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.
“Poetry, is impassioned truth; and why should we not utter it in the shape that touches our condition the most closely — the political?” – Ebenezer Elliott
Wood engraving of Ebenezer Elliott from Howitt’s Journal published 3 April 1847 © National Portrait Gallery, London
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’. 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. 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.
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’.
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.