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The Mayflower Harwich – A story at the roots of the foundation of America:
For some people, The Mayflower story in England starts in Harwich, a small town on the Essex coast. Harwich was the home of Christopher Jones, the Master of the Mayflower, the ship that sailed with the Mayflower Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 to the New World, America. The Mayflower was moored in Harwich and may well have been built there, although there is no documentary proof of that.
I love a bit of romance and Harwich has a great ‘boy and girl next door’ story. Christopher Jones and his first wife, Sara Twit, were neighbours. Sara’s family home is now the Alma Pub where we stopped in for a great lobster lunch and a tour from the innkeeper, Nick May. Over the narrow street is Christopher Jones’ abode.
Up the road is St Nicholas Church where Christopher Jones and Sara Twit married. The original church was pulled down and a new one built in 1822, but on this site, their union was sealed in 1593 and their son, Thomas, baptised and buried in infancy. Sadly Sara died aged 27; Christopher remarried soon after, once again in St Nicholas. With his second wife, Josian he had 8 children, 4 of whom were baptised in the church. Although the family moved to Rotherhithe, it seems that Josian moved back to Harwich while Christopher Jones was abroad as their youngest child was baptised at St Nicholas.
One has to travel back in time to appreciate how Harwich came to play its part in the Mayflower story. Situated on the confluence of two rivers, Stour and Orwell, it has a safe natural harbour which has been used by warships over hundreds of years. During the Spanish Armada in 1588, Harwich saw 17 000 troops defend it from Spanish invasion and ships and mariners from the town were involved in the campaign. Not only an important naval town, it also has a long history of shipbuilding. So important was this industry here that Queen Elizabeth I visited in 1561 and inspected the shipyard.
Situated geographically on the east coast of England, it has long been considered ‘the Gateway to the Continent’ with its access across the North Sea to Holland and Scandinavia. During Tudor times in the 1500s, Harwich was used as a base for expeditions that set out to explore the world, supplying both ships and sailors. So it is in keeping with the town’s history that it was home to Christopher Newport who sailed to America in 1606 and helped set up the first permanent English settlement in Virginia named Jamestown. He was sent over by the Council of the London company and eventually joined the East India Company in 1612. By the time the Mayflower sailed for America in 1620, Harwich was already established as a town from where ships and sailors could be recruited for trans-Atlantic expeditions.
Christopher Jones came from a shipping family. His father bequeathed him a share in a ship called Mary Fortune while his wife, Sara, inherited a share in her late father’s ship, Apollo. Jones was also involved in trading between England and Europe. There are records showing that he travelled to Norway and France, exporting cloth and importing wine.
At the Harwich Guildhall, there are records that reveal that Christopher Jones was one of 77 men who, in 1601, took an oath and were elected freemen of the Borough of Harwich. On a walking tour with the Harwich Society, we were very fortunate to be shown the original copy of the 1604 Charter with Christopher Jones’ signature. This Charter was granted to the Borough by James I and lists 24 capital burgesses – freemen of the Borough. Copies of the Charter copies are on display for the Mayflower 400 celebrations.
Not only was Christopher Jones prospering from trade, he was also involved in shipbuilding. He named one ship Josian (his second wife’s name). It is thought that his association with the Mayflower as Master and part owner began in 1609. Records show that in January 1611 he was involved with a salvage claim where he is identified as Christopher Jones of Harwich, Master of the Mayflower of the same place. So there is no doubt that Christopher Jones not only lived in Harwich but that the Mayflower was there too. Soon after he and the ship moved to Rotherhithe on the Thames in London.
While in Harwich we had a fascinating – and highly recommended – walking tour with the Harwich Society. We discovered that the mayflower was considered to be a lucky symbol and that many shipbuilders put a mayflower on their ships. There may well have been dozens of ships called ‘the Mayflower. Luckily records in Harwich have confirmed that Christopher Jones was Master of a ship called Mayflower, that it was moored in Harwich and left from there for Rotherhithe. At 21 Kings Head Street, we found Christopher Jones’ house with a plaque informing visitors that he had lived there. From here there’s a lovely view of the Alma Inn at 25 Kings Head Street. I couldn’t help imagining Sara and Christopher standing at their windows, making eyes at one another.
