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Young Americans

In case it has passed you by in all the chaos, 2020 is an anniversary year – the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 from Plymouth Devon, to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Of course, the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers  have iconic status for Americans. And you’d be surprised how many famous Americans you’ll  know who can claim ancestors who sailed on her. 

What do they have in common?

Many US presidents, had ancestors who sailed on the Mayflower, as you might expect, including the Bushes,  and earlier, the Adams’s. But there are other Americans who might surprise you – Humphrey Bogart; Clint Eastwood; Christopher Reeve; Hugh Hefner; Bing Crosby – and Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few.

A local story

I was inspired to write this post for two reasons. The first, because of my research of Essex ancestors.  During many plunges into the depths of the parish registers, I came across surnames which I knew belonged to well-known and wealthy families in the States. But  it appeared that  those folk might actually come from very modest Essex peasant stock. 

And the second reason, because one of the families which sailed on the Mayflower  came from my hometown of Billericay in Essex. These were Christopher Martin, his wife Mary, her son Solomon Prowle from her first marriage, and John Langmore their servant, along with two other Billericay men. 

(Any visitor to Billericay in present times can’t fail to pick up the Mayflower connection. Besides the nautical town sign, there’s Mayflower school, taxis, hall, and community hospital. As well as a Christopher Martin Road, and a Langmore Crescent). 

Christopher Martin

Not only were the Martins on the passenger list, but Christopher Martin was a victualler for the whole enterprise. The discussions around the provisioning of the ship actually took place at his home in Billericay – the Chantry House in the High Street. It’s also where the group supposedly gathered the night before they travelled to embark on their journey. Despite several attempts to have the building dismantled and shipped to America it’s still there. (It’s now a rather good Indian restaurant).

St. Mary Magdalen Church, Great Burstead, Billiericay.

You can examine online Christopher’s  and Mary’s marriage records from our local parish church in Great Burstead. It’s now a hamlet of Billericay, but back then it was the other way round, Billericay was a hamlet of Burstead.

Christopher was a churchwarden, but this was  probably a position imposed upon him rather than welcomed, because of his standing in the community. He and Mary got into trouble with the authorities because they refused to kneel down during communion, because of their Puritan views.

And that’s the nub of why the Martins embarked on the journey to America. After the Reformation, the English government, through its religious mouthpiece, the newly formed  Church of England, had an impossible job. They had to  try and steer the middle ground between those who still favoured the old religion of Catholicism, and the fundamentalist Puritans, who saw even the middle ground as veering too near to “popery”. 

A wooly county

And nowhere was Puritanism so prevalent than in the Eastern counties of England, including Essex. Why was that – you may ask? Well, it’s because of wool. And geography. Wool was the major staple of the English economy for hundreds of years. It was the Financial Services of the medieval world.  

England’s major commercial export partners  in the wool trade were the Flemish traders living in what we now call the Netherlands. The Flemish people were staunch Protestants, and were very ill disposed towards the Catholic Habsburg Empire which had oppressed them during their long occupation of the Netherlands. 

Many Flems emigrated to England to escape persecution – and that’s where the geography comes in. Where’s the nearest place in England to Flanders? The east of England, of course, including Essex. So it’s no accident that Puritan ideals gained a hold in the county, brought over by Flemish migrants.  Philosophical ideas were regularly exchanged between fellow wool merchants,  both sides of  the English Channel.

The opening up of the lately  discovered New World, along with a  growing discontent with having to toe the line  required by the state, created the perfect conditions for Dissidents to decide to embark on a voyage across the Atlantic to set up a Puritan Utopia. 

The Mass Migration

And so was created what has been called “the Mass Migration”, where around 20,000 English dissenters migrated to New England, between 1600 and 1640. The Martins of Billericay were part of this westward movement.

But there were plenty of others travelling from Essex. In fact the Mayflower herself was probably built in Harwich, and her captain, Christopher Jones, was born there.

New Americans

General Sherman

John Winthrop, from Chelmsford founded the State of Rhode Island. The Shermans, from whom the Civil War general is descended ( and hence from where the Sherman tank was named), came from Dedham. John Hooker, founder of the state of Connecticut, was a curate in a Chelmsford church.

William Penn

The family of John Adams, and John Quincy Adams – second and sixth President of the USA respectively, came from Braintree. John Bridges, co-founder of Harvard University, was also a Braintree man. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was born in Wanstead and educated at Chigwell school (the original school buildings are still there).

George Washington’s grandfather, stained glass window. Maldon, Essex.

