In 1900 the British and American children’s periodical St Nicolas published a short story by leading women’s suffragist and author Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902). Entitled ‘Christmas on the Mayflower’, it included an illustration of the interior of the ship decked out with festive decorations as the Pilgrims sit down to a sumptuous Christmas dinner. Stanton’s story was also rich in details of yule-tide cheer and festivities:
Then the mothers decorated their tables and spread out a grand Christmas dinner. Among other things, they brought a box of plum-puddings. It is an English custom to make a large number of plum-puddings at Christmas-time, and shut them up tight in small tin pails and hang them on hooks on the kitchen wall, where they keep for months. You see them in English kitchens to this day. With their plum-puddings, gooseberry-tarts, Brussels sprouts, salt fish, and bacon, the Pilgrims had quite a sumptuous dinner. Then they sang “God Save the King,” and went on deck to watch the sun go down and the moon rise in all her glory.
Illustration from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s story ‘Christmas on the Mayflower’ in ‘St Nicolas’ (1900)
The nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of literature written for children which sought to both entertain and offer moral instruction for the young. A revolution in cheap printing and childhood literacy rates meant that suddenly new readerships were forming. As Ruth Jenkins comments:
The Victorian convergence of advancing technologies, greater leisure time for emerging middles classes, and increasing literacy rates propelled narratives written for children into a recognisable genre and a bourgeoning industry. Heralded as a ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, this period invites continued study of these texts as cultural responses that give insight not only in what concerned Victorians but why they remain viable narratives today.
This was coupled with a growing concern over childhood, child welfare, and children’s education. The result was literature produced for children like never before, and the story of the Mayflower played a central role.
The Victorians had a fascination for the Mayflower story. Felicia Hemans’ well-known 1825 poem had helped create a market for songs, plays, novels, and poetry that featured the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ as they founded a New England colony in dire conditions in the winter of 1620. Many of these Mayflower products were aimed at children and adolescents; a great volume of children’s novels, poems, and illustrated gift books were produced that retold the story of the Pilgrims. These were popular texts that were sold throughout the nineteenth century (and indeed, into the present day). In this feature, we take a look at some examples published in Britain from the 1850s to the 1890s.
Men they were who could not bend
Blest Pilgrims, surely, as they took for guide
A will by sovereign Conscience sanctified
Detail from Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1842).
Many depictions of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ in nineteenth-century British literature offer a positive, idealised, even elegiac portrayal of the settlement of New Plymouth. After all, according to the myth popularised by Felicia Hemans, these were the brave men and women who laid the foundation of a great nation. However, the mythology of the Mayflower was also put to less celebratory uses. Perhaps the most well-known example is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ (1848); a controversial mid-century poem that grapples with issues of race, slavery, and injustice from an explicitly abolitionist perspective. Originally intended for publication in the 1848 edition of The Liberty Bell, an antislavery annual based in Boston, Browning – born in County Durham – feared the work was ‘too ferocious, perhaps, for the Americans to publish’. 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning.jpg
They could not live by king-made codes and creeds;
They chose the path where every footstep bleeds.
Protesting, not rebelling; scorned and banned;
Through pains and prisons harried from the land
– John Boyle O’Reilly: Poem read at the Dedication of the Monument to the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth, Mass., 1 August, 1889.
John Boyle O’Reilly as a prisoner in 1866. Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Boyle_O%27Reilly.jpg
On October 12, 1867, the convict ship Hougoumont left Portsmouth, England, bound for the Penal Colony of Western Australia. The last convict ship to ever leave Britain, the Hougoumont arrived laden with 279 prisoners sentenced to transportation. One of those men was John Boyle O’Reilly (1844-1890), part of a group of Irish prisoners who were members of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, also known as the IRB or Fenian Brotherhood. Fearful of another Irish uprising, the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood was persecuted by the British government who saw the movement as an intrinsic threat to their interests in Ireland. As T. W. Moody comments, the Fenians had revolutionary politics at their core: the brotherhood was ‘essentially a physical-force movement which absolutely and from the beginning, repudiated constitutional action […] [m]ore than any other school of nationalism the Fenian movement concentrated on a single aim, independence, and insisted that all other aims were beside the point’.