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Gooch, Sir William, first baronetlocked

  • Paul David Nelson

Sir William Gooch, first baronet (1681–1751)

by unknown artist, c. 1725

photograph by courtesy Sotheby's Picture Library, London

Gooch, Sir William, first baronet (1681–1751), army officer and politician in America, was born on 21 October 1681 in Yarmouth, the son of Thomas Gooch (d. 1688), alderman of Yarmouth, and Frances (d. 1696), daughter of Thomas Lone of Worlington, Suffolk. Orphaned before his fifteenth birthday, he forged a close bond with his brother Thomas Gooch (1675–1754), who became bishop of Ely in 1748. He attended Queen's College, Oxford, for a time, and at the age of nineteen was commissioned a junior officer in the army. During the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) he served with the duke of Marlborough in the Low Countries, and was present at the battle of Blenheim (1704). In 1714 he married Rebecca Staunton (d. in or after 1751) of Hampton, Middlesex; they had one son. A year later he rendered important service against the Jacobites in the highlands uprising, and was promoted to the rank of major.

In the next few years Gooch discovered—like many another eighteenth-century British officer—that promotions in the peacetime establishment were excruciatingly slow. Frustrated, he resigned his commission and settled in Hampton, hoping to secure some sort of governmental sinecure. By good fortune he obtained the patronage of the duke of Newcastle, secretary of state for the southern department, who controlled political appointments in the American colonies. In 1727 he was commissioned lieutenant-governor of Virginia, succeeding Sir Hugh Drysdale, who had died the year before. As actual colonial governors normally remained in England at this time, he assumed the duties of governor when he arrived with his family at Williamsburg in September. Thus he embarked upon a tenure as chief executive of Virginia that would last until 1749, a period exceeded in length only by that of Sir William Berkeley.

Gooch's term of office was marked by great amicability between the governor, council, and house of burgesses. This was remarkable, given that relations between previous king's representatives and the people of Virginia had usually been anything but cordial. Gooch encouraged the burgesses to initiate legislation that they believed important for the development of the colony, and he established an informal political relationship with Virginia's gentry that was favourable to the development of self-rule in the province. He allowed the house of burgesses to take advantage of his acquiescent attitude to extend its own authority, and he evinced a sincere desire to support Virginia's interests at Whitehall. In 1746 he allowed the burgesses to appoint a commission for expending public revenues rather than attending to the matter himself. He thereby established a precedent that the burgesses tenaciously adhered to in later years. He also reinforced the notion that the burgesses rather than himself had sole authority to appoint the treasurer of the colony. His operative principle in handling potential political opponents was to 'kill [them] with kindness' and 'if possible, to avoid Displeasure'. He cemented his ties with the Virginia gentry by investing in land and iron mining in the province, and his son married a woman from Maryland. So effective was the collaboration between Gooch and the colony's leaders that near the end of his tenure the chief executive was able to report to his brother that he had 'ruled without so much as a murmur of discontent'. For their part Virginia's leaders were happy to co-operate among themselves and flatter Gooch in order to continue this trend. Moreover, the burgesses praised him as a faithful trustee of their ancient rights and privileges. Although he was not among the most politically influential of colonial governors with authorities in London, his relations with Newcastle and the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, were close enough to give him some leverage.

Upon his arrival in Virginia, Gooch had learned that the major concerns of the tobacco-growing gentry were depressed prices and a lack of market regulation for the golden leaf of their staple crop. Seizing an opportunity to cultivate the leaders of the colony, he proposed a measure that he believed to be in the best interests of the growers, the government and merchants in Britain, and his own tranquil administration. Warehouses would be built at state expense, wherein tobacco growers would store their crop and allow it to be inspected for quality. In order to reduce the possibility of politics intruding into the process, all members of the house of burgesses would be excluded from serving as inspectors. Tobacco that did not meet rigorous standards of inspection would be destroyed in order to improve and maintain the overall quality of the crop. Because Virginia suffered a serious lack of currency as a result of parliamentary restrictions upon the printing of money, certificates for the stored tobacco would be allowed to circulate as bills of exchange.

