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William Robertson



William Robertson, born in Manchester, Chesterfield County, Virginia, in 1859, and died in Newport News, in 1953, at age 94, was one of my two grandfathers.  He was my mother’s father. 


According to an 1897 Newport News register of marriages, William Robertson married Eva Stokes in Newport News on November 24, 1897.  William listed his parents as R.W. and M.A. Robertson.  Eva listed her parents as D and Martha Luke.  William’s occupation was listed as blacksmith.  William’s age was 37.   Eva’s was 25.  William was single and Eva was widowed.  William’s birthplace is listed as Manchester, Virginia and Eva’s as Portsmouth.  C.C. Cox performed the marriage ceremony.


Sometime between 1880, when William, age 21, appears in his father’s household census as a blacksmith, and 1897, when William married Eva Luke Stokes in Newport News, William left Richmond and moved to Newport News, probably for employment at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, a company likely in need of blacksmiths.  


As a blacksmith, William followed the craft of his grandfather, Alex Robertson.  Alex was listed as a wheelwright in the 1860 Census and William is listed as a blacksmith in his father’s, Richard W. Robertson, 1880 Census.  Blacksmithing is closely connected to wheelwrighting, with both needing to work with metals to make the metals do intended purposes.  Blacksmithing and wheelwrighting were important services provided to both individuals and to enterprises.  The practices and needs of the 1800s were such that many more blacksmiths and wheelwrights were needed than today. 


During the late 1800s, shipbuilding was being revolutionized, as ships began to be built of metal rather than wood.  This revolution would give rise to a whole new class of shipbuilder workers – blacksmiths, machinists, and metal workers.  And at the same time, the revolution would do away with another class of worker – the ship carpenter – a class to which other members of my ancestral family, the Lukes, belonged.   Coincidentally, William married the daughter of one of these ship carpenter Lukes.


When William actually left Richmond, when he arrived in Newport News, and what he did in between, is not known.  According to William’s 1953 obituary, he started at the Newport News Shipyard in 1892.


Richmond city directories have a listing for William as late as 1893-94, but no listing in an 1895-96 directory.  So, it is likely that William arrives in Newport News sometime in the early 1890s, between 1892 and 1895.


An 1897 Newport News City Directory shows that William was living in a boarding house at 3500 Washington Avenue and that Eva Stokes, widow was living at the same boarding house.   Maybe William and Eva meet while living at this boarding house.  In an 1898-99 Newport News City Directory, William is living at 220 44th Street.


The 1900 census shows William, age 40, married to Eva, age 26, and as being married for two years.  Also in the household were: Eva Stokes, age 10; William (Willie) Stokes, age 7; Frank Stokes, age 4; and Charles Robertson, age 1.  They lived at 914 25th Street in Newport News, in a rented house.  William lists blacksmith as his occupation.


William and Eva will live in several locations between their marriage in 1887 and 1937, when they end up at 310 Palen Avenue in Hilton Village, in the City of Warwick.  Unfortunately, Eva will have only a short time to live after moving to Palen Avenue.  William will continue to live at 310 Palen Avenue until his death in 1953.  Addresses in addition to those already identified above that William and Eva lived at include:  340 43rd Street in 1905; 1125 26th Street in 1910; 2817 Huntington Avenue in 1920; 345 51st Street in 1929 and 1930; and 330 50th Street in 1933, just prior to moving to Hilton Village. Why William and Eva are living in so many locations is not known, but economics was probably involved somehow.


Hilton Village, where William and Eva ended up in the 1930s,  has a unique history.  During World War I, the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (NNSDC) was expanding rapidly in order to build ships ordered by the US Navy.  A serious problem for NNSDC, a private company, was where the newly hired workers and their families would live.  NNSDC management decided on a plan to develop and build a community of approximately 50 houses a couple of miles northwest of the shipyard, up the James River shoreline.  With this plan, the management went to the US Congress for financial and management support.  Congress, recognizing the need, as well as a need in other communities who were also supporting the war effort, approved the support.  And, therefore, Hilton Village became the first US-Government supported, subsidized housing project.  The first part of the 20th Century represented a period of great expansion of the United States internationally (and economically) and along with it, an expansion of the US Government.  The NNSDC, and the building of Hilton Village, reflects this expansion that would continue from that day to the present day.


Hilton Village building started in 1918 with families moving in to a few houses that year.  Nearly 400 units were eventually built, by the early 1920s, and are still being lived in.   Hilton Village had a unified plan. Today, as you ride through the community, one is struck by the special and unique design of many of the houses and by the huge, old trees that line the streets, trees that surely were planted in the late 1910s and early 1920s.   The design of the houses reminds one (at least me) of a fairy tale scene, with steeply-patched roof lines, casement windows, numerous chimneys, rounded arch doorways, and many gables and loggia.  The average house sold for about $3,200 initially.  Many houses are built of stucco, and many houses are duplexes.


Included in the Hilton Village plan was an elementary school (Hilton School, still in use), 4 churches (all still vibrant), and shops (still serving customers, but with different owners and products).