Harwich may also have been home to at least three other members of the party on board the Mayflower when it sailed in 1620. The ship’s Pilot, Robert Coppin, might have been from the Coppin family of Harwich. Richard Gardener was a seaman and records suggest he hailed from Harwich and was a part owner of the ship, returning with it to England. John Alden was a cooper – looking after the barrels on board was a vital role as all the ship’s food and water was stored in these containers. I was fascinated to find that he features in a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Courtship of Miles Standish is a narrative poem, written in 1858, and describing the early days of Plymouth Colony – the settlement established by the Mayflower Pilgrims. Alden is a central figure in the poem (which is well worth a read to get a flavour of the challenges facing the Pilgrims). Miles Standish was an English soldier.
On reading the poem I was delighted to discover that not only is Alden part of the story but Christopher Jones, Master of the Mayflower, is referenced too. The poem movingly describes the day the Mayflower set sail to return to England, leaving the pilgrims in their new home. The Mayflower pilgrims spent the first winter living on the boat and half their number perished from cold, hunger and disease. So one can only imagine their feelings when the boat left them and turned for home. This is how Longfellow describes the scene:
‘Then from their houses in haste came forth the Pilgrims of
Men and women and children, all hurrying down to the sea-shore,
Eager, with tearful eyes, to say farewell to the Mayflower,
Homeward bound o’er the sea, and leaving them here in the desert.
Foremost among them was Alden. ‘
And a few lines later:
‘There with his boat was the Master, already a little impatient
Lest he should lose the tide, or the wind might shift to the
Square-built, hearty and strong, with an odor of ocean about
Speaking with this one and that, and cramming letters and parcels
Into his pockets capacious, and messages mingled together
Into his narrow brain, till at last he was wholly bewildered.
Nearer the boat stood Alden, with one foot placed on the gunwhale,
One still firm on the rock, and talking at times with the sailors’
And now the boat leaves:
‘Meanwhile the Master alert, but with dignified air and
Scanning with watchful eye the tide and the wind and the weather,
Walked about on the sands, and the people crowded around him
Saying a few last words, and enforcing his careful remembrance.
Then, taking each by the hand, as if he were grasping a tiller,
Into the boat he sprang, and in haste shoved off to his vessel,
Glad in his heart to get rid of all this worry and flurry,
Glad to be gone from a land of sand and sickness and sorrow,
Short allowance of victual, and plenty of nothing but Gospel!
Lost in the sound of the oars was the last farewell of the
O strong hearts and true! Not one went back in the Mayflower!
No, not one looked back, who had set his hand to this ploughing!
Soon were heard on board the shouts and songs of the sailors
Heaving the windlass round, and hoisting the ponderous anchor.
Then the yards were braced, and all sails set to the west-wind,
Blowing steady and strong; and the Mayflower sailed from the
Rounded the point of the Gurnet, and leaving far to the southward
Island and cape of sand, and the Field of the First Encounter,
Took the wind on her quarter, and stood for the open Atlantic,
Borne on the send of the sea, and the swelling hearts of the
Long in silence they watched the receding sail of the vessel,
Much endeared to them all, as something living and human;
Then, as if filled with the spirit, and wrapt in a vision
Baring his hoary head, the excellent Elder of Plymouth
Said, “Let us pray!” and they prayed, and thanked the Lord and
Christopher Jones and his crew made it back to England on the Mayflower. Sadly he died the following year (1622) and is buried at St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe, at that time a village outside London.
The Mayflower itself was broken up and the documents from 1624 record that Christopher Jones owned a quarter share of the boat. Whereas the Mayflower had, in 1609, been valued at £800, when it landed up in the breaker’s yard, its bits were sold off – from hull to masts, anchors, rigging and muskets included – for a mere £128.89.
While touring Harwich, I learned a great deal about the Mayflower, its captain and its place in the history of the Pilgrim Fathers. I had hoped to see a replica Mayflower being built; a local project to sail across the Atlantic in 2020 has sadly run aground. However, the area set aside for the project is enclosed by a wall on which a set of charming murals has been painted depicting the history of the Mayflower all the way from Harwich to America. As 2020 draws closer, the town will be humming with Mayflower400 projects, exhibitions and activities to celebrate its most famous ship and its captain who helped make history.
In writing this article I was assisted not only by the information gathered on a walking tour with the Harwich Society but also by the wealth of information in a booklet published in 1999 by the Harwich Society entitled Christopher Jones and the Mayflower Expedition 1620 -1621, compiled by David. A. Male. It is well worth reading.
For more information about the celebrations being planned for the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower, do check the official website
We stayed at The Pier Hotel, Harwich, a charming boutique hotel in the heart of the town – for more about that, please check our review
Thinking of exploring the Mayflower connections in Harwich? Why not pin this post for later.