Mudlarking: Searching for Evidence of the Mayflower

By Jason Sandy

Pilgrims arriving in new world

Can you believe that the birth of the United States of America began on the River Thames in London? In 1606, English colonists departed in three ships on the Thames in Blackwall, London to start a new colony in Jamestown, Virginia, which became the first permanent British settlement in North America. Several years later in 1620, the Mayflower set sail on the Thames in Rotherhithe, London, on its voyage to the New World. These two events established colonies, which would eventually become part of one of the most influential nations in the world.

As an American living in London, I am enthralled and captivated by the story of the Mayflower’s connection to London. The ship’s crew and 65 Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in London, and sailed to Southampton to join the Pilgrims on the Speedwell from Holland. The Mayflower crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the New World with 102 passengers, arriving in November 1620.

During the first winter, half of the Pilgrims died in the cold, harsh conditions in New England. Fortunately, the friendly Wampanoag Indians taught the colonists how to survive and live off the land. Following the first harvest in 1621, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrated together with a large feast, which is considered the “First Thanksgiving.”

Christopher Jones, the captain and co-owner of the Mayflower, lived in Rotherhithe, London and was buried in St. Mary’s church. Across from the church, the popular “Mayflower” pub stands on the original site of the 16th century “The Shippe” pub, which Christopher Jones and his crew often frequented.

Hoping to find clues and evidence of the Mayflower, several mudlarks and I have searched at low tide along the exposed bed of the River Thames in Rotherhithe, and we have made some amazing discoveries. We have found ships’ timbers, shipbuilding tools, cannonballs, musket balls, padlocks, clay pipes, buttons, buckles, leather shoes, glass bottles, tokens, coins, children’s toys, and other artifacts that reveal the maritime history of the area.

Some of most prominent features on the riverbed here are large, solid oak ship timbers from the ship-breaking yards that used to be located along the river. Some of the timbers were ships’ windlasses, and have been reused for mooring. Rudders from warships now form a barge bed. Some historians believe that the Mayflower was dismantled in Rotherhithe and its timbers sold to a farmer in Buckinghamshire, England and reused in a barn, now called the “Mayflower Barn.”

french coin from river thamesAlan Murphy is a mudlark who lives in Rotherhithe and has been combing the riverbed for over 30 years. One of his favorite finds is a French coin called a “Double Tournois” dated 1619 (below). Before the Mayflower took Pilgrims to the New World, it traveled to France many times, taking English wool products to French ports and returning to London with wine. Could this French coin have been dropped by one of the Mayflower’s crew after returning from France?

river thames flower motif nautical dividersOn a particularly low tide, mudlark Pete Wakeman spotted the tip of a pair of nautical dividers (above) sticking out of the mud in Rotherhithe. The circular terminal of the dividers was engraved with a stylized flower, which could be associated with the Mayflower. The Museum of London has dated the nautical dividers to AD 1500 – 1700 which is approximately the time period when the Mayflower was active in Rotherhithe.

17th century cannon ball londonThe Mayflower was a merchant ship equipped with cannons to defend itself when carrying cargo. Alan Murphy found a hollow cannonball (below) on the foreshore in Rotherhithe that dates from the 17th century. According to Alan, “the cannonball would have been packed with iron shot and gunpowder with a lime fuse. It would have been fired at ships’ hulls.”

1620 clay pipe londonNestled between the rocks on the riverbed in Rotherhithe, I found a small clay tobacco pipe (above) from circa 1620. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to England after his return from expeditions in America in the 16th century, and smoking became popular in London. Tobacco was expensive, so pipe bowls were made very small and nicknamed “nose warmers.” I can imagine one of the Mayflower’s crew members smoking one of these clay pipes and tossing it overboard before travelling with the smoke-sensitive, pious Pilgrims.

17th century london coinsOn the exposed riverbed in Rotherhithe, I have found several 400-year-old coins (above) near the location where the Mayflower was often docked. A hammered silver penny and hammered copper farthing from the reign of King James I (1603 - 1625) are two of my personal favorite finds from this time period.

During the long, three-month journey to America, I can imagine that the passengers and crew members played games to pass the time. While I was mudlarking in Rotherhithe, I found a 17th century hand-carved die made of bone.

Although these intriguing 17th-century artifacts were found in Rotherhithe near the location where the Mayflower set sail, it is not possible to confirm that these objects are directly associated with the Mayflower or its crew and passengers. As a descendent of an American colonist, I am thrilled to have found coins, clay pipes and other artifacts from the same time period and place where the Mayflower sailed from London to start a new colony in America.

Now when I celebrate Thanksgiving in London every November, it has a new meaning and significance. For my British friends, I prepare a traditional American Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings. After everyone has stuffed themselves, I enjoy telling the story of the Mayflower and showing them the incredible artifacts I have found from this time period.

Please note: In order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. Check their website for full details. Digging, scraping and metal detecting are restricted or forbidden in many areas. All objects that are 300+ years old must be reported to the Museum of London to be recorded on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Learn more about Jason Sandy ›

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine November/December 2018 issue.

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