Gooch realized that he must exercise considerable political acumen to get this measure enacted by the burgesses and accepted by the British government and merchants, for a similar earlier proposal by Governor Alexander Spotswood had been rejected. He corresponded with merchants and officials in England, overrode the concerns of customs officials, and persuaded the Board of Trade that the law would increase governmental revenues by improving the quality of the tobacco crop. Addressing planters who disliked the idea of destroying inferior leaf, Gooch wrote A dialogue between Thomas Sweet-Scented, William Oronoco, planters … and Justice Love-Country (1732) to persuade objectors that the law would provide them with increased income because of better quality. In 1730 he prevailed upon the house of burgesses and council to enact the bill, thus confirming his abilities as a politician. He also proved to be prescient in his expectations of the law's economic benefits, for by the mid-1730s tobacco prices had risen and Virginia had entered an extended period of prosperity. He bolstered the colony's economic boom by encouraging the settlement of western lands, and with the approval of the government in London distributed millions of acres on the frontier to the Virginia gentry.

Although Gooch earlier had resigned his army commission, he retained an interest in military affairs. In 1741, during the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739–42), he commanded colonial troops in a British expedition under the leadership of Admiral Edward Vernon against Cartagena, a Spanish stronghold on the Caribbean coast of South America. Although Vernon commanded 28,000 men and expected to compel the surrender of Cartagena with ease, half his men died from virulent fever and Spanish gunfire, and he withdrew without accomplishing anything. Gooch himself was severely wounded by a cannon-ball and contracted the fever that killed so many in the British squadron. Having returned to Virginia, he was rewarded for his services by being made a baronet in 1746 and by being promoted to major-general in the British army a year later. For years afterward he suffered from the debilitating effect of his wound, and soon was so impaired by rheumatism that he had difficulty in maintaining the responsibilities of his office. In addition he was afflicted in spirit by the deaths in quick succession of his son, grandson, and brother-in-law. In the summer of 1749 he resigned as lieutenant-governor of Virginia and returned to England. For the next two years, he unsuccessfully sought reimbursement for expenses that he had incurred in the Cartagena expedition. He also failed to secure a new position in government. He died at Bath on 17 December 1751, while taking the waters in an attempt to restore his failing health. He was buried in Yarmouth. Goochland county, Virginia, which was formed in 1728, was named in his honour.


  • J. P. McClure, ‘Gooch, Sir William’, ANB
  • A. K. Prinz, ‘Sir William Gooch in Virginia: the king's good servant’, PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1963
  • R. Shrock, ‘Maintaining the prerogative: three royal governors in Virginia as a case study, 1710–1758’, PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 1980
  • P. S. Flippin, ‘William Gooch: successful royal governor of Virginia [pt 1]’, William and Mary College Quarterly, 2nd ser., 5 (1925), 225–58
  • P. S. Flippin, ‘William Gooch: successful royal governor of Virginia [pt 2]’, William and Mary College Quarterly, 2nd ser., 6 (1926), 1–38
  • F. W. Porter, ‘Expanding the domain: William Gooch and the Northern Neck boundary dispute’, Maryland Historian, 5 (1974), 1–13
  • H. R. McIlwaine and J. P. Kennedy, eds., Journals of the house of burgesses of Virginia, 1619–1776, 13 vols. (1905–15), vols. 6–7
  • J. P. Greene, The quest for power: the lower houses of assembly in the southern royal colonies, 1689–1776 (1963)


  • Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, corresp. [typescript]
  • LPL, letters to Bishop Gibson
  • TNA: PRO, colonial office papers


J. A. Garraty & M. C. Carnes, eds., , 24 vols. (1999)
G. E. Cokayne, , 6 vols. (1900–09)