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.
In previous posts, we’ve described how the Victorians began to take serious notice of the lives of the Pilgrims, and how Congregationalists especially found something to celebrate in the story of their 17th century pursuit of religious freedom. One of the most striking ways that local communities – and religious ones especially – memorialised this growing enthusiasm for the Pilgrims was in stained glass.
One of the earliest came in 1874, as part of the new Plymouth Guildhall. Built in a Gothic revival style, it had a series of fourteen windows that told the local history of Plymouth in connection with the national story of Britain. These windows included scenes like the assembly of the fleet under Edward the Black Prince in 1315, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the proclamation of William III in the Guildhall in 1688. Over the main entrance of the building was a window depicting the embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. With William Bradford at their head, the Pilgrims were on the boat at the Barbican steps that would take them to the larger Mayflower. Designed by John Shelly and made by Messrs Fouracre and Watson, this window was gifted by the present Mayor (Alfred Rooker – a deacon of Sherwell Congregational Church).
*Guest post by Professor Erik Goldstein, Boston University*
One of the earliest commemorations of the Pilgrims in Britain, and of the voyage of the Mayflower, was the Pilgrim Fathers’ Memorial Church in Southwark. Planning for the church building commenced in 1850, a cornerstone was laid in 1856, and completion came in 1864, only to be destroyed by aerial bombardment in 1941, followed by a short postwar existence in a new home.