The Godalming boy who founded Georgia, USA
PUBLISHED: 08:40 07 January 2015 | UPDATED: 15:06 25 August 2015
Follow in the footsteps of General James Oglethorpe, an 18th century Haslemere MP, who is still lauded in the USA as the philanthropic founder of a key American state
Driving through lush countryside towards the historic US city of Savannah, Georgia, on a hot summer’s day earlier this year, I reflected on how my journey began; with an unobtrusive plaque in a quiet alley in Godalming, dedicated to General James Oglethorpe, born 1696, founder of “the colony of Georgia”. As a local resident, I had always been intrigued. Who was this man, and why did he leave Surrey in the 18th century to start a colony, thousands of miles from his home? I set out to discover more.
A trip to Godalming Museum was a good place to start. Having been born in London (and baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury), Oglethorpe went on to spend his childhood in Godalming, I was to learn. His family also attended the local church of St Peter & St Paul, where I found a wooden plaque, presented in 1982, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Oglethorpe’s departure for America. He attended Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before inheriting the substantial Godalming family home and estate, Westbrook, aged 22. A glance at the local map revealed that his former house is near Godalming station and now home to the charity Meath Epilepsy Trust. There are still parts of the imposing building untouched since his day, as well as his impressive walled garden, which formerly boasted a vineyard.
Long before all that though, enrolled as a soldier aged only 10, he fought in the army of the Holy Roman Emperor, but returned to England in 1719. This was a violent time in our history; at 26, an “intemperate Oglethorpe” wounded two men in his first election campaign. He even went to prison following a drunken tavern brawl, which resulted in a man’s death, and later faced a court martial (he was acquitted). However, in 1722, he followed his father and brothers and became MP for Haslemere (now SW Surrey), a seat he held until 1754. Fellow MPs described him as tall, thin with “a shrill voice” and a prominent nose.
So why should a man in his comfortable position as a respected, wealthy Surrey landowner risk everything to start a colony in the New World?
A new beginning
Once I reached leafy Savannah, I discovered that Oglethorpe, moved by the death of a friend in one of the many appalling debtors’ prisons, had conceived the idea of founding a 13th British colony in America as a classless society for debtors, other poverty-stricken Britons and European refugees, all in a spirit of religious tolerance. It was essentially a philanthropic move – Oglethorpe even mortgaged his lands to raise funds for the colony – but it was also seen by many supporters as a military tactic to protect the established British colonies against the Spanish further south.
The first 114 settlers sailed with Oglethorpe on November 17, 1732, from Gravesend in the ship Anne. It took them two months before they arrived at Charleston, South Carolina; and they finally reached Oglethorpe’s chosen site for the settlement on February 12, 1733, which they named Georgia after the reigning British monarch, George II. A granite seat in Savannah now marks the site where Oglethorpe first pitched his tent and a nearby plaque on its US Customhouse records the spot where Oglethorpe first built a home on US soil.
I soon discovered that navigation around the attractive city is easy today, thanks to Oglethorpe’s formal, rectangular plan for Savannah; a grid system of squares that is still much admired by town planners; although originally the squares were probably designed to be individually defensible from attack. Excitingly, a quick map reading of the area soon revealed that several of the original settlers were from the Godalming area and gave local names to the new colony – such as Westbrook and Jekyll Island, named after a Godalming benefactor, Sir Joseph Jekyll (whose descendants included the famous Surrey gardener Gertrude Jekyll).
From the archives at the city’s Georgia Historical Society, I learnt that the colony had only three formal laws. Lawyers were banned, as a “pest and scourge of mankind”, according to Oglethorpe; rum and brandies were outlawed; and slaves or servants were prohibited (upheld until 1750). Oglethorpe and his associates tried valiantly to enforce these laws, but apparently had little success. However, in the spirit of the colony’s religious tolerance, and against official orders, Oglethorpe permitted a Jewish contingent fleeing from Portugal to land and settle in Savannah in July 1733, a spot now marked by a stone memorial, which I found near the riverside.
Tribesmen in Surrey
As well as to enlist fresh settlers for the new colony, Oglethorpe returned to England in May 1734 to raise further funds for his work in Georgia. As a publicity stunt to win the king’s favour, he also brought back with him ten Native Americans from the local Yamacraw tribe whom he had befriended, including the chief Tomochichi, his wife and his nephew. After taking them to Eton and Whitehall, they stayed at Westbrook for several months. And, on at least one occasion, Oglethorpe must have caused a stir among the locals when he brought them all to dine in the (former) White Hart Inn in Godalming’s High Street!
Having been made a General in 1737, after a brief stay back in London, Oglethorpe returned to Georgia with 600 soldiers and defeated a Spanish invasion attempt in 1742. The following year, he left Georgia for the last time and married Elizabeth Wright, an Essex heiress. They spent their honeymoon at Westbrook, attended by a Native American who had accompanied him back to England and in due course they settled in Elizabeth’s home county. After leading a controversial military campaign against ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, by 1750 he ceased to be a Georgia trustee and for most of the next 40 years he lived quietly as a country gentleman, socialising with many of the literati of the time, such as Samuel Johnson. In 1785, aged 88, Oglethorpe died and was buried in Essex.
Largely thanks to his sisters’ well-known support of the Jacobite cause, Oglethorpe never received the royal court’s full recognition for his extraordinary achievements. However, his visionary zeal to found a colony where the poor could make a new life ensured he is still revered by the citizens of Georgia state today. In addition to having stamps printed with his portrait, two towns and a county named after him, Oglethorpe is remembered in a variety of ways.
A lasting tribute
The most imposing memorial is a nine-foot bronze statue of Oglethorpe in military uniform, erected in 1910 in Savannah’s attractive Chippewa Square (now equally famous as the film setting for Forrest Gump’s famous “Life is like a box of chocolates” speech!). The statue sits in the centre of one of his original squares, facing towards Florida and the Spanish threat, with his coat of arms held aloft by a lion at its base. Buses of tourists drive past daily, many of whom book with ‘Oglethorpe Tours’, walk down Oglethorpe Street, or sit under the ubiquitous hanging Spanish moss for some respite from the heat in Oglethorpe Square. Chief Tomochichi is also remembered in nearby Wright Square. Elsewhere in Georgia, a statue of Oglethorpe in civilian clothes stands in Augusta; a huge portrait of Oglethorpe is also now hanging within Georgia’s capitol; and students attend Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University, founded in 1835.
As I later packed my bags to return home, I wondered if Oglethorpe could ever have imagined what a success his colony would become. Today, it is home to more than nine million people and the tenth largest state in the USA. In future, whenever I see the Godalming plaque, it will be with a new sense of pride and admiration for this extraordinary Surrey man, who led such an exceptional and colourful life.
- Aly Warner travelled to Savannah with the award-winning Surrey travel agency, Haslemere Travel. For further details, see haslemeretravel.co.uk. The Godalming-based Friends of Oglethorpe was formed to foster relationships between the State of Georgia and Godalming. For more information about getting involved, visit their website at friendsofoglethorpe.co.uk
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