On a recent Saturday afternoon, Sir George Yeardley was alive and well, his voice and English accent echoing throughout Jamestown’s Memorial Church as more than 50 camera-donning “colonists” intently listened.
It was early 1619 and Yeardley, the newly-appointed lord governor of the Jamestown colony, carried good news: He had been knighted by England’s king before sailing back to the colony, and planned several reforms in the wake of difficulties under the previous governor.
Yeardley declared settlers would be given tracts of land, and the first representative government — known as the general assembly — would soon be formed.
As a strong wind whipped up spray from the river outside the church, the Jamestown “colonists” shouted “Huzzah!”
Four days later on Wednesday, it was 1608. The same man with the booming English voice sat within the Jamestown Archaearium, carrying 17th-century medical tools and drinking Coca Cola from a pewter tankard as doctor Walter Russell, the man who saved John Smith’s life.
“And if you do survive, it is because of my expertise as a surgeon,” said the man acting as Russell, explaining an amputation in gruesome detail. “If, however, you be gathered unto God and die, then it is the will of God.”
In Jamestown, John White, 60, is Yeardley. On other days, he is Russell.
Elsewhere, White is powerful King Henry VIII, a medieval monk, executioner and about 30 other characters.
While some interpreters at Jamestown feign their English accents to fit their 17th-century roles, White does not. He is a resident of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, England.
White is a 30-year veteran of England’s West Midlands Police, a father of two grown children and the only authorized costumed performer allowed within the royal family’s Windsor Castle.
White performs in houses, museums and theaters on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and recently traveled to the United States with his wife, Denise, this month to be Yeardley in Jamestown Rediscovery’s 1619 programming.
Love of history
As a schoolboy, White hoped to become an actor.
Despite having a spot at drama school, “family and financial reasons” prevented White from realizing his dream at the time. Instead, he became a police officer, which eventually allowed him to go to university, where he received an honours degree in history and war studies and a master’s in heritage management.
He also has a postgraduate certificate in education and was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of South Carolina.
“What I wanted to do was to achieve sufficient academic standing to make myself, if you like, respectable in the world of historical interpretation,” White said.
While history has been a lifelong passion for White, dressing up as historical figures began when his son was about 8 years old and enrolled as a drummer boy in a reenactment group.
His son and daughter are now 33 and 27 years old, respectively.
As parents, White and his wife couldn’t stand by in “modern” clothes; instead, they wore costumes to blend in.
“I thought, well, if I’m going to dress up as somebody, I want to have a story rather than just being there standing around,” he said.
White retired from the police force in 2008 and decided to pursue historical interpretation full time, although he had been doing some performing before his retirement.
“You have to, I believe, give your audience the opportunity to ask questions because there will be lots of things they do not have a clue about,” White said, adding that there’s a balance between comedy and history in character interpretation, much of which is improvisation. “That is all down to lots and lots of reading and having a very retentive memory.”
Connecting with the U.S.
White and his family first traveled to the states to go to Disneyland. After that trip, White came to South Carolina through the Fulbright Program in 1998, visiting Williamsburg during a family road trip.
“It was like stepping back in history,” he said. “It was a playground. It was fantastic. It was seventh heaven.”
The family returned numerous times, which is when Willie Balderson found White. At the time, Balderson — now Jamestown Rediscovery’s director of education and interpretation — was working for Colonial Williamsburg.
Balderson said he works to arrange work in America for White each year, and has since around 2007.
Balderson set White up with some contracted work with Colonial Williamsburg and has since been his “unofficial agent” stateside, Balderson said.
White’s favorite act is Henry VIII because of the king’s long-standing impact on English politics and churches.
White is a “really, unbelievably distant” cousin to Henry the VIII, he claims, and bears some physical resemblance.
Henry VIII is White’s most popular character, and he will perform as the king at Agecroft Hall in Richmond May 1.
In July, White will return to Jamestown for additional programming celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the first representative assembly at Jamestown.
And, in the years to come, White has no plans to retire.
“I laughingly say to my wife that I suspect I will die in-harness,” he said.