Inside the cells where the Mayflower Pilgrims were locked up

The Boston Guildhall has been standing proudly since 1390 and today is a popular historic attraction for people across the globe. But in the early 17th century, it become a temporary prison for a fleeing group of people who would go on to be known as the Pilgrims.

At that time those who disagreed with the church were known as Separatists - they met in secret to worship and many planned to escape the country in a bid to find religious freedom.

Among them was a group who met in Scrooby, a small market town on the borders of South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

William Brewster, who was brought up in the town, is believed to have founded a Separatist Church at his family home, the Scrooby Manor House. Brewster later went on to be an integral part of the Mayflower journey and a leader of the Plymouth Colony when it finally settled in the US in 1620.

Scrooby Manor today

Scrooby Manor House today

But back in the autumn of 1607, a determined group of men women and children including Brewster walked 60 miles to meet a boat on the edge of ‘The Wash’ at Scotia Creek near Boston.

It was their dream to travel across the North Sea to Holland where they hoped to live in religious freedom and away from authorities within the English Church.

Having made arrangements with a captain to hire a ship for themselves, the group was taken on board that night. However, they discovered to their horror that the captain had betrayed them and local militia officers ran on to the ship and seized the group accusing them of leaving the country without the King’s permission.

Pilgrim Father's Memorial

The Pilgrim Father's Memorial that marks thee spot where the Pilgrims were thwarted in their escape attempt

Their possessions were ransacked and they were carried on open boats back to Boston with crowds flocking to see the spectacle unfold.

Here they were placed in the cells of Boston Guildhall, the local law court, where they were held for 30 days whilst the Privy Council in London decided upon the charges the group was held.

Boston Guildhall

Boston Guildhall

In one account from William Bradford (who went on to serve as the Governor of Plymouth Colony) stated that the Separatists were treated well whilst in custody.

It is known that the town of Boston would have wished to show some sympathy to the group having strong puritan, reformist and separatist leanings. Though not recorded it is quite likely the larger group were only kept under “house arrest” in the Guildhall, with the ability to move freely in the non-council areas of the building whilst only the ringleaders were confined to the cells.

After a month’s imprisonment, the order eventually came to send back the majority  “from whence they came” and most of the group was discharged. However, seven ringleaders were ordered to the higher court of the Lincoln Assizes.

The following year, the group succeeded in fleeing the country via another route to Holland and then later in 1620 sailed from Plymouth in the Mayflower for the New World.

Today, you can visit Boston Guildhall and see the cells where the Pilgrims were held.

Boston Guildhall courtroom

The Boston Guildhall Court Room

Built in the 1390s, this medieval building has survived the centuries and has a wealth of original features.

Visitors can take a look around the upstairs Court Room where the Pilgrim Fathers were tried, as well as exploring the small beneath-street-level cells where they were held.

Boston Guildhall cells

The Boston Guildhall cells, with the plaque commemorating William Brewster and the Pilgrim Fathers

Now regarded as one of Boston’s finest visitor attractions, the museum will have objects from its own collections as well as loaned items for its Pilgrim exhibition, which runs throughout 2020 and 2021.

Boston Guildhall is free to visit and is open Wednesday through to Saturday from 10.30am to 3.30pm with last admission to the museum at 3pm.

Guided tours are available (at a cost) and lasts around 45 minutes.

The Guildhall does hold some private hire events when the venue will be closed. For further details visit

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