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  • Writer's pictureEmily Laurence Baker

Mayflower Origins? Southwark not Plymouth!

On 6 September, 1620, a group of brave English people left Plymouth, England to sail directly to America, landing at what today is known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Right?

Well, not exactly. Although Plymouth to Plymouth makes a well-rounded story, the Mayflower ship didn’t originate in Plymouth, England, nor was its first landing point, Plymouth, (or Plimoth, as William Bradford originally spelled it) in what is today Massachusetts. (Topic for another blog post.)

Blue plaque on St Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe

We tend to associate the Pilgrims with Plymouth, England because this was their final embarkation point. But the Mayflower only left from there after a series of mishaps that forced the sailors to return several times to the English coast before their final departure. In fact, London plays as significant a role as Plymouth in the Mayflower legend, perhaps even more so, because London was the ship’s point of origin. The Mayflower and her captain were based at Rotherhithe, a bustling port about about 1.5 miles east of Tower Bridge.

Rotherhithe was once a bustling ship-building centre


Today Rotherhithe is part of London, located in the south-east borough of Southwark. But back in the 1600s, it was a separate port and an important ship-building centre from the 1500s right up to the mid-900s.

The port’s origins date from Anglo-Saxon times when the area’s name translated as “landing place for cattle.” In the 1600s, the port is mentioned in Samuel Pepys diary as "Redriff." Docks were built as early as Elizabethan times (1500s) and lasted up until the 1970s when ships became too large for this area and the shipping industry moved further east.

In the 1980s, Rotherhithe warehouses began to be converted to housing. With the arrival of the Jubilee line in 1999, the neighbourhood became more accessible - both from central London and Canary Wharf - further fuelling gentrification. Its prime riverside location and open spaces has made it a trendy and desirable place to live.


Rotherhithe was home to Christopher Jones, the captain who commanded the Mayflower on its 65-day journey to the new world. Jones was born in Harwich, Essex (east of London, and you don’t pronounce the “w”) but moved to London’s port when he was 41 with his second wife and eight children. He had established himself in Harwich as a ship owner and trader and when he moved to Rotherhithe, he owned a quarter-share in the Mayflower.

The bell tower of St Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe

Jones used the Mayflower to import wine from France, Portugal, Spain and the Canary Islands, the furthest that he sailed before embarking on the Mayflower voyage. So, in many ways he was ill-equipped to handle the challenges of a trans-Atlantic crossing, let alone one on an unsuitable, aged ship. The Atlantic Ocean in winter between England and the new world was a stormy sea and the Mayflower was not designed to cope with sailing against the prevailing wind, nor for carrying the heavy cargo with which she was loaded.

Jones had his challenges cut out for him but he must have known of the dangers because he hired two senior masters with transatlantic experience. Although his passengers sailed with dreams of a new life and a firm commitment, Master Jones more likely sailed with the perspective of earning money and supporting his family. For Jones, it was just another job but one that turned into a lot more drama than he might have anticipated.

He had originally intended to return straight away after dropping the “Pilgrims” but because both passengers and crew were riddled with disease, Jones was forced to wait until their health improved. This meant living on the ship until the settlers found a suitable place to establish their village, and then waiting while the first homes were built at Plymouth.

Memorial to Christopher Jones at St Mary's, Rotherhithe

Jones ultimately set sail to return to England in April, 1621 but his health had suffered during the gruelling winter on the Cape Cod shores. He died shortly after returning home and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe. Due to reconstruction of the church in 1715 after a fire, we are not sure where his grave is but there is a memorial statue dedicated to Jones in the churchyard.


Legend says that Jones may have interviewed crew members at the Anchor Pub in Rotherhithe, which is still serving beer today.

The Anchor Pub, Rotherhithe

Crew members were a bit rough around the edges, according to William Bradford in his diary of the voyage and settlement, Of Plimoth Plantation. They are unlikely to have had much in common with the ultra-pious passengers on their way to creating a new Jerusalem. Such a disparate group of sailors set the tone for what must have been a tense journey at times. Indeed, William Bradford writes of a particular crew member who taunted passengers for succumbing to sea-sickness. When the crew member later fell ill and died (the only person to do so while sailing) the religious members on board believed this was God’s retribution.


Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim's Pocket

In addition to memorials at St Mary’s, including a tablet dedicated to Christopher Jones in the East End, and a blue plaque outside on the church wall, there is also a playful statue located further east on Cumberland Wharf. Installed in 1991, “Sunbeam Weekly and the Pilgrim’s Pocket” depicts a pilgrim (possibly William Bradford?) looking over the shoulder of a boy who is reading the Sunbeam Weekly, a popular publication in the 1930s. The Pilgrim sees the illustrations and is shocked to see how the United States has changed from the 1600s.

Best of all though, is the Mayflower Pub, just opposite St Mary’s Rotherhithe. In addition to being one of the oldest pubs on the River Thames, The Mayflower also claims to be the place where Captain Jones moored the Mayflower before setting sail. This is entirely possible, as there was indeed an inn here at the time, called the Shippe, which dated from the 1500s. Legend suggests that Jones might have chosen this site to avoid paying higher taxes further downriver.

The Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe

The 65 passengers who boarded in Rotherhithe might have done so from the steps adjacent to the pub. Whether they did or not, the pub today boasts a register to sign for Mayflower descendants who can prove their lineage. Because I am descended from four Mayflower passengers, I signed the book and was surprised at how giddy I felt doing so. But I did think, as I cheered with my glass of wine, of my very proper ancestors who would never have set foot in the pub.

Signing the register of Mayflower Descendants

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