Harwich: The birth of the Mayflower

Harwich was a thriving and important English port in the 1600s possessing ship-building yards, ship-owners, sea-captains and seamen. It is generally thought that the Mayflower was built there sometime before 1600. What is certain is that she was commanded and part-owned by her Master, Captain Christopher Jones, who was among the elite of the town. Jones house still stands close to the waterfront at Harwich and was clearly the dwelling of a man of substance.

Jones connection with the Mayflower, as her Master and part owner, dates from 1609 and she was designated as “of Harwich” in the Port Books of 1609. Confirmation beyond doubt is assured from an Admiralty document dated January 1611, when Jones was involved in a salvage claim. Here he is identified as Christopher Jones of Harwich, Master of the Mayflower of the same place. This unequivocal coupling of Jones and the Mayflower with Harwich gives the town its special place in this particular history. Although Jones had moved to Rotherhithe in that same year, he was clearly identified as a citizen of Harwich and his ship Mayflower would become famous for its transatlantic expedition bearing the Pilgrims.

Jones married Sara Twitt at St. Nicholas Church, Harwich, on 27 December 1593. She was age 17 and had been born around 1576. Sara was Jones neighbour, living opposite each other on Kings Head Street, Harwich; and both residences still existing as visitor attractions. Sara’s home is now a local hostelry, the Alma. Sara had a wealthy father, Thomas Twitt, who had strong shipping interests. At her father’s death, he provided considerable funds for her and a half share in his ship Apollo. The two families combined their shipping interests to mutual advantage.

Within a year of his marriage to Sara they had a boy named Thomas, named after Sara’s father but sadly, per the Church Burial Register, it records the infant’s death on 17 April 1596 at the age of 3. Sara had no more children and died at age 27. She was buried in Harwich on 23 May 1603.

“Four hundred years after its iconic journey, our historic Maritime Town of Harwich still boasts the reminiscences of its rich place in the Mayflower story. The home of its Master, Christopher Jones still stands proud in Kings Head Street, as does the magnificent St Nicholas Church where he married twice. The centrepiece of Harwich and the Tendring District’s celebration of this iconic anniversary is the inspiring Mayflower Project to build a replica seaworthy vessel to mark the history-changing voyage and replicating its journey to the United States in 2020. We are extremely proud that our coastal town played such a key role in this historic event and are very excited that a further chapter in the story is being written 400 years after it first set sail to the New World.”

Councillor Fred Nicholls
Chairman of Tendring District Council

Jones married his second wife, Josian Gray, widow of Richard Gray, age 21, at St. Nicholas Church in Harwich a few months after his first wife’s Sara’s death in 1603. Josian had seafaring relatives and her late husband was a noted mariner with friends among the Captains of the 1588 Armada Fleet which included treasure hunting in the Indies and may have included attacks on Spanish treasure ships. Josian supposedly brought a substantial marriage portion and had inherited her late husband’s house in Church Street, Harwich, together with other land and property.

The rise of Jones is well documented by David A. Male in Christopher Jones and the Mayflower Expedition 1620-1621, who writes, From town records stored at the Guildhall in Church Street, we discover that in 1601 he was one of 77 men who took the oath and was elected freeman of the Borough of Harwich. His name is listed as one of the 24 capital burgesses on the Great Charter granted to the Borough by James I in 1604.

Civic accounts record his acting as an assessor for tax on land and property, and even as a jury member when his father-in-law was reprimanded for failing to repair steps to the Quay adjacent to his house. Jones also had his own clashes with the law. He was accused (in 1605) with George Colman for keeping hunting dogs (greyhounds), a pursuit open only to those gentlemen whose land was valued at more than 40 shillings per annum. Clearly Jones was prospering but not yet sufficiently advanced to be classed as a gentleman.

Christopher Jones career at sea continued to prosper during the course of his second marriage. He was engaged in building ships (one named Josian after his wife), as well as trading between England and Europe. Records show voyages to Norway, Bordeaux and Rochelle particularly in cloth (outward) and wine (inward).

In about 1611, Jones decided to leave Harwich and moved south to London, where he made his home in Rotherhithe parish, a mile downstream on the Thames from the Tower of London.