The Mayflower row: Why the battle over the Pilgrim Fathers should be more than just a two-way tussle

Nermin Oomer
Nermin Oomer
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Onboard the Mayflower (Nara Archives/Rex Features)

The Mayflower has hit rocky waters nearly 400 years after transporting America's founding fathers across the Atlantic.

The ship and its often sole association with Plymouth has been called into question by an Essex-based charity which wants to build a replica of the ship and promote its links with the famous vessel, as the 400th anniversary of the voyage approaches in 2020.

Plymouth has big plans for the anniversary, with the US President already invited to the city's large-scale celebrations.

But John Acton, a trustee of the Harwich Mayflower Project - lit the blue touch paper yesterday by telling The Times it was 'shocking' that Plymouth should be the only English place associated with the Mayflower and her extraordinary voyage to America. He told the newspaper: "They have effectively hijacked the ship and claimed it as their own, but history tells us that the Mayflower was only there to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship which sprang a leak." 

The managing director of the project, Andy March, was quoted in the paper as saying: "Plymouth has grabbed the limelight but the vessel has much closer ties to Harwich where she was built."

Supporters of Harwich point out the ship was built at the Essex port, the captain of The Mayflower was from Essex as were many of the passengers.

Now a historical novelist and historian has joined the argument by backing claims that Plymouth has 'hijacked' the ship, but - in a twist to the tale - she has brought North Nottinghamshire into the controversy. Sue Allan said the region has a much stronger claim on the people which sailed on the ship than the Devon city.

She told Yahoo! News: "Not one person on the passenger list was from Plymouth but some leading figures were from North Nottinghamshire and the surrounding area. Other places have just as much claim on the Mayflower history."

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Allan pointed to William Brewster, a leader of the founding fathers and William Bradford, a governor of the Plymouth colony, both originally from the North Nottinghamshire area. And according to The Pilgrim Fathers UK Origins Association, which aims to preserve the history in the region, three of the first four signatories of the Mayflower Compact – the first governing document of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, America – were from North Nottinghamshire and surrounding area.

Allan, the author of the historical novel 'Mayflower Maid', doesn’t deny the Mayflower has links to Plymouth but said the ship stopped there by “fluke”. She explained there were originally two ships sailing together to America. There was of course The Mayflower but there was also her sister ship The Speedwell, a passenger ship which came from Holland carrying exiled English separatists (Christians who wanted to separate from the Church of England and form independent churches). However, after setting off from Southampton, the Speedwell - which was also carrying migrants from all over the UK - ran into difficulties and had to stop off at Dartmouth to be repaired. The two ships set off again but once more the Speedwell became waterlogged and had to dock at Plymouth. Allan said: "If the Speedwell hadn’t taken on water it would never have stopped at Plymouth. It was the last stop they could make before the crossing."

After failures to make the Speedwell seaworthy, the decision was taken for all the passengers to transfer to the Mayflower, which went on to make the incredible journey to America.

Allan also acknowledges the ship’s links to Essex and says the county has a "valid claim on the ship and the folk that went on it".

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So what does Plymouth have to say about the controversy?

Deputy leader of the City Council Peter Smith said Plymouth had never claimed this piece of history as solely theirs. He told Yahoo! News: "The journey and the vessel are a piece of the UK and America’s shared histories and we are proud to celebrate being a part of that, as are many other cities."

Verifying Plymouth’s links with the Mayflower, Cllr Smith said the Amercians saw it fit to call the Pilgrim Fathers’ landing spot the Plymouth Rock, on Plymouth Harbour, in Plymouth Massachusetts. There is also the Plymouth plantation – the name of the colony first established by the Pilgrim Fathers. "It’s safe to say that Plymouth certainly features heavily in this particular tale."

He added Plymouth was looking to make the Mayflower 2020 celebration a massive international event that brings tourists to the UK.

"We want to create a really special party atmosphere. So to all those other cities wanting to join in, Plymouth says the more the merrier!

"Our links to the Mayflower 2020 celebrations are crystal clear; how other cities prove theirs is entirely their shout and we wish them luck."

Perhaps the final word in all this should be left to Anthony Darbyshire - the chairman of The Pilgrim Fathers UK Origins Association - which is in the process of trying to negotiate a visitor centre in North Nottinghamshire with the aim to include links to all places in the UK that are connected to the pilgrim fathers.

He said: "There are a number of places in the UK which can genuinely claim they have an interest in those that sailed on the Mayflower. I wouldn’t want to pick any location over another."

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