The Mayflower and children’s literature

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.[1]

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.

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Singing the Pilgrims’ song in a strange land

Guest post: vocal ensemble Stile Antico introduce their unique music-drama

It was some years back that we spotted, on the horizon, the anniversary of the sailing of the ‘Mayflower’. As a vocal ensemble specialising in music of the 16th and 17th centuries, we knew plenty about the music of the time of the Pilgrims, but perhaps rather less of the context in which it was created. As a group that crosses the Atlantic several times a year for extended concert tours, we were particularly drawn to their story!

1620 was something of a high point for music in England. Many of the finest composers ever to have worked here were at their compositional peak. In Italy and elsewhere in Europe, composers such as Monteverdi were laying the groundwork for the musical Baroque and the development of a new musical form – Opera – but the musical style on these shores was rather more reserved. The masterpieces of the so-called ‘Golden Age of English Music’ have a restrained beauty, and a uniquely introspective quality. It seemed to us there might be the basis of an interesting programme, exploring the story of the Mayflower’s voyage using music from the time.

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The Mayflower Pilgrims – A Voyage Out of Context

*Guest post by Adrian Gray, historical adviser to Bassetlaw Christian Heritage and director of Pilgrims & Prophets Christian Heritage Tours*

Growing up in Lincolnshire and now living just on the Nottinghamshire side of the border, I’ve long been aware of the ‘Mayflower’ story but have also noticed that its local impact has been small. In the Scrooby/Gainsborough area there has never been any statue and all the memorial plaques were, until recently, mainly the work of American Congregationalists. On the coast, 45 miles away, are two memorials also funded by Congregationalists and neither in the correct place. ‘Locals’ seem to have seen it as a story about someone else.

With Mayflower 400, there was some growing local interest – partly because many of us have been active in re-shaping the story so that it has clear local relevance. The focus on William Brewster and William Bradford, people who were not that important while they were here, has been at the expense of understanding local context; nor has there been much awareness of what happened here after ‘they’ left.

Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, erected at Fishtoft, Lincolnshire, in 1957 – photo reproduced by permission of Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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Southampton’s Pilgrim Father’s Memorial (1913)

Memories of the Mayflower in Britain have taken many forms – from paintings and novels to poems and plays. One of the rarer but more long-lasting methods of commemoration are statues and monuments. Dotted around the urban landscape, these structures reflect a lot about what British society – both local and national – thought, at a certain time, was important about the past. Today, these can seem like simple curated objects: through their symbolism and accompanying plaques they tell the story of their makers. But, if we dig down a bit deeper into the documents and local press of the period, we can often find a different angle – and, in this case, one that suggests the Pilgrim Fathers could have both positive and negative meanings to local people.

The most impressive of all the Mayflower monuments (pictured below) was put up in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1889. Formerly known as the Pilgrim Monument but today the National Monument to the Forefathers, it was fashioned from solid granite and is a massive 25 metres tall. ‘Faith’ stands in the middle, clutching a bible and pointing to the heavens,  surrounded by figures representing Morality, Law, Liberty and Education. This built evocation of Mayflower mania, coming at a time when interest in the Pilgrim Fathers was growing on both sides of the Atlantic, seems to have started the trend for monuments. Plymouth had the first in Britain: a simple granite block carved ‘Mayflower 1620’ and set into the ground near the supposed ‘Mayflower Steps’ once trod by the Pilgrims. Continue reading

The American Crisis and Radical Pilgrims

H.T. Dickinson comments that ‘The American Revolution was the first great modern revolution and it has arguably been the most permanent, successful and widely admired’.[1] The results of this major event led to ‘the oldest surviving written constitution in the world’, and ‘a remarkably successful liberal regime’ that contrasted with the established political systems of eighteenth-century Europe.[2] Unsurprisingly such an influential event has received attention from generations of American scholars and historians. However, not as many historians have explored the British perspective on what was memorably termed by Thomas Paine ‘The American Crisis’. Britain was far from united in supporting the war with the American colonies – and indeed, for some political commentators, the story of the Mayflower provided a historical justification for American secession.

Detail from Paine’s The American Crisis: a pamphlet series published from 1776 to 1783 during the American Revolution. Public Domain.

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Getting tipsy on the Mayflower II

One of the most fascinating and relatively recent expressions of Mayflower-mania came with the building and sailing of a ‘replica’ of the ship in 1957. Dubbed the ‘Mayflower II’, the idea for the project came from Warwick Charlton, a then London-based public relations expert who had fond memories of serving alongside Americans in the Second World War. Like the 1917 commemorative postcard we recently featured, the Mayflower II was a project conceived primarily to support Anglo-American relations – this time, in the guise of ensuring ‘the free world’ against the backdrop of the Cold War. We are currently researching the Mayflower II – from the idea to afterlife – and will be sharing a much longer piece soon. In the meantime, to ‘whet your appetite’, the below is a miniature souvenir Guinness bottle – next to a tangerine for scale – that was taken on board the ship (along with many other examples of industry, manufacture and commerce from the ‘British Isles’). When I bought this bottle on eBay, for a price I’m not willing to admit(!), I thought it was full-size… a cautionary tale that sometimes things are not always what they seem – much like the cultural afterlife of the Mayflower!

Randal Charlton, son of Warwick, has recently written a book about his father: The Wicked Pilgrim. You can pick up a copy here


The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point

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’. [1]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Public Domain

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The Mayflower Barn: Mystery and History in Buckinghamshire

Deep in the countryside of Buckinghamshire, in the small Quaker village of Jordans, lies an old wooden barn. Quaint, if unremarkable, it probably dates to the early part of the seventeenth century. Today, it is part of a private multi-million pound estate – still visible from the road, but shut off from the public. Rewind a hundred years, and scores of people came flocking from around the country (and even the United States) to catch a glimpse of the interior. Articles about the barn were featured in local newspapers and many of the nationals too. Amazed or dubious, journalists reported the most incredible of happenings: an Englishman, James Rendel Harris, had found the last resting place of the Mayflower.

The Mayflower Barn – old postcard in possession of author

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“The Return of the Mayflower”

By 1916 the entry of the United States into the First World War was considered a vital step in securing an Allied victory against Germany. However, for the first two years of the war diplomacy between Britain and America had been marked by uncertainty. Woodrow Wilson had publicly declared America’s policy of neutrality shortly after the outbreak of hostilities between the European powers. In early 1915 Wilson explained America’s policy, ‘The basis of neutrality, gentlemen, is not indifference; it is not self-interest. The basis of neutrality is sympathy for mankind. It is fairness, it is good will at bottom. It is impartiality of spirit and of judgement.’ American public opinion from 1914-1916 also strongly favoured neutrality. Britain’s diplomatic efforts were therefore focused on finding a way to break this impasse and convince a reluctant United States help end the deadlock on the Western Front.

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