Ornamental Separator

Jane Vobe

A middle-class woman, Jane Vobe kept one of Williamsburg’s most successful taverns for more than thirty years.

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An Ordinary Woman

We know little about Jane Vobe’s early life. She may have been born in London in 1720.1 We do know that she married a tavernkeeper named Thomas Vobe, who disappeared from the historical record by 1750. Whether he died or disappeared, his absence allowed Jane to keep her own tavern (also known as an “ordinary”) for decades.2 In 1772, she moved her business to a prominent location on Duke of Gloucester Street. The tavern used “the Sign of The King’s Arms,” but patrons usually preferred to call it “Mrs. Vobe’s.”3

Her tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street was quite large. In 1777, a workman charged her for “Whitewashing 14 Rooms, 4 Passages, Barr & 2 poarches.”4 At this time, taverns were important social and political centers for the city. They hosted the many visitors who attended courts or legislative sessions in the city. Indeed, the colony’s government depended on taverns such as Jane Vobe’s to provide lodging, food, and drink for visiting Burgesses, lawyers, judges, witnesses, and defendants. Vobe’s tavern was an upscale establishment, with all the amenities that genteel clients expected. In 1765, one French traveler noted that he “got a room at mrs. vaube's tavern, where all the best people resorted.”5 Leading colonists like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson frequented Vobe’s tavern.6 They gathered in small private rooms to gamble, drink, discuss politics, and conduct business.

Slavery and the Vobe Household

Like Williamsburg’s other tavernkeepers, Vobe relied on enslaved workers to serve guests, prepare food and drinks, tend the garden, manage the stables, and more. The most well-known person enslaved by Vobe was Gowan Pamphlet, an ordained preacher who founded Williamsburg’s First Baptist Church. Vobe also permitted two enslaved children, named Sal and Jack, to attend Williamsburg’s Bray School.7 Two enslaved children, whose mother was named Nanny, were baptized at Bruton Parish Church.8 While Vobe allowed the people she enslaved to seek some opportunities, there is no indication that she questioned or opposed slavery. In 1768, Vobe placed an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette seeking Nanny’s return after she escaped with “some of the comedians who have just left this town.”9

Final Years

During the last decade of her life, Vobe contributed to the Revolutionary War effort by supplying American troops with food and drink. During the Yorktown campaign, for example, her operation supported the army of the Baron von Steuben.10 After Virginia’s capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780, Vobe stayed behind for several years. One of only two taverns left in the town, she maintained a steady business.11 But in November 1785, she advertised her property for sale.12 The next year, she moved to Chesterfield County, Virginia, with her son and his wife, where they opened another tavern. However, she died in late 1786. Her death notice in a Maryland newspaper noted only that Vobe had, “for many years, kept a very genteel Public House at Williamsburg.”13 Though easily overlooked today, women like Jane Vobe maintained the institutions where revolution unfolded.


  1. A woman named Jenny Burr was born in London in 1720. See “London, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1812,” London Metropolitan Archives (London, Eng.) (accessed through ancestry.com). A woman named Janne Burr married Thomas Vobe in 1739. See “London, England, Clandestine Marriage and Baptism Registers, 1667-1754,” London Metropolitan Archives (London, Eng.) (accessed through ancestry.com). The last known record of these Vobes appears in November 1742. See Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery, in the time of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, vol. 2 (London: J. Wenman, 1781), 417–19, link. Since the first record of the Vobes in Williamsburg appears in the mid-1740s, it is plausible that Thomas and Jane Vobe relocated to Virginia in the early-to-mid-1740s.
  2. Jane Vobe appears to have been leading her tavern business by at least the early 1750s. A 1751 court charged an enslaved man named Simon with breaking into the “Mansion House” of Jane Vobe. Linda Sturtz, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia (New York: Routledge, 2002), 100. A 1752 advertisement for a theater performance notes, “Tickets to be had at Mrs. Vobe’s.” Virginia Gazette (Hunter), April 17, 1752, p. 3, link.
  3. Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon, Feb. 6, 1772, link.
  4. Folio 11: “Mrs Jane Vobe,” in “Humphrey Harwood Account Book,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library.
  5. “Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies, 1765,” American Historical Review 26 (July 1921): 741, link.
  6. There are numerous references to money spent at “Mrs. Vobe’s” in the accounts of Jefferson (from 1768 through 1779) and Washington (from 1757 through 1774). Washington’s account books often reference “club” at Mrs. Vobe’s, a likely reference to a social gathering in one of the tavern’s private rooms. See, for example, “Cash Accounts, November 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0084; “Memorandum Books, 1768,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/02-01-02-0002.
  7. John C. Van Horne, Religious philanthropy and colonial slavery : the American correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 242, 278.
  8. “Bruton & Middleton Parish Church Register, 1662–1797,” Bruton Parish Historic Records, p. 75, link.
  9. Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), June 30, 1768, page 3, link.
  10. Mary A. Stephenson, “King's Arms Tavern Historical Report, Block 9 Building 29A & B Lot 23,” (1990) Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, p. 8–9.
  11. Patricia Gibbs, "Taverns in Tidewater Virginia, 1700-1774," (M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1968), 133. Transactions at a local general store from 1784 to 1785 document large purchases of limes, lemons, sugar, ale, beer, porter, and juice, indicating that Vobe’s tavern was still a busy operation in the mid-1780s. See Jeanne Ellen Whitney, “Clues to a community: Transactions at the Anderson-Low Store, 1784-1785,” (M.A. Thesis, College of William & Mary, 1983), 57, link.
  12. Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, Nov. 10, 1785.
  13. “Mortuary Notice,” Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, Dec. 8, 1786.