The Mayflower arrived in Southampton in late July 1620 and several days later was joined by the Speedwell, carrying the Pilgrims from Leiden. Their intention was to prepare both vessels and sail in company directly to America.
Southampton was a thriving seaport offering all the commercial facilities to provision and equip for the long sea voyage. Many of the buildings and streets familiar to the Pilgrims then still exist.
The town had established trading links with Virginia and Newfoundland, so there was an experienced pool of seamen who had previously made the dangerous Atlantic crossing. John Alden, a cooper, joined the Mayflower and it is thought William Brewster also slipped aboard here, having been in hiding after publishing material that angered King James.
Stephen Hopkins from Hampshire also joined here and is known as the only Mayflower passenger with prior New World experience, having been shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1609.
There were already concerns about the Speedwell, which required repairs after developing a leak. But on 15 August the two ships weighed anchor and set sail.
Southampton was an ideal place to start the voyage for many reasons. The water is one of the world’s largest natural harbours and offers a safe anchorage, plus its unique double tide provides easy access for 16 hours out of every 24.
Southampton was a true Sea Town (now Sea City since 1964) with all requirements for the preparation of a maritime adventure. Extensive quays and wharfs provided easy access to the commercial facilities in what was and still is a very successful trading port.
Although there was much local trade from the surrounding counties; Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Sussex as well as France and the Channel Isles, there were also trading links with Virginia and Newfoundland. This meant that there was an experienced pool of seamen who had previously made the difficult and dangerous Atlantic crossing.
John Alden, a cooper, joined Mayflower here and a George Alden who could well have been his father lived in the high street. The town records show that the Council were ordered to press 100 seamen and mariners for the Royal Navy in July perhaps a good enough reason to sign on to the Mayflower’s crew.
The Speedwell was found to be leaking and it was thought at the time that she may have had too large a mast and sail area. The extensive ship building and repair facilities near West Quay were very useful in expediting repairs.
According to Southampton’s Book of Instruments records, a ship called Speedwell was built locally in 1606 and this may have been the vessel that returned to her home port.
However, the most important benefit to the expedition was the availability of all the supplies required, not only for the voyage but to establish a permanent community in the New World. It is thought that the Pilgrims and settlers shopped during the day and slept back on board both ships. These were supposedly anchored just off West Quay.
In 1620, there were 153 Merchants in the Town of whom 118 were engaged partially or wholly in the wool trade but the balance would have been able to provide all the other items required for self-sufficiency.
When the Mayflower and Speedwell left together on that fateful Saturday 15 August after a fraught and hectic stay they could not have imagined that their persistence would lead to the founding of New England.
Southampton has extensive records pertaining to the Pilgrims which can be found in the city archives.