The old saying goes that if the claims of every American to have ancestors on the Mayflower were true, then it would have been about ten times the size of a modern cruise liner. Now, to add to the various competing myths about the ship that took America’s Pilgrim Fathers across the Atlantic, it has been claimed that the Mayflower originally set sail not from Plymouth, but Harwich.
As the Times reports today, the Harwich Mayflower Project claims that the Essex town – best known today for its ferry service to Holland – was both the Mayflower’s original home port and the birthplace of her captain. Indeed, according to a campaigner in support of the Harwich bid, John Acton, all the Mayflower did in Plymouth was stop off to pick up more supplies and a few extra passengers.
“I think it is shocking that Plymouth should be the only English place associated with the Mayflower and her extraordinary voyage to America,” he says. “They have effectively hijacked the ship and claimed it as their own.”
If one takes Mr Acton at his word, there are a number of entertaining ramifications. First of all, it relegates Plymouth, in maritime history terms, to the equivalent role of the Scratchwood Services on the M1. Secondly, in suggesting that the Pilgrim Fathers were Essex Men, it raises the prospect of a bizarre alternative world where New York might have been named New Southend, and the capital of the Free World as Basildon DC. Not to mention the possibility of a new historical reality show, The Only Way is Cape Cod, featuring Essex lads and Essex gals as deeply religious pilgrims.
Personally, though, I share Plymouth’s disdain for this sniffy newcomer’s claim to fame (Plymouth City Council has declined to even comment on the Harwich bid, apparently). Not because I agree with them, though, but because as far as I understood it, the Mayflower folks were actually from Grimsby. Yes, the little fishing town in North East Lincolnshire, known for being the butt of numerous “Grim in Grimsby” jokes and for producing such luminaries as 1980s snooker legend Dean Reynolds and… er Norman Lamont.
Or so it was always claimed when I worked as a cub reporter on the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, where the “Mayflower connection” regularly made its way into our pages. The story went that the Mayflower landed just down the road from Grimsby, near what is now rather a drab port called Immingham, a place that even Grimsby people looked down on a bit (they called Immingham residents “Mingmings”… and that was one of the politer nicknames).
Immingham has a little memorial marking the site, where it is said that the Mayflower briefly stopped over before before sailing further south to the Lincolnshire town of Boston, then across to the Netherlands, then Southampton and finally Plymouth. Four years ago, the good residents of Immingham even held a little celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ arrival and departure. Once again, the link to the Mayflower legend is perhaps tangential at best, but when it comes to boosting an unremarkable East Coast town’s sense of civic importance – and maybe getting in a few tourists – that tends to get overlooked.
The fact is that the Mayflower stopped off at all sorts of places before heading off on its main journey, any one of which can draw grandiose connections to the Land of the Free. But some, I suppose, like Plymouth, sound rather more swashbuckling in a way that captures the public imagination. Whereas others, like Immingham simply don’t. In the same way, I fear Harwich may also have its work cut out…