And the family of George Washington, the first American president – came from Purleigh – the Essex one. His grandfather was vicar of Purleigh church, although he is buried in the churchyard in nearby Maldon. There’s a lovely stained glass window in the Maldon church, in his honour. 

The Adams Family

A brief diversion, if you’ll indulge me,  to John Quincy Adams, the sixth President. Earlier this year, before life changed forever, I was visiting a lovely old London church next to the Tower of London, called appropriately enough, All Hallows by the Tower. I went there to see the mosaic Roman pavement hidden in its crypt. (As you do).

And there on display was the original parish register, showing Adams’ marriage to Louisa Johnson, a London girl with an American father and an English mother, who became the First Lady of the USA. And what’s interesting is that she was the only foreign-born First Lady until – Melania Trump, 192 years later. A lovely piece of trivia, eh?

On the parish

But let’s leap forward to the present day, and we find your writer,  working her way through the Essex parish records. I was trying to track down very stubborn Essex grandfathers and grandmothers several times removed, who didn’t want to be found. But what I did find were some interesting  surnames. 

Virginia Dare

In Henham and Broxted I found a lot of Dares. In fact, one many-times great grandmother had a second marriage to a John Dare. And what’s significant about that surname? The Dare family formed part of the Roanoke colony in North Carolina, and the most famous member of that family was Virginia Dare. She is famous, because in 1587 she became the first person of English descent to be born in the newly settled continent of America. Her parents were both from London, and it gave me a great sense of synchronicity to see that they married at – St Bride’s church in Fleet Street   (mentioned in my earlier post Swan Songs).


The Roanoke colony’s story  was very strange. They ran out of provisions, and Virginia’s grandfather, John White, returned to England to replenish supplies. When he returned many months later, the colony was deserted, but he found several incomprehensible words in English, carved on trees. No-one  knows what happened to the colonists, although there were folktales recounted for years after that they were captured by Indians, and had integrated into their tribes. One of the very first American conspiracy theories, maybe.

Cornflakes and fish fingers

Later,  delving into the registers for the village of Rivenhall, not far from Braintree,  I found two renowned American surnames – Kellog and Birdseye ! Both families were of modest background, with the professions recorded in the baptismal records generally as agricultural labourers. I wonder if they embarked on the same ship, during the Great Migration, and talked about food preservation techniques?  Fantasy, I know, but what’s history for, if not a little light-hearted speculation?

A Mickey Mouse story

Disney family tomb, Fryerning, Essex

And finally, a  speculative link just for fun. Here’s my poor picture of an impressive tomb, in an Essex churchyard in Fryerning. It’s the tomb of the Disney family. They were a very grand Norman family, and their  name was originally D’Isigny. The town of Isigny is of course in Normandy. And yes, it’s the same family as Walt’s, although he was from a different sub-branch of the family. As it said on the church’s website, any talk of a direct link between Walt and the Fryerning Disneys is a Mickey Mouse story. And on that note…..

Hiding in plain sight

The surnames speak for themselves. 

As for the geography, a  cursory scan of the Google map of Massachusetts was all it took, really. In two minutes, I found these Essex place names: Chelmsford, Springfield, Epping, Dedham, Harwich, Braintree, Rumford (old spelling for Romford), Brentwood. And of course, Billerica. I think Billericay’s American namesake actually shows the original spelling, and the English Essex version acquired the additional ‘y’ sometime in the 18th century. The two towns are twinned, of course.

There’s a Colchester, but that’s over the border in Connecticut. I also found a healthy sprinkling of place names from other eastern counties of England – Boston and Cambridge, of course, but also Yarmouth and Newmarket. Add as for the other Massachusetts place names – Lichfield, Manchester, Stockbridge, Woodstock, Lancaster, Dover, Chatham, Portsmouth.  Stab the map with a pin and you’ll find an English place name. No wonder they call the place New England.

And finally, I would argue that the other link hiding in plain sight is  Puritanism. You don’t need me to remind you of the strong fundamentalist view of religion you find in the States. That stems directly from the unbending stance of the Pilgrim Fathers. Yet, you can experience the same thing in the Eastern Counties in this country . There are at least half a dozen non-establishment churches in Billericay today.

It’s no accident that Essex was strongly supportive of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. No profusion of pubs commemorating the deposed Stuart kings, as you’ll  find in other areas of the country. No Black Boys (nickname of Charles II), or Royal Oaks. Despite TOWIE, the Puritanism lives on.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gill

    Really enjoyed this read – thank you. I love the local aspect . Thoughtful, engaging and enlightening.

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