Where the famous voyage really began in Rotherhithe
Between 10 Between 10 and 12 percent of Americans claim to trace their lineage back to the colonists that sailed from England on the Mayflower in 1620. Conventional wisdom has it that they named their landing place “Plymouth,” after the English town from which they sailed. The truth, however, is that the Mayflower had no more than a passing connection with Plymouth. A good proportion of its passengers were from the East Midlands, and the crew more likely came from South London.
It was from Rotherhithe in South London that the voyage to America really began. And perhaps surprisingly it is where today you’ll find more Mayflower memorials than anywhere else in Britain. So where does Plymouth come into the story?
The place where the emigrants eventually set up a colony had already been named New Plymouth (also known as Plimouth or Plimoth) by English soldier and explorer Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame. The name was one among many based on English counties, towns and cities, used to replace original native names. It first appeared on maps in 1616, four years before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. Since the place from which they had finally sailed in England was coincidentally also called Plymouth, they elected to retain the name for their settlement.
The ship was contracted and boarded in Rotherhithe, however, from where the Mayflower sailed to Southampton, 150 miles east of Plymouth. Here, more passengers embarked, and the Mayflower was joined by a sister ship called the Speedwell, which had brought emigrants for the trip from the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, once at sea, the Speedwell soon began to leak, forcing the two ships to return to Dartmouth for repairs before setting off again. About 300 miles out to sea, the Speedwell once more began to leak. This time they returned to Plymouth, which, being west of both Southampton and Dartmouth, made a more convenient port of call.
The Speedwell’s cargo and many of its passengers were then transferred to the already crowded Mayflower, which set sail for the New World for the third time. So, despite its legendary connections with the voyage, the Mayflower might never have had sight of Plymouth had the Speedwell been more seaworthy.
The Mayflower had been built more than 300 miles from Plymouth, in the North Essex town of Harwich, where it was launched and registered. Along with three business partners, the ship was purchased by the man who became its captain. He was Christopher Jones, who lived and was married in Harwich. His small business consortium then ran the Mayflower as a trading vessel.
In 1611, Jones moved to Rotherhithe, a parish of Surrey, but now part of the London Borough of Southwark. (Londoners pronounce that “Suthuk”.) It was a place much favored by sea merchants because of its location on the River Thames, deep enough at this point for large ships to drop anchor and with easy access to the North Sea, into which the Thames flowed, with no intervening bridges to impede the journey.
Rotherhithe lies a little less than two miles to the east of Tower Bridge, on a peninsula that juts out into the Thames. Redevelopment is in the air for much of the area, which means now is the time to visit while the landmarks of its ancient history are still available to view.
For Mayflower chasers, the first stopping off point must be the pub at 117 Rotherhithe Street. One clue to its relevance in the Mayflower story can be seen on its rooftop: a weather vane in the shape of the famous ship. The pub has been called The Mayflower since 1957. Before that, it was the Spread Eagle and Crown, but in 1620 it was The Shippe Inn.
According to popular myth, Captain Jones tied up the Mayflower alongside the pub to avoid paying mooring taxes. Today, if you walk down the steps to the left of the pub entrance, you emerge onto the foreshore where a jetty would have taken passengers and crewmen on board.
The area around Rotherhithe in the 1600s attracted many outspoken Dissenters, who refused to conform to the official line of the Anglican Church. These separatists, who had broken away from the Church of England, would have seen a lot of traffic up and down the river as ships left for foreign climes. Add to this the presence of a famous sea captain within their community and it is hardly surprising that he was approached to take the religious rebels to a place where they might start a new life in the New World.
Captain Jones selected his crew from local mariners and in August 1620, with the first wave of passengers on board, the Mayflower left the steps close to what is today the Mayflower pub, bound for Southampton on the first leg of what became its historic voyage.
After the transatlantic journey, Christopher Jones returned to Rotherhithe, where he died in 1622. He and two of his business partners were buried in a local church, where his children had been baptised. That church, which dated to the 12th century, no longer exists. But the present Church of St. Mary the Virgin, which was built on the same spot in 1716, has three memorials to the captain and the voyage.
To reach the church from the Mayflower pub, you need to walk along St. Marychurch Street, which appropriately enough takes you past Mayflower Street. It’s a fine church, built to seat a congregation of 1,000 people, and designed by British architect John James, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren.
Commemorating the voyage and its crew, a plaque on the wall of the church tower states: “In 1620 the Mayflower sailed from Rotherhithe on the first stage of its epic voyage to America. In command was Captain Christopher Jones of Rotherhithe.” Inside the church, another memorial tablet, erected on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the consecration of the church, states: “The Mayflower. Christopher Jones, Master and part owner, was buried in this churchyard, 5th March 1622.”
The exact location of the graves of Captain Jones and his business partners is unknown, but in the churchyard there is yet another memorial, this one in the shape of a statue, showing the Mayflower captain holding a small child. He is depicted looking back toward England, while the child is looking forward toward America. The statue, which was unveiled in 1995, is by designer and public art sculptor Jamie Sargeant.
Rotherhithe’s final memorial to the voyage of the Mayflower stands at Cumberland Wharf, a short walk along Rotherhithe Street, east of the Mayflower pub. In a corner of this small square overlooking the river there stands a statue of a Pilgrim and a small boy.
Although it’s pretty much certain today that the Pilgrims didn’t wear the smocks and tall hats with which they have become habitually associated, that’s the way the statue is traditionally dressed. The boy, rather incongruously, is dressed in the style of a 1930s newsboy. He is reading a newspaper, called the Sunshine Weekly, whose sculpted pages tell the story of the Mayflower and all that has happened in America since 1620.
The voyage is shown in a comic strip on one page; the other depicts images of America through the ages since: a cowboy, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, American cars, a U.S. soldier and more. The Pilgrim is standing ghost-like, reading the paper and pointing to a page over the boy’s shoulder, while a small dog leaps around their feet.
In a further deliberate anachronism, the Pilgrim’s pocket contains a copy of the A-Z street map of London, which (despite not coming into being until the 1930s) is dated 1620. His pocket also contains a crucifix and a lobster’s claw, while various tools—scissors, hammer, pliers and a paintbrush—are shown at the boy’s feet. The statue was commissioned in 1991, called Sunshine Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket.
If You Go:
London City Hotel: Ideally situated for exploring Rotherhithe and London's best known riverside landmarks.
Holiday Inn Express, Limehouse: Situated in the heart of London, Docklands, close to the river with easy train access to Central London.
The Tower: Close to Tower Bridge, Tower of London and St. Katherine Docks.
To Eat and Drink:
The Mayflower: The 17th-century pub in a converted warehouse overlooking the Thames, famous for its Sunday roast dinners.
The Salt Quay: British gastro pub in a converted warehouse overlooking the Thames, famous for its Sunday roast dinners.
The Yellow House: Seasonal British menu with live music, particularly popular for its wood-fired pizzas.