Exactly 394 years ago this month, a man named Christopher Jones was buried in Rotherhithe, writes Joey Millar…
Born around 100km away in a town called Harwich, he had already come quite far – people didn’t travel much during the 1600s. But Jones had travelled much further than from Essex to Rotherhithe during his 52 years. In fact, he had travelled further than almost anybody else on the planet.
Jones was born to a ship owner in 1570 and quickly became involved in sea life himself. He married the daughter of a captain and fathered one child, before his wife and son both tragically died. After three months of patient grieving, he dusted himself off and married again, this time producing a further eight children. When he finally turned his attention from the bedroom to the open sea, he bought a part-ownership in a boat. It was named The Mayflower.
By this point, 1611, Jones had made the move to Rotherhithe, where he would die nine years later. He made several lucrative trips across the sea to Europe, sometimes returning with 100 tonnes of wine. By 1620, the Mayflower was battered and creaking. It had three, maybe four years left in its working life if lucky – but when being battered by 50-foot waves in a storm in the open sea, luck is not something you wish to depend on. It is surprising, then, that the ship would go onto achieve a fame that was arguably only ever topped, centuries later, by the Titanic.
In summer that year the ship was hired by 102 stuffy English separatists with a peculiar request. The group, who called themselves ‘saints’ but are known today as ‘the Pilgrims’, wanted to leave Britain for a new life across the Atlantic in the New World. Departing from Rotherhithe and captained by Jones, their voyage would mark one of the earliest and most famed chapters in the history of the United States of America.
Not that that mattered to Jones. It was merely another pay-cheque and a chance to check out what all the fuss was about in this newly discovered western hemisphere. So with little fuss, he set sail for a voyage that would be remembered in song and story for centuries to come.
It was a bumpy start, to put it lightly, and it was all downhill from there. Setting off from Rotherhithe in July, the boat had still not left England by September due to various problems with another ship called the Speedwell which was also scheduled to make the journey with them. It sprang a leak, was repaired in Plymouth, then sprang another. Eventually Jones got bored and set sail himself – although he still needed to stop off again in Cornwall when water on the boat gave some of the passengers cholera.
It wasn’t much more fun out on the open sea. Tough winds slowed the ship by an extra month, putting a strain on already depleted supplies. The passengers and crew, already exhausted by all the toing-and-froing, grew weary and sick. At one stage a huge wave crushed a vital supporting beam, and the weakened passengers were required to help the worn-out crew in repairing it mid-storm.
Eventually, however, the Mayflower made it to land, where the Pilgrims were startled to discover a North American winter was somewhat chillier than an English one. They shivered through their first winter across the water, suffering an A-Z of illnesses and ailments that took hold of Jones and his crew too. Occasional raiding parties from furious Native Americans provided some excitement, but otherwise it was a long, gruelling winter.
Originally planning to return to Rotherhithe once his passengers had set up a full-time settlement, Jones was forced to spend the winter waiting for his crew to shake off their various bugs. In April, the group finally made it back onto the open sea and made the relatively speedy journey home, pushed on by kinder winds and waves.
A third of the crew members never made it home, while Jones died within a year of his return, never fully recovering from the toll of the voyage and winter. He was buried in St Mary’s Church, while the Mayflower was left to rot in the Rotherhithe mud. Several hundred years later, a handful of commemorations mark the peninsula: the Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe Street, the Christopher Jones Square ‘pocket park’ and a plaque in St Marychurch Street. With the 400th anniversary of the voyage fast approaching, the instalment of a more suitable memorial would be the least Jones and his beleaguered crew members deserved.