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The Mayflower’s Essex boy - William Cook. 403 years ago today

Blog | By William Cook | Dec 21, 2023

Harwich in a 1725 engraving by Johannes Kip

Four hundred and three years after the fabled ship sailed to America, William Cook salutes its captain

Everyone knows the story of the Pilgrim Fathers and their exodus to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 403 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' house in Harwich’s old town

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.

Christopher Jones

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.

Even her name was unexceptional - there were 26 ships called the Mayflower registered in England at that time, including a ship which took more pilgrims to the New World in 1629. (Mayflowers, aka Lilies of the Valley, were lucky harbingers of spring).

Jones’s Mayflower sailed to Bordeaux with fine cloth and brought fine wine back to Blighty. He criss-crossed the North Sea, trading with the Norwegians, and in 1620 was hired to export that famous cargo of Puritans to the New World. He returned to England in 1621 and resumed his European trading expeditions, dying in 1622. In 1624, the Mayflower was broken up for scrap, probably in Rotherhithe, London. The ship didn’t become a totem of American history for another century.

Harwich’s contribution to the foundation of the United States has been boosted by the Harwich Society. Formed in 1969 to save the Redoubt Fort (built in 1808 to guard Harwich against Napoleon), this valiant band of volunteers has fought tirelessly to preserve local landmarks, including the 17th-century treadwheel crane and the 19th-century Ha’penny Pier.

The society’s vice-chairman, David Whittle, took me on a tour of the town he loves. David, born and raised here, can trace his local ancestors back to 1600.

I went with Madeline Smith, actress, Bond Girl (with Roger Moore in Live and Let Die) and Oldie contributor. Her great-great-grandfather owned the Hanover dining rooms (now the Hanover Inn) and she can trace her ancestors back to Christopher Jones’s second wife. She loves the place as much as David, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

We started our tour in the 17th-century Guildhall, a handsome, Grade I-listed building, which, like a lot of old buildings in Harwich, used to be an inn. The grand council chamber is decorated with portraits of worthies, including Samuel Pepys, another naval man, who served as the town’s MP.

The highlight is the 18th-century jail, whose wood-panelled walls are adorned with elaborate etchings made by inmates. There’s an early hot-air balloon, a hanged man on a gallows and a whole fleet of sailing ships, one bearing the Stars and Stripes, dated 1777. Our next stop was the old lifeboat house, now a lifeboat museum. Next door is the Electric Palace Cinema, built in 1911, one of the oldest cinemas in the country.

The only natural harbour between the Thames and the Humber, Harwich has played a leading role in British naval history for well over 1,000 years. Alfred the Great repelled the Vikings here in AD 885 (the spot where he did it is still called Bloody Point) and Plantagenet armies sailed to France from here in the Hundred Years’ War. Its proximity to Germany and the Low Countries made it a flashpoint in both World Wars.

Lately it’s been eclipsed by Felixstowe, the container port across the bay in Suffolk, and Harwich International, the cruise and ferry terminal a few miles away.

‘Most people think of Harwich as the place where they go and catch a ship to Europe,’ says David. ‘What we’re talking about is the old, medieval town.’ In fact, they’re separate places, with separate railway stations – Harwich Town and Harwich International. This separation has preserved the character of the old port, saving it from redevelopment. There are only a few modern eyesores. Squeezed onto a narrow promontory, surrounded by the North Sea, it looks like the setting for a Georgian costume drama – Carry On Horatio Hornblower, perhaps.

Another thing that makes it good for oldies is that it’s so easy to get around. Trains from Manningtree (on the London to Norwich line) terminate at Harwich Town station, a short stroll from the heart of town, and the town itself is tiny, barely 900 yards by 450 yards. All of it is walkable, with hardly any traffic. The terrain is flat, distances are short and there’s a nice strip of sandy beach.

We stopped for lunch at The Pier, a smart hotel on the waterfront with views over the busy dockyard, and the Stour and Orwell estuaries beyond. It used to be a railway hotel, built for passengers transferring between London trains and Continental ferries. Today it’s a destination in its own right, decorated with vintage railway posters from Harwich’s heyday as a seaside resort. Madeline had smoked salmon and a glass of champagne. Très chic. I had fish and chips, mushy peas and a pint of bitter.

Over lunch, I asked Madeline what makes Harwich so special. ‘It’s intimate; it’s ancient; it’s so historic. There’s so much still here,’ she said.

‘It’s unique – it’s as it was,’ concurs David. ‘It’s still more or less as it used to be 500 years ago.’

We finished our tour at the top of the High Lighthouse, so called because it’s higher than the Low Lighthouse, 150 yards away. Why did Harwich need two lighthouses, so close together? Well, if you were out at sea, looking for a safe passage into port, you simply lined up these two lights, and that gave you the correct course. Clever. The Low Lighthouse is now a Maritime Museum.

The High Lighthouse marks the end of the Essex Way, an 82-mile hiking trail that runs all the way to Epping. My train back to London took an hour and a half. Next time I plan to walk it.