Southwark has many links with the voyage of the Pilgrims, who set sail for America in 1620. Even before this most famous journey to America, Southwark had a tradition of religious dissent. In 1586 a group of people were sent to The Clink for refusing to obey the religious laws of Elizabeth I and disagreeing with state interference in religious matters.
These dissenters founded a prison church under the guidance of John Greenwood, a clergyman, and Henry Barrowe, a lawyer. They called themselves ‘Independents’ but were also known as ‘Brownists’ because of the free thinking of Robert Browne, the headmaster at St Olave’s School.
In 1592 Greenwood, Barrowe and John Penry gained a temporary reprieve and began meeting at a house in the Borough and formally constituted the Southwark Independent Church. However the reprieve was short-lived and Greenwood and Barrowe were executed on 6th April 1593. John Penry was also executed, at a site near the present day junction between Albany Road and Old Kent Road, on 29 May 1593. Roger Rippon, whose house was used for worship, was arrested and died of disease in prison.
Another dissenter Francis Johnson travelled to Newfoundland after his own release from prison, looking for a place where religious freedom might be possible. He finally settled in Holland where many of the Southwark dissenters had fled. The remaining members of the group continued to meet in secret before being brought into the open by Henry Jacob in 1616. Jacob had been influenced by the writing of Johnson and in 1620 some members of the Southwark Church were given permission to sail to America. It was this group that joined the Mayflower.
The Mayflower was an old ship and usually plied her trade between London, France and Norway transporting woollens in to trade for wine and other goods.
Her captain, and part owner, Christopher Jones was born in Harwich but by 1611 he was settled in Rotherhithe, then a popular place for sea captains to live. Some of his children were baptised, at St Mary’s Church.
“Mayflower 400 is critical in laying the groundwork in commemorating a truly historic and globally significant event. In Southwark we take particular pride that the ship’s Captain, Christopher Jones, and crew came from Rotherhithe as it is a reflection of our long maritime connections. As such we are preparing a range of activities in the run-up to 2020 involving our local schools, community groups, heritage organisations, businesses and faith groups. The emphasis will be placed on celebrating the debt we owe to the pursuit of the universal concepts of freedom, liberty and justice. It is paramount therefore that we build upon our existing ties with the USA through shared cultural, social, economic and governmental contacts so that our mutual commemorations can be as inclusive as possible and produce a lasting legacy. This is no small task but we are up for the challenge.”
Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Business, Employment and Culture
The rector at St Mary’s from 1611 to 1654 was Thomas Gataker, a man of puritan leanings. Captain Jones probably learnt about Puritanism from him and this may have influenced his decision to take on the charter. He would not have done this lightly given the challenge of battling the Atlantic in his mature vessel.
Also from Rotherhithe were part owner, John Moore, and first mate John Clarke, after whom Clarke’s Island, Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts is named. Clarke had already had a tough life having spent 1611 to 1616 as a prisoner of the Spanish.
The ship set sail from close to the present Mayflower Inn and joined another ship, the Speedwell, at Southampton before they set sail together for America.
However the Speedwell sprung a leak, forcing them to turn back twice before the Mayflower took on the Speedwell’s passengers and finally set sail from Plymouth on 6 September 1620.
The shore was sighted on 29 October but they could not land until 21 December.
The Mayflower remained with the settlers until April 1621 before returning to Rotherhithe in May 1621. The crew suffered alongside the passengers when illness and hardship struck and it is thought at least 18 crew members died.
Captain Jones died the following March aged 52 and was buried at St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe. Possibly his health had been weakened by the voyage and despite trying to continue trading he could not withstand its rigours. John Clarke died the following year on a voyage to Virginia. The Mayflower was probably left to ruin and eventually broken up.
Although St Mary’s Church was rebuilt in 1715, it contains many memorials to sailors from the original church. Captain Jones’ grave was lost during the rebuilding however a new memorial was erected to him in 1995, the 375th anniversary of the Mayflower’s historic voyage.