Lying close to the mouth of the River Dart, Dartmouth is one of the great historic towns of England and was an important trading port for nearly 900 years, sailors departing to sail the world.
In 1620 after leaving Southampton the Mayflower and its sister ship, the Speedwell had to return to Dartmouth as the Speedwell was taking on water, some thoughts suggesting that its crew were deliberately sabotaging her to get out of their lengthy contracts, to undergo repairs.
While repairs were undertaken, the ships sheltered in Bayards Cove, Dartmouth’s only harbour at that time. Its sea walls and riverfront, probably looking much the same as today, and some of the houses, dating from the 17th century may have been standing then. The Cove with its cobbled quay and its own fort has changed little since the reign of Henry VIII, but does go back as far as 1147, when it was the Northern European gathering point for the 2nd Crusade.
A local story purports that the Pilgrims, being a somewhat difficult group as well as separatists, were not warmly welcomed by the town and consequently, according to the story, moved a mile or two up river to wait out the completion of the repairs. The supposed field is pointed out today to tourists as ‘Pilgrim’s Hill’, where they held their last service of Thanksgiving before leaving on their historic voyage. This second attempt to depart from England also failed, the ships this time having to return to Plymouth.
This story of the passengers leaving the ships while in port is perhaps discounted by a passenger, Robert Cushman, who wrote a letter during the enforced visit to port in Dartmouth to his friend Edward Southworth giving an account of the behaviour of the agent of the merchant adventurers and treasurer of the whole project.
Clearly then there was great unhappiness within the different interests represented in the voyage and perhaps even between the Leiden Pilgrims themselves.
As in Bayards Cove, Dartmouth has buildings that date from the time of the Mayflower’s arrival. Its earliest street being recorded by name was in the 13th century as Smith Street. Several of its houses are originally late 16th century and early 17th century and are probably built on the sites of earlier medieval dwellings. The street name derives from the smiths and shipwrights who built and repaired ships here when the tidal waters reached this point. It was also the site of the Town’s pillory in medieval times.
“Although still 5 years away, the occasion is beginning to capture peoples’ imagination and expectation of what we as a Town can achieve in showcasing Dartmouth and its relationship and connection with the Pilgrims. The important issues to my mind are the engagement of its community in contributing to the success of the commemoration of the Mayflower Pilgrims’ 400th anniversary, as well as ensuring that a proper legacy is achieved. This measured by not only the pride its community has in its history, but in its whole hearted contribution to the event itself and more importantly it’s future.
Furthermore what we are already seeing is the recognition by the Mayflower Trail Towns and Cities, that the success of their developing close working relationship, can only be greater than that which could be achieved by their individual parts.”
Chairman, Dartmouth Mayflower Project: