The Mayflower's Essex boy
The Oldie Magazine|August 2020
The Mayflower's Essex boy
Four hundred years after the fabled ship sailed to America, William Cook salutes its captain
William Cook

Everyone knows the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and their exodus to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 400 years ago, in autumn 1620. The ship that took them there, the Mayflower, is renowned throughout the world.

But how much do you know about the ship itself, or the man who captained her on that epic voyage? The answer lies in Harwich, Essex, home of the Mayflower and her master and commander, Christopher Jones.

Harwich? I always thought the Mayflower came from Plymouth. In fact, the Pilgrims set off for America from Southampton – in two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. They stopped off in Plymouth only when the Speedwell proved unseaworthy. The Mayflower came from Harwich, on the Essex coast, as did her owner and skipper – and the house where he lived is still here.

Christopher Jones’s historic home is just behind the quayside. Until recently it was an unassuming private residence, but to mark the 400th anniversary of his momentous journey it’s been converted into a quaint museum (there are plans for another Mayflower museum in Harwich, too). There isn’t much to see inside (not yet) but it’s intensely atmospheric. The structure of the house has hardly changed in 400 years; nor has the narrow street outside.

Across the road is the Alma Inn, today a cosy pub but in Jones’s day the home of a wealthy ship owner, Thomas Twitt. In 1593, Jones married Twitt’s daughter, Sara. Sara died childless in 1603, whereupon Jones married Josian Gray, the widow of a prosperous mariner who lived in Church Street, round the corner. Clearly both marriages (at the local church, St Nicholas’s) did his seafaring career no harm at all.

Jones built a ship called Josian, and by 1609 he owned the Mayflower – he may have had a hand in building her.

For all the Mayflower’s fame, we know very little about her. She was probably built in Harwich but we don’t know exactly when.

We don’t even know what she looked like – modern depictions of her are merely depictions of typical ships of that size which made similar journeys at that time.

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August 2020