In the 1920 census, a William Taylor, age 17, nephew, is listed as a member of William’s household.  Eva’s sister, Rachel, according to my Mother, became a Taylor and had a son, William.  That a William Taylor, nephew, is living with William and Eva in 1920 supports my mother’s account.  The 1930 Newport News census shows a William D. Taylor, age 27, as head of household, with two brothers, Sidney J., age 29, and John W. age 31, also listed.  Sidney was another name my Mother remembered for one of Rachel’s sons.  These Taylors seem certain to be Eva Luke Robertson’s nephews, and my Mother’s cousins.  William Robertson and his family lived at 2817 Huntington Avenue in 1920.


William Robertson could not be found in the 1930 Newport News censuses.   The explanation for this is that he was entered in the 1930 census under Robinson.  There are other occasions in this family history where individuals could not be found in census years in which they were expected to be there.  One explanation for this is poor census taking administration.  Further research into the performance of the history of the census service would probably show that a certain percentage of the total population in any one census year was, for one reason or another, missed.   It would not be too surprising if this overall population percentage known or suspected to be missed was not too different from the percentage of my ancestors that I have found missing from the census in my family history.


The 1930 Census shows William Robinson, age 72, head of household with Eva, age 57; Charles A., age 30; Ethyle G., age 23; Evelyn M., age 21 (my  Mother); William, age 18; and Richard, age 29.  Evelyn worked at the shipyard’s credit union and Richard was a machinist at the shipyard.  The home that they live in was rented.  William and his family lived at 345 51st Street in 1930.


According to William’s 1940 census data, he had only completed the 3rd grade.  Only Charles A. Robertson is in William’s household in 1940.


Richmond established a public school system in 1869, about he same time that the state of Virginia recognized in legislation the need for the state to financially support public education.  (Since the early 1800s, the state did provide some funding for the education of the poor.)   School attendance was not mandatory.  So, that William did complete 3 grades of schooling suggests encouragement by his parents and an accomplishment not shared by many of his peers.


US government reporting suggests that in 1870 about 50 to 60% of 5 to 19-year olds (whites) were enrolled in school (mostly in the lower grades), nationally.  Graduation from high school in the 1800s was very uncommon.  Apparently, less than 10% of youth (white) would go on to graduate from high school.  Around 1900, this would begin to increase, but still, by 1930, only around 30% of youth would graduate from high school.  Of my 8 great grandparents and 4 grandparents, I believe only two, Charles Jenkins, a Baptist minister and teacher, and George Torian, a medical doctor, graduated from high school.  I have no information that any of the others did.


William died on March 16, 1953.  His birthday on the death certificate is January 2, 1859.  His last occupation was as a blacksmith at the shipyard in Newport News.   No middle initial is given.  His father’s name is given as William Robertson (although William is listed on his death certificate as a senior).  William’s mother’s maiden name is listed as unknown.  William stayed at Riverside Hospital for three days before his death.  His residence, at the time of death, was 310 Palen Avenue, in Newport News.  Conditions listed were cerebral thrombosis, cerebral arteriosclerosis, and senility.  Thomas C. Lawford was the listed physician on the death certificate.  William was buried at Peninsula Memorial Park in Warwick County on March 18, 1953.


A Newport News newspaper obituary for William indicates that William had been ill for several months prior to his death.  The obituary said he was a member of the Hilton Baptist Church, the Victory Bible Class there, and the Retired Men’s Club.  He retired in 1927 from the Blacksmith Shop at the Newport News Ship Yard, after 35 years with the company.  This indicates he must have been in Newport News as early as 1892.  The obituary stated William had four sons: Charles A. of Warwick; Richard R. of California; Harry E. of Hampton; and William R. of Philadelphia.  His two daughters were Evelyn Torian (my mother) of Michigan, and Ethyl Robertson of Warwick.  There were two stepsons: William and Frank Stokes of Warrick; and a stepdaughter, Mrs. S.V. Brown, of Cleveland.  Pallbearers at the funeral were B.R Sealey, A.G. Phelps, C.M. Smith, H.L. Revere, A.B. Merchant, and J.E. Parker, with the service at Hilton Baptist, lead by the Reverend Loyal Prior.  Headlines at the time of William’s death dealt with McCarthy and the testing of an atomic bomb.


Ethyle G. Robertson, one of Williams’s daughters, and my mother’s sister, was with William on his last day.  Ethyle, who remained single during her life, cared for William during the last years of his life.  Ethyle died within a few years of William’s death.  Ethyle must have been a devoted, caring, and serving person, who deserves credit for taking care of her father, as she herself was alone.


William started working for the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (NNSDC) almost as soon as they started building ships. The shipyard started repairing ships in 1886 and by 1891 had built and launched its first ship.  NNSDC, always a private company, with several owners over the years, was conceived of and initially financed and managed by Collis Huntington, who had built a fortune in the railroad industry.  Since that time, NNSDC has been a major supplier of ships to the US Navy.  Today (2012), NNSDC employs approximately 22,000.

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