’t want your children growing up ignorant, do you?  And if there is going to be a school, then it is your responsibility to undertake it.  It comes with being a gentleman, now doesn’t it?”

And as the expedition’s barges make their way up the river Monday morning, we can see the two cousins, Colonel Boush and George Newton, looking at each other and agreeing that Byrd is right.  We can see them resolving to put the school lot in trust, if only to keep it out of commercial hands.  Perhaps it was as they crossed the river on the ferry back to Town that they agreed that young Sam Boush, Jr. and brother Nathaniel Newton would make excellent trustees.  Perhaps Sam Smith volunteered to help, or perhaps they knew that the talents of Norfolk’s most successful new arrival could be of great service to a new school.  Within months the Charter was drawn, signed, witnessed and recorded, and Norfolk Academy sprang officially and legally to life.

Alas, there is no shred of tangible proof that any conversation like the foregoing ever took place.  But the timing of Byrd’s visit and what we know about it makes it an almost irresistible notion.  At the very least, it’s an entertaining and not entirely implausible explanation of how things began.

In any event, we know of no other independent school in the country whose existence was contemplated by an agent of local government and whose creation was accomplished by a real estate transaction.  So words like “founded” or even “begun” don’t fit.  “Chartered” works best. Coming from carta, the Latin word for map, the 1728 Charter acts more as a verbal road map than anything else.  The first free-standing schoolhouse would be built around 1755. The school would formally adopt the name Norfolk Academy in 1787 and would be formally incorporated by Act of the Virginia General Assembly in 1804, but none of these was a true beginning. It may not have been “Magna,” but our “Carta” represents a signed agreement among men that gave rise to something special. We believe that as we close in on our 300th year, we still exist, to paraphrase the Charter, for and on behalf of the inhabitants of our community.

2 Responses to Chartered

  1. David L. says:

    Fun and informative reading. Thanks, Toy.

  2. John N. says:

    This is very cool information. Long live NA (at least another 300 years!).

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