Mayflower Connections in London – Rotherhithe and More:
Part Three of our travels to learn more about the story of the Mayflower and the separatists who travel to America in 1620 is based in my own part of London. Rotherhithe in Southwark has a number of well-known links to the Mayflower. As a Southwark resident, you’d think I might have already heard it all. But, in fact, the borough I live in is large and diverse. My own area, Walworth, so far as I can tell has no connections at all to the Mayflower. Closer to the Thames though it’s a completely different story and not just in Rotherhithe. There are some great stories about The Mayflower in London and about the so-called Pilgrim Fathers, the Separatists who travelled to America on the Mayflower in 1620.
We started our adventures in Borough at Southwark Cathedral, where the John Harvard Chapel is a tribute to one of the ‘second wave’ of separatists who travelled to America. John Harvard wasn’t the founder of the eponymous University, but it was his funding which established the greatness of this institution. His father, Robert Harvard was a prominent businessman who had a butchers business in Pepper Alley. In 1625 the plague killed many family members, including his father and two years later John entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge and it was there he learned of John Winthrop’s plans to establish a Puritan settlement in New England. John Harvard travelled to Massachusetts in 1637 but sadly died of consumption just a year later. He left half his estate and his library of books to the proposed new college there, now known as Harvard University. He and his family are commemorated not just in the Cathedral but also with a blue plaque on the John Harvard Library on Borough High Street and further along the street with a commemorative plaque in Queen’s Head Yard, where his family owned the Queen’s Head Inn.
Nearby, The Click is an historic prison which operated from the 12th Century to 1780. It’s important to realise that Southwark at the time was governed by the Bishop of Winchester and was far more liberal than the City of London on the other side of the river. So, it was a natural magnet for dissidents, as well as for actors and playwrights like Shakespeare. Despite the relative freedom enjoyed on the South side of the Thames, in 1586 a group of people were sent to The Clink for refusing to obey the religious laws of Elizabeth I – starting a tradition of religious dissent within Southwark.
The dissenters, led by John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe founded a prison church. When in 1592 Greenwood and Barrowe gained a temporary reprieve they began meeting at a house in the Borough and founded the Southwark Independent Church. But, both were executed on 6 April 1593.
One of the original group, Francis Johnson, was released and travelled to Newfoundland, looking for a place where religious freedom might be possible. He settled in Holland, where many of the Southwark dissenters had already fled to. The remaining members continued meeting in secret until 1616. By 1620, some members of the Southwark Church were given permission to sail to America and joined the Mayflower, planning to travel to the New World and start a new life there.
If Borough was the focus of dissent, Rotherhithe, a few miles away was the focus for shipping and many of the crew on board the Mayflower came from Southwark. Ships were moored in Rotherhithe to avoid paying taxes further down the river and at the time it was a focus for seafarers.
Captain and part owner, Christopher Jones was born in Harwich and Madeleine has already written the Harwich Mayflower connections. He moved to Rotherhithe in 1611 with the Mayflower and used the ship to transport wool to Europe and wine back to England. The ship was chartered and financed by Thomas Weston, a London merchant who had commercial connections with the Leiden separatists, in the summer of 1620 to undertake the voyage to the New World and in July 1620, the Mayflower took on board 65 passengers and set off for Southampton for supplies and to rendezvous with the Speedwell, coming from Leiden. The Mayflower had strong connections with Rotherhithe; part-owner John Moore and First Mate John Clarke were both from Rotherhithe as were many of the crew.
And, at the time, from 1611 – 1654, the Rector of St Mary’s Church was Thomas Gataker who had Puritanical leanings and was a member of the Westminster Assembly which went on to reform the Church of England. It’s said that before they left, the Rector gave the separatists shelter for the night in St Mary’s and food.
Christopher Jones returned to Rotherhithe with the Mayflower in May 2021 and died in March 2022. He’s buried at St Mary’s, although no one is quite sure where – the church itself was rebuilt in 1715 and there are no records prior to that date to show the original graves.
Any visit to Rotherhithe exploring the Mayflower connections of the area should, of course, include a stop at the Mayflower Pub. It’s a traditional English pub over three floors which serves good roast dinners, fish and chips and all those dishes you associate with British cuisines, complemented by a range of traditional ales and craft beers, local gin and not so local wine! It’s reputed to be the oldest pub on the Thames in London and you can see the 1620 mooring point of the Mayflower, sit by the fire or if the weather is good, out on the decked jetty. Originally the site of The Shippe pub, dating back to 1550, the current building was constructed in 1780 as The Spread Eagle and Crown and was renamed The Mayflower in 1957
The pub is famous for being the only place in England where you can buy American stamps – something that dates back to the 1800s. On the walls, you find all sorts of information about the original Mayflower passengers. It also has a ‘Mayflower Descendants Book’ which anyone with a family connection to the original Mayflower passengers can sign.
A fine place to end our London Mayflower walking tour. If you start your journey at Southwark Cathedral, a leisurely walk from Borough to Rotherhithe will take you around 45 minutes going via The Clink and St Mary’s Church. There are plenty of other places to check out on the way too – and much of the walk can be done along the banks of the Thames. It’s just about the right length of walk to justify that pint and a sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
Thinking of visiting London or just want to find out more about the Mayflower? Why not pin this post for later.
If you’d like to find out more about the Mayflower and celebrations of the 400 year anniversary in 2020, do check the official website.