In an extract from his forthcoming Stour Diaries, Chris McCully follows the ghosts of historical Harwich, from where the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620.
When at last I went to Harwich I parked the car just past the Halfpenny Pier and the Pier Hotel. The tide was ebbing. As I stepped onto the pier I looked down through wooden strakes at a lucid rush of seawater sluicing past the piles. I bought an ice-cream, sat and had a coffee and a smoke and, as one does, began to think about America.
The Master of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, lived for part of his life in Harwich at 21, King’s Head Street, today a modest 17th-century house that lies two minutes’ walk from the Halfpenny Pier. Jones was moderately well-to-do: town records name him as a freeman of Harwich and a charter of 1604 lists him as one of Harwich’s burgesses. Yet Jones had had his own encounter with the law – an accusation of keeping greyhounds or hunting dogs. Possession of such animals was reserved for ‘gentlemen’, then defined as men of gentle (i.e. noble) birth or men owning both land and property. And what Jones had was a quarter-share in a ship.
I’d always thought that the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth but in fact the ship left from Harwich, subsequently stopping at Rotherhithe, in Southampton Water (where she met with the Speedwell, a ship bringing pilgrims from the Netherlands), at Plymouth and then, by some accounts, at Newlyn in Cornwall before venturing onto the Atlantic. There were around one hundred and twenty passengers, most of them religious separatists who were fleeing persecution in England and Holland, and thirty crew. The ship embarked for Virginia, where there was an already-established settlement and where the Mayflower had received prior permission to dock, on September 6th, 1620.
By March of the following year only half the passengers and crew were still alive. The voyage out had been difficult, supplies were scarce and the lack of any latrine facilities on the ship can’t have helped check the spread of diseases which included scurvy and tuberculosis. The winter weather had also been difficult, with contrary winds: the Mayflower had failed to make landfall in Virginia and had anchored off Cape Cod. Earlier that autumn there had already been dissent among the pilgrims. This is evident from the issuing of the ‘Mayflower Compact’ a document agreed to by remaining pilgrims and crew, who promised to
covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience 1
Relations with native Americans had been often adversarial. The behaviour of the pilgrims was hardly above reproach. Malnourished, they raided native stores of corn and beans and desecrated local graves, perhaps mistaking them for caches of food. Then they returned to the Mayflower, where they remained incarcerated for the whole of that first, dreadful winter. It was only in late March 1621 that the settlers built huts on the mainland, but by then, half of those who’d embarked were dead. Christopher Jones, who had already exceeded his responsibilities by remaining with the settlers throughout the winter and helping them in their shoreward sorties and long-deferred landfall, finally sailed home in April 1621. He died a year later. He was in his early fifties.
I imagined a younger Jones buying his quarter-share in the Mayflower and then running English wool to Holland and bringing wine back. He probably thought he was on to a good thing when the business agents for the pilgrims contacted him about a possible commission that would take him, and his ship, across the Atlantic for the first time. Yet when he died he was six years younger than I am. He left a widow – his second wife – and eight children. It’s possible, of course, that having taken the pilgrims to America, Jones deferred his return voyage because he didn’t want to sail during the winter. It’s possible that he’d received some kind of encouragement (a promissory note, say) to stay until the following spring. Yet I like to think that Jones stayed with the pilgrims until the spring of 1621 simply because he felt responsible for them and perhaps because he felt he could and should help them along into their new life.
I finished the coffee, stood up with a head full of difficult voyages, then walked south, past the Trinity House light vessel whose intense red paint seemed to stop the afternoon like some piece of strange monitory punctuation. To the north lay the mouth of the Orwell, the masts of Shotley marina. Herring gulls worked in the currents at the mouth of the estuary. A solitary tern patrolled the turbulent water spilling from the push of water caused by the conjunction of tide and pier. Every few seconds the bird would seem to stall in its trajectory – then swoop, turning at the last moment from the sea-surface. In the minutes I spent watching it work I never saw it pick up a sandeel. The distance was a set of coloured horizontals bisected by a squall of wings. To the north-east, on the further shore of the Stour, stood the cranes on the wharves of the largest port in Britain, Felixstowe: gunwales the length of stadiums; vast blocks of containers, each abutting neatly to its neighbour; more horizontals.
