Records of Hampton’s Colonial period are scarce due to neglect, wars, and damaging weather events. But still, an ancient story has been resurrected. Situated on the east side of King Street in Hampton is a historical marker for the Bunch of Grapes Tavern. It describes a tavern that was operated from the early 1700s and was located across the street where the Air and Space museum is presently located. The first mention in the historical record for the name Bunch of Grapes is found in the Virginia Gazette of June 13, 1766. It was noted then that a celebration was held when the Stamp Act was repealed and an “elegant entertainment” was held after the firing of guns in the streets. Healths were drunk after the ceremonial discharge of cannon. The celebration continued across the street at the King’s Arms with a ball and supper with more drinking and celebrating. The Bunch of Grapes was considered the “best accustomed house in town” at the time. The Virginia Gazette of September 5, 1755, describes this building owned by Alexander Kennedy: “A large Brick House with six fire rooms and Closets, two kitchens, a Smoak House, and a Stable, with a large lot and Garden pail’d in, situate on the main Street, opposite to the George Tavern.”
The Bunch of Grapes was operated by Francis Riddlehurst. He did not own the building but leased it from Alexander Kennedy starting in 1758 for a term of seven years. Later in Kennedy’s will, he said Riddlehurst could remain as long as he wished. Prior to the lease, he had a tavern license as early as 1756. In 1767, Nathaniel Elby is recorded as the owner of the building and was offering the property for lease as Riddlehurst was going to England. Upon his return he resumed operation of the tavern until 1780 at which time he did not renew his license but continued to take in boarders.
There was an earlier proprietor named Ann Hawkins who operated the tavern from 1741 to 1751 that up until now has not appeared in the published historical record. She assumed the operations from her brother-in-law, Sam Hawkins, who ran the tavern from the 1730’s until he died in 1741. From his estate inventory found at the Virginia State Library we can get a vivid picture of life at the tavern. Sam Hawkins estate shows, among other things, a backgammon table, a billiard table, a dozen leather chairs, 30 old pewter, a dozen plates, 7 gallons of rum, 1 gallon French brandy, 32 of Arrac, 5 gallons of Madeira.
By 1749, Ann Hawkins was a well known character as was her tavern. The Maryland Gazette of November 8, 1749, reported the results of a terrible hurricane that struck the Virginia coast and ravaged Hampton Roads. “At Hampton, there is likewise much damage done; a noted tavern there, kept by Mrs. Hawkins (who gave the name to Mother Hawkins ‘s Hole ) was eight feet in water, and a yawl was paddled thro’ her passage.” Mother Hawkins’ Hole was an anchorage. In 1749, it was well known and it was not forgotten through the centuries. The 1916 U.S. Coast Pilot published by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey describes an anchorage inside Hampton Bar and near the wharves of Old Point Comfort with a depth of eighteen to twenty-five feet of water that was locally known as “Mother Hawkins Hole.” This author’s guess is that she serviced vessels from her tavern that were anchored here and couldn’t enter Hampton River. No map or chart identifies this famous anchorage. Its existence has been handed down by local lore.
From snippets of information found in courthouse records a picture of this legendary woman can be drawn. Ann lost her husband, John Hawkins, in 1739. In his will, he referred to her as his “loving wife” and named her executrix and gave her the annual profits of his estate as long as she remained unmarried. She refused both. There were five children: Thomas, the oldest who inherited all of his real estate. There was another son named John and three daughters, Sarah, Ann, and Elizabeth. Mrs. Hawkins seemed more interested in running the tavern than taking care of her children—the Hampton court appointed guardians for their care.
Ann Hawkins, however, did administer Samuel Hawkins’ estate and made the tavern business a success. The last recorded license for her was April 3, 1750: “On the matter of Ann Hawkins who entered into bond according to law her ordinary license is renewed for the ensuing year.”
There was another hurricane in August of 1750 that drove a fleet of Spanish treasure ships to the coast of North Carolina and Virginia. Some of the vessels were lost. Two of them arrived safe at Hampton. At Ocracoke, North Carolina, the galleon, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, came to anchor loaded with silver and other cargo valued at over a million pieces of eight. One of Hampton’s more colorful citizens, a man certainly well known to Mrs. Hawkins, was a merchant captain named Owen Lloyd. He would soon come to the aid of the distressed galleon captain, Juan Manual Bonilla who was laid up at Ocracoke. Lloyd had left Hampton with his peg-legged brother John, to go to St. Kitts to reunite with his wife but fatefully his sloop sprung a leak and he diverted to Ocracoke Inlet. But that rescue went bad when Owen and his brother sailed away with over a hundred chests of silver. Owen Lloyd buried his loot at Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands and then fled to St. Thomas.
Captain Bonilla arrived at Hampton Roads in early 1751 with the goal of organizing a team to recover his treasure that was by then being disbursed around the Caribbean. Records found in Denmark record Captain Bonilla and his agent, John Watson of Suffolk, visiting Mrs. Hawkins tavern. They also patronized the inn of Janet Wheeler across the street. Mrs. Hawkins hosted the Spanish captain whose treasure was immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It was at the Admiral Benbow, an inn run by Mrs. Hawkins, that the treasure map dated 1750, was found in the trunk of Captain Billy Bones.
The records found in Denmark would be the last reference to the existence of Mrs. Hawkins’ tavern. She did not renew her tavern license with the Hampton court. The Virginia Gazetteof December 15, 1752, said that she had a lodger named Joseph White. No doubt Mr. White was served spirits even though she lacked the authority to do so.