Today was another wet one with another use of my bus pass to cross the Big Bridge. Along the river bank the water was very high and, apart from a lone duck, a water filled boat, a very friendly dog and owner and a nice sunset on the way home the day was uneventful. So, instead of waffling on about nothing, I thought I’d tell you about something else altogether. The story of the Mayflower and her connection with Southampton
Back in the autumn I went for a walk one lunchtime and found myself along the shoreline by Mayflower Park. The mackerel sky drew my eyes and I noticed I was standing right under the Mayflower Memorial. I don’t remember now why those photos never got published, perhaps it was a Friday and I had a long Saturday walk to tell you about, maybe it was when all the redundancy hoo ha was going on. Still, now seems like as good a time as any to share the pictures and the story.
There is a great deal of controversy surrounding where the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers left England. Several cities claim ownership, not least my own, Southampton. In actual fact there were several departure points as well as stops along the way. Of course, being a Sotonian, I am bound to say Southampton has the biggest claim. This was the place the disparate groups of pilgrims first joined together, some coming from Rotherhide, the ship’s home port, in London. Sixty five in all joined the ship there in mid July 1620. The Mayflower then departed for Southampton.
Here, in my home town, she dropped anchor in Southampton water on 27 July. For seven days she waited for her sister ship, The Speedwell, on the way from Delfshaven, Holland with fifty Leiden church members. Although the Speedwell had been refitted before she left in Holland on 1 August, she had to have another refit at West Quay, probably not far from the spot occupied but the WestQuay shopping centre these days. The Pilgrim fathers could ill affor the extra expense and had to sell some of their belongings, food and stores. The memorial on Town Quay Southampton was unveiled in 1913 and is inscribed with the two dates and a plaque telling the pilgrim’s story. After the Second World War a second plaque was added to honour the two million American troops who left Southampton to do battle in Europe.
For nearly two weeks both groups of pilgrims stayed in Southampton and at least one Sotonian joined with them. It is well documented that John Alden, a Southampton cooper sailed with the pilgrims when they eventually left on 15 August 1620, there may well have been other families. The memorial, with a replica of the ship on top, marks their departure point. Unfortunately the Speedwell, despite two refits, was ‘as leaky as a sieve.’ They put in at Dartmouth for repairs. Then, when they were two hundred miles beyond Land’s End they had to turn back for Plymouth when she sprang another leak. It was early September and they were less than one hundred and fifty six nautical miles from Southampton. There was nothing for it though, the Speedwell was too unreliable to attempt an Atlantic crossing. All the pilgrims squashed into the Mayflower and, once again, set sail.
The Mayflower was not a large ship, just 100 feet long and 180 tons. She had previously sailed cross channel with cargoes of wool and wine, hats, hemp, Spanish salt, hops and vinegar with the occasional foray into the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In 1620 Thomas Weston chartered her from Captain Christopher Jones and Robert Child. Weston was a member of the Merchant Adventurers, a group of English investors whose capital funded the Pilgrims voyage on the Mayflower. Eventually he joined the Plymouth colony himself.
If you’re wondering what happened to the abandoned Speedwell with all her leaks, she was sold soon after the Mayflower left for America. After yet another refit she continued to make many profitable voyages. There has been a certain amount of speculation and rumour around this fact. Some say Master Reynolds was afraid of the Atlantic crossing or of starving to death in America and purposely made the leaks himself. I guess we will never know.
There is a story that Plymouth was not the last English port Mayflower put into. Apparently, barrels of water picked up in Plymouth were found to be contaminated and she stopped off at Newlyn in Cornwall for more. Whether this is true or not it’s hard to tell but Newlyn has a plaque nonetheless.
It must have been a cramped and unpleasant voyage wIth so many pilgrims on board plus a crew of about fifty. The stores, already low when she left Southampton, were further depleted by the delays in Plymouth and possibly Newlyn. The weather wasn’t good, western gales made the North Atlantic a dangerous and unpleasant place with huge waves crashing over the ship. In fact a key support timber was broken and the passengers had to help with the repairs using some of the supplies meant to build their homes when they arrived. There would have been live animals, dogs, sheep, goats and poultry as well as all those people.
Surprisingly, considering almost half the company would die in their first American winter, there were only five human deaths. There were also two births, one, a girl was born while the ship was docked. A boy, Oceanus Hopkins, was born at sea as his name suggests. He lived to be just twenty three.
The Mayflower finally arrived at Cape Cod, in November dropping anchor in Provincetown Harbour. They had intended to sail to Virginia but strong seas made this impossible. They were I’ll prepared for the bitter winter weather, far colder than they were used to. Captain Jones led an expedition to find a suitable place to settle. Thirty four people set off in an open shallop and were forced to spend the night ashore in below freezing temperatures with little to protect them. After several weeks of exploring and some difficulties with the local native Americans, the Nausets, they decided to relocate to Plymouth. They spent the winter on board the Mayflower where scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis took their toll. By March, when they finally disembarked only fifty three passengers survived and half the crew had died. Perhaps Master Reynolds had a point.
So what became of the Mayflower once the settlers left? In April 1621 she sailed for England once again, her crew, decimated by disease. The westerly winds that had caused so much trouble on the outbound voyage helped her on her way and she arrived in Rotherhide in May. Within the year Captain Jones was dead, the New World journey had taken a toll on his fifty two year old body. The ship was berthed in Rotherhide for two years not far from his grave in St Mary’s churchyard. By 1624 she was unseaworthy, the final casualty of that fateful journey. No one knows what became of her battered hulk.
In Southampton we are proud of our part in the pilgrim’s story and our Mayflower connection. We have a park on the shoreline close to the spot where the Mayflower departed. Our theatre, in the heart of the city, close to the main railway station is called The Mayflower. Through Dock Gate 10 there is a Mayflower Cruise Terminal. One of the university halls of residence is called Mayflower Halls and, of course, we have the wonderful memorial I stood in front of one autumn day in 2013.