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The Mayflower voyage and Rotherhithe  


Rotherhithe was once the cradle of London’s sea-going trade. Today it’s a gentrified area with upmarket flats and offices, merged into the historic—but once separate—borough of Southwark.  

In Elizabeth’s time, Rotherhithe was the centre of the great explosion of British maritime activity. From here, ships set sail for North America with migrants, returning with goods, traded or plundered. So, although the story of Elizabeth Gardiner is a fiction, her journey is grounded in reality.  

The movement of people from the UK to the Americas started in the 16th century. In the 17th century, when Elizabeth sailed, an estimated 120,000 people left for the eastern seaboard area to which she travelled. Some for political or religious reasons, but many forced out by acute poverty at home. 

Up to 80% of early migrants were, like Elizabeth, indentured labourers, bound by contract to work for a master for up to seven years in return for their passage across the Atlantic. There’s a major debate about the relationship between indentureship and slavery. 

Shockingly, many migrants were children rounded up off the streets of London. So many were taken that in 1671 a bill was passed by both houses of Parliament “to prevent stealing and transporting children, and other persons.”  

Perhaps the most historic—and unrecognised—voyage from Rotherhithe was of the Mayflower. She set sail in 1620 under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, carrying economic migrants. The Pilgrim Fathers, the religious refugees from Europe for whom the ship is best known, joined later at Southampton.  

The Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe Street is on the site of The Shippe Inn which dated from about 1550. It’s a great place to visit. There’s a jetty at the back that overlooks the place from where the Mayflower set sail.  

Even 50 years ago Rotherhithe was a focal part the Thames docklands. Famously, the cranes of the south London docks were dipped in respect as the coffin of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader, was carried past on the river en route from his funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral.  

The best way to appreciate Rotherhithe’s rich history is with a visit. The Freeborn Girls Heritage Trail on this site follows in the footsteps of Elizabeth and Sarah Gardiner. 

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