2020 was the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic. Many events were planned both in England and the USA. Unfortunately nearly all the commemorations of this momentous occasion were cancelled due to the pandemic. However, in the run up to 2020 continuing research uncovered new material. In the narrative below some of the updated Essex connections are shared.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE BILLERICAY PIONEERS
Billericay to Boston – Part 1
The Mayflower, commanded by Christopher Jones, a former Harwich man, set sail from Plymouth, Devon on the 6th September 1620. It was headed for the ‘New World’ across the Atlantic Ocean. On board were a crew of 35 and 104 passengers, often referred to as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’.
The passengers were divided into two groups, the Saints and the Strangers. The Saints had previously left England for Leiden in Holland to escape religious persecution and to find the freedom to practise their beliefs in the way they chose. The Strangers, ostensibly of a Puritan persuasion, were to bring the practical skills needed to build a new community, but many saw the new land as full of commercial opportunities. During the voyage one ‘Pilgrim’ William Butten died and one was born and named Oceanus Hopkins. After an arduous 66 day, 2,750 nautical mile journey, landfall was made at Cape Cod in present day Massachusetts, on November 11th 1620. However the place where they landed was 200 miles north of their intended destination, the Hudson River in present day New York State.
Amongst the group were four from Billericay, Essex; Christopher Martin, his wife Marie, step-son Solomon Prower and their servant John Langmore. They became known as the Billericay Pioneers.
One of the crew was 20-year-old John Alden from Harwich, possibly a cousin of Christopher Jones, the Mayflower’s master. His role was that of a carpenter cum cooper (barrel maker). Alden left the ship in the new world, married and later became one of the assistants to the Governor of the new colony. Another crew member from Harwich was Richard Gardiner. Little is known of his responsibilities on the voyage. He was said to have passed away on return to England or at sea.
A Mayflower passenger originally thought to have come from the Billericay area was a Peter Browne, a Stranger; however, later research traced his roots to Dorking in Surrey as he seemed to have ties with the Mullins family also from Dorking. John Alden, mentioned above, married Priscilla Mullins, a passenger on the Mayflower. The couple’s courtship was the subject of a long romantic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
There seems to have been two other ‘Essex’ Mayflower passengers, John Crackstone, and his son also called John, both Saints and described, as of Colchester but more precisely from Stratford St. Mary in Suffolk on the county border, just across the River Stour.
Despite the detail above, no one would know of the Essex connections with the Mayflower for at least 250 years after the Mayflower left Plymouth. William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts wrote a long journal between 1630 and 1651 describing the story of the Saints from 1608, when they settled in the Dutch Republic on the European mainland, through to 1620, the year of the Mayflower’s voyage, and subsequently the early years of the new colony. The journal, called the Mayflower Log or The Plimouth Planation, disappeared during the American War of Independence in the 1770s only to mysteriously turn up in the Bishop of London’s Fulham Palace Library 90 years later. In 1897, after much wrangling between the British and American Governments, the Consistory Court of the Diocese of London agreed to give the journal back and on May 26th the journal was formally returned to Massachusetts in perpetuity.
Subsequently, Bradford’s writings have become a bible of the voyage, an authentic surviving record of the Mayflower, its passengers and crew. In respect of the Essex connections, two sentences in the journal read, There was one chosen in England to join them in making provisions for the voyage. His name was Mr Martin, he came from Billirike in Essex where several others came to join them as well as from London and other places.
The discovery of the journal and the lines from Bradford’s journal referencing Billirike in Essex enabled local historians to research the ‘Billericay Pioneers’ background.
Christopher Martin ran a victualling, or wholesale food, business and may have been a miller in Billericay. There are records of him owning properties there. One such property said to be owned by Martin that caused much interest was the old Chantry House (now a restaurant) in the High Street.
However, of this premise there no is documentary evidence to support Martin’s ownership although he may he have lived there. It was also said a number of other ‘Pilgrims’ met with Martin in Chantry House before making their way to the Mayflower.
For a time, such was the belief that Martin owned Chantry House, that in 1926, an anonymous American oil magnate offered to buy it for £10,000. He proposed to take the house down timber by timber, ship it state-side and rebuild it in Boston. This made national news. However, following strong local opposition supported by Parliament, Chantry House stayed put and was sold to a firm of solicitors in Chelmsford for just £850.00.
There are no records of Christopher Martin in the Billericay area before 1607, the year he married Marie Prower (a widow) at St Mary Magdalene Church in Great Burstead. A recent tablet on the church wall describes Martin as a sometime Church Warden, Pilgrim Provisioner and Treasurer of the Mayflower community.
As a local property owner Martin was also entitled to sit on the jury of what were known as the ‘Lord Petre Annual Court Baron’ held each June to settle local disputes in the manor of Great Burstead. His attendance is recorded each year from 1614 to 1617, but apologies were received for 1618 and 1619 and in 1620 he was replaced by Francis Newton, a grocer.
By all accounts Martin was difficult to deal with. He clashed with traders over what a local mercer George Hillier described as ‘unlawful trading’. Martin was summoned before the bench. He repeatedly took issue with the church over religious ceremonies and was called before the Archdeacon in respect of the unruly behaviour of children that included Martin’s stepson Solomon Prower. More seriously Martin’s name cropped up in the Archdeacon’s court for his failure as church warden to present accounts.
Yet Martin’s attention was focusing on matters faraway from Billericay in the new world – America. He bought shares in the Virginia Company, whose charter was to colonise the eastern coast of America. Perhaps, Martin thought that by sailing to America he could benefit from any new profitable business opportunities to be had. In doing so he would also get way from all people he didn’t get on with.
Meanwhile the Saints, those pilgrims based in Leiden in Holland, had hoped to use the Virginia Company to facilitate their trans-Atlantic crossing, but the negotiations had become so protracted that the Saints withdrew and hired two ships of their own. The first was the Speedwell, hired in Holland to take the Saints and the second, a larger ship, the Mayflower, chartered in Londonto take the Strangers.
The Mayflower was hired through a consortium led by a London ironmonger, Thomas Weston, who also recruited passengers for the ship. It seems that at this stage Christopher Martin became involved in the project. Martin initially acted as agent, provisioner and treasurer for the venture and then was later chosen as Governor elect of the Mayflower. Whilst Martin may have decided to get away from all of the people he had fallen out with in Billericay, it didn’t take long for him upset his new companions.
End of Part 1
Basildon Branch Library, Billericay and the New World, Basildon Branch Libraries, 1970
Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, Madison & Adams Press, 2017
Carpenter, R. J Christopher Martin, Great Burstead and the Mayflower, Barstable Books, 1982
Falconer, Jonathan, Mayflower, The Pilgrims Fathers’ historic voyage of 1620, Haynes, 2020
Grant, W, Billericay and the Mayflower, Wynford P Grant, 1966.
Hackney, Noel C.L, Mayflower Classic Ships No 2, Patrick L Stephens with Airfix, 1970
Hilton, Christopher, Mayflower, the Voyage That Changed the World, History Press, 2020
Male, David A., Christopher Jones and the Mayflower Expedition, 1620 – 1621, Harwich Society, 1999
Passenger List of the Mayflower 1620, Plymouth City Museum, 2004
Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower, A voyage to War, Harper Perennial, 2007
Johnson, Caleb’s webpages http://mayflowerhistory.com/
Thanks also to
Lord Petre, Ingatestone Hall, re the Annual Court Baron
Andy Schooler, Curator, the Christopher Jones House, Harwich
Sheila Taylor, Christopher Jones Memorial, Rotherhithe
© Essex Hundred Publications, Andrew Summers