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My Pilgrim father - Randal Charlton

Blog | By Randal Charlton | Dec 21, 2023

The Mayflower II and Warwick Charlton in his Pilgrim costume

In 1957, a bold British journalist built a replica of the Mayflower and sailed it across the Atlantic. By Randal Charlton

Four hundred years ago, on 11th November 1620, the Mayflower, the most significant ship in American history, dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod and what is now the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

On board were 30 crew and the 102 Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony, a crucial staging post in the foundation of modern America.

The original Mayflower sailed back to England in April 1621, was sold and, it’s thought, broken up.

Along time later, in 1957, my father, Warwick Charlton (1918-2002), gave a replica of the ship, the Mayflower II, to the American people. He wanted to recognise the contribution of the people of the United States to freedom and democracy in the first half of the 20th century. He’d built the ship in Brixham, Devon.

My father’s journey across the Atlantic in the Mayflower II took 53 days and was followed by media around the world. On arrival at Cape Cod in 1957, Mayflower II was greeted by Vice-President Nixon and vast crowds of a size that would be the envy of the current American president.

My father was a man of very modest means when he put his life as a journalist on hold to give the American people a piece of their history.

At first, he gave no thought to completing the project himself. He had no financial resources. He lived in rented accommodation. He had no car, savings or bank account.

However, in 1954 he formed a hundred-pound company, issued three one-pound shares and took a taxi from his tiny office in the City, across the Thames, to Greenwich Maritime Museum to research his Mayflower adventure.

There he found detailed plans for the ship, and identified one of the last and best wooden-ship-builders in England.

They were prepared, at my father’s insistence, to use 17th-century tools to build the vessel with as much historical accuracy as possible. Then, although he had no knowledge of sailing, he identified a captain and crew capable of sailing Mayflower II across the Atlantic.

Warwick turned the shipyard into an exhibition. He dressed his office staff in Pilgrim costumes, built a hut of the sort constructed by the first North American settlers and charged visitors a modest fee for a guided tour.

Then he produced Mayflower memorabilia: a magazine called Mayflower Mail, Mayflower ties, Mayflower dinner services, Mayflower flags, Mayflower stamps and Mayflower medals. He came up with the idea of offering industrial companies the opportunity to buy a treasure chest that would sail with the ship.

With no alternative sources of funding, Warwick left Plymouth, England, for Plymouth, USA, in the spring of 1957 without paying all his bills.

He arranged for the ship to sail along the East Coast, confident that fees from New York, Miami and Washington, DC, would settle all outstanding obligations.

This would prove correct – but my father’s lack of business skills proved fatal. While he translated draft written agreements into the old-fashioned language of the early-17th century, the Americans employed top Boston attorneys in 1957 to ensure they obtained the ship without any financial or other obligations. My father handed over the only item of value he possessed, the Mayflower II, for the nominal sum of $1.

The people who obtained title then to Mayflower II also took over my father’s agreements for East Coast exhibitions, which paid off the lingering British debts.

Then the ship was returned to Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts, where it made millions of dollars over the next 60 years and revitalised Plymouth.

Mayflower revenue was used to help finance a recreation of Plimoth Plantation, the village built by the first settlers in Plymouth, complete with massive visitor centre, gift shop and car parking.

Warwick made multiple attempts to remind those original American partners (long dead now) of his intentions for the ship. He was in his eighties and nursing a serious heart condition on his last visit to Plymouth. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to the Mayo Clinic, where he received excellent medical attention.

Some 70 per cent of my father’s ship has now been carefully reconstructed at Mystic, Connecticut, after a three-year restoration. In September 2019, she was relaunched to a packed audience of over 3,000 visitors.

Recently she returned to Plymouth to prepare for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival.

Warwick Charlton gave the ship to the American people in honour of that contribution to freedom and democracy. I hope Mayflower II will be used for that purpose in the years to come.

My father’s ashes are buried on the ship. They will rest easy if his ship sails up and down both coasts of America and through the Great Lakes to the benefit and pleasure of all Americans.

Randal Charlton wrote The Wicked Pilgrim, a biography of his father