As part of the research into the sailing of the Mayflower and her sister ship the Speedwell in preparation for the Mayflower400 commemoration in 2020 we participated in a guided walk organised by SeeSouthampton called – ‘In the footsteps of the Pilgrims’.
After the walk was over we had the chance to interview the guide – Geoffrey Wheeler. The interview is at the bottom of this blog post.
The Mayflower had arrived in Southampton from Rotherhithe in London in late July or early August 1620 and was being provisioned, crewed and made ready to set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. On board were a number of passengers who were called ‘planters’ as they had booked passage to make their fortunes in America. Other ‘planters’ may have come direct to Southampton to join the ship when she arrived. Mayflower was joined by her sister ship, the Speedwell, which had sailed from Delfshaven in Holland. The passengers on her were the separatists who had left England 10 years or so earlier to avoid religious persecution, imprisonment and fines for not following the proscribed Church of England service. While in Southampton Speedwell had to be repaired as she was leaking due possibly due to failure of the caulking. When they set sail they were unaware that the Speedwell would suffer a further leak. When it was discovered they had to put into Dartmouth for repair with the Mayflower in attendance. They left again and this time managed to sail 300 miles to the West of Lands End before forced to return due to Speedwell leaking again. They moored up in Plymouth for repairs to Speedwell. It was agreed she was not sea worth enough to cross the Atlantic. It was decided to transfer from the Speedwell as many of the Leiden separatists as there was space for plus their personal possessions and provisions to the Mayflower The ship was now overcrowded with 102 passengers and around 30 crew when she left Plymouth on 6th September 1620. The journey would take 66 days before they made landfall in America.
The walk started at the Bargate, which in 1620 was the main entrance to the town (Southampton gained City status in 1966). Any passengers arriving via horse and carriage rather than on-board the Mayflower from London would have entered Southampton via Bargate. Also all merchants selling produce in Southampton had to enter Bargate and pay the appropriate fees and taxes.
On passing through Bargate into the town there would have been merchant houses, guest houses and eating houses lining both sides of the streets. Regarded at one time as being one of England prettiest High Streets hardly any building surveyed the bombing in World War II and is now a very wide and modern high street.
Passengers arriving by ship would have anchored in West Bay opposite Westgate. In those days the sea would have reached the town walls. The land was reclaimed in the 1930s and now has shops, restaurants, hotels and other commercial businesses.
Passengers and crew would have entered the town via Westgate. In those days the building (white and to the left of the entrance in the photo below) would not have existed and it would have been a continuation of the town walls. The walls date from the 12 and 13th centuries.
The passengers and crew on entering the town would have found merchant houses to their left and right. Sadly most of these were destroyed in the bombing in World War II. However a very old public house still exists. Today it is called the Duke of Wellington. In 1620 it would have been called the Bere House and almost certainly visited by both passengers and crew.
Further up the street is the old French Quarter of Southampton and St Michael’s Church. It dates from 1070 and was the original church of the Normans (St Michael is patron saint of Normandy) and is the only Church remaining of the 5 that were in the old medieval walled town. Whilst the non-separatists passengers would have probably have attended church services here the separatists would have sought a brethren house to hold their own services or possibly worshiped on board the Speedwell.
A little further on is Holyrood Church which is known as the ‘sailors church’ and is probably where the crew worshiped. This was largely destroyed during World War II. Its ruins are still used for special events and services.
We were also visited an old Merchant’s House which was built in 1290 so have been a familiar sight for everyone on board the Mayflower and Speedwell. At that time it would have been made of wattle and daub. Later it would have had bricks and stonework added as well as glass windows. It was damaged in the air raids and bombing in World War II but was restored. The undercroft can be seen under the house (below) which would have been where the merchant stored his stock of wine.
Our visit was completed by visiting some of the vaults that still exist and date from the 12th and 13th cnturies. In many cases these vaults are still accessible even if the houses about were destroyed in bombing or by earlier re-development. In fact the vaults were very useful during the air raids on Southampton in World War II as they were used as bomb shelters. Most are plain storage vaults where merchants held their stocks but we did visit one that was very ornately decorated. Experts are still unsure why.
It was a great way to spend 90 minutes and see some of the sights that the Mayflower and Speedwell passengers and crew would have seen.
Below is the interview with Geoffrey of SeeSouthampton.