I followed the shore southwards. There was a large area of gravel and mud at the edge of which grew pale vermilions of spurge, striated purples of cranesbill. I was already at the edge of the town when I noticed the crane – the wooden treadmill crane that is the only surviving example of its kind in the world.
The crane was part of Harwich port in the 17th century and was moved to its present position only in 1930. The crane was operated by two men, who would climb inside the wheels (treadmills) of the crane, thus, by means of those huge revolving drums, causing the lengthening or retraction of a chain run through a pulley. Such cranes had been used by the Romans; one of their primary uses was helping ships to tie up at the docks: a large sailing ship must have been remarkably difficult to dock in anything of a wind. A line run to a treadmill crane would have been much more effective (because more powerful) than men hauling on ropes. And what large sailing ships existed in the 17th century? Warships, men-of-war: the local MP, Samuel Pepys, who took no time off from diary-writing to become Secretary to the Admiralty, was sent to Harwich in 1664 to supervise the rebuilding of the port and naval shipyard. During his tenure the treadmill crane would have been much in use to help moor men-of-war in what was a strategically important harbour at the time of the seemingly interminable maritime conflicts with the Dutch, which took place with depressing frequency during the 17th century. Fifty years after Pepys, Defoe wrote in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724) that he had seen
one hundred sail of men-of-war and their attendants and between three and four hundred sail of collier ships all in this harbour at a time…2
As I walked further southwards I came across the two great lighthouses that once lit the way to Harwich port – the Low and the High Lights. Because of coastal erosion, these lights no longer mark a safe route to Harwich (any ship following them in from the open sea would strand on Landguard Point, on the opposite side of the estuary) but I was touched by the fact that during the Napoleonic War, Harwich locals had conceived the plan of blowing up the lower (most seaward) of the two lights and replacing it with a light in the wrong position, for the confounding of Boney and the French.
South again – past the lights, the waste bins, the gravel giving on to the incoming tide. On the first and smaller of two groynes two men sat in the sunshine fishing. Beyond them, out in the channel, a Thames barge – gaff-rigged, shallow-draughted – was doing something or was doing nothing except sailing for the joy of it on a summer’s day, while on the further shore, by Felixstowe, the great container ships loaded or unloaded their cargoes. That moment of perception spanned several centuries: the containers and their imported electronic goods belonged to the present, the Thames barge to the 19th century, the fishermen to ageless sunshine and salt winds.
And I kept walking south, to what is probably one imaginative limit of Harwich, the great stone pier, built in 1846 to help prevent further build up of shingle in the harbour. The pier is a great stone finger five hundred yards long. To my right, on the seaward side of the breakwater, lay wind, wave and a rank glitter of sun; to my left lay a muddy calm, where bladderwrack stirred in a tea-coloured tide. Away in the channel, the Thames barge tacked in the current.
‘A pretty town,’ Elizabeth I called Harwich, from where she received news of the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Yet Harwich is far more than pretty. On that summer day, at the end of that southerly saunter, my head was full of Harwich ghosts – of a bewigged Pepys and an open-shirted Defoe; of a hungover Boswell saying goodbye to a gently-harrumphing Johnson; of a man being carried howling, with a mutilated lower leg, from a treadmill crane. And there were two further ghosts. One was all too familiar: the ghost of myself, who had spent half a lifetime travelling through and yet always being short of Harwich. The other wasn’t familiar at all, although somehow I could see his face – ruddy with liquor, shrewd, kind-eyed – very clearly: Christopher Jones, Sir, late returned from the Low Countries….
Christopher Jones, who helped to change a continent.
Christopher Jones, dead at 52 – almost and yet always a gentleman.
1. http://www.allabouthistory.org/mayflower-compact.htm#sthash.nhoSIl4h.dpuf, accessed 7 January 2015
2. http://www.harwich.net/history.htm – pages to which I’m greatly indebted for much of the preceding information. The same site reprints Defoe’s account of Harwich from the non-copyrighted pages of Project Gutenberg. I am also grateful to David Fairhall’s East Anglian Shores (2013) for further pieces of information, particularly chapter 7 of that work.
Chris McCully now works at the University of Essex, where he teaches a range of courses exploring different genres of contemporary English writing including Memory Mapping and psychogeography. He has published a wide range of titles, most recently a collection of verse, Serengeti Songs, with Carcanet Press (2016).