Rotherhithe - Rita Criuse O'Brien

By the time Christopher Jones took the commission to sail to America in 1620 census records registered a hundred-and-twenty master mariners in Rotherhithe. The parish records also reveal the variety of local trades including ships’ masters, ropemakers, mastmakers, anchorsmiths, shipwrights and lightermen, who transported cargo and produce across the river. In less than a generation Rotherhithe had been absorbed into the burgeoning commercial maritime trade of London and began to prosper. Excavations of the riverbed in the last two decades have unearthed Dutch and French stoneware, ceramics from Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, Portuguese and Chinese porcelain and Venetian glassware, as well as some of the earliest clay pipes found on the shores of the Thames.

The Rotherhithe Company of Shipwrights was founded in 1605 for men working on royal and merchant vessels and its charter was extended in 1612 to include all those working in the ancillary trades of ship building. Men associated with Christopher Jones and the Mayflower were among its members. Jones himself was almost certainly a member of Trinity House, the guild of ships’ masters founded in 1514, chartered by Henry VIII, and located near Limehouse on the north bank at the time. Trinity House responsibilities were extended to include the provision of ordinance to merchant ships, advice on river and sea defences and the regulation of pilotage on the river.

The Admiralty records bear witness to Christopher Jones as a shrewd and honest businessman. He became a mainstay of the wine trade in London doing runs to Bordeaux and La Rochelle for the vintners in the City and Bankside, near London Bridge. Wine was a high-status drink favoured by the court, the gentry and wealthy City merchants. Wine drinkers were not only consuming greater quantities each year, but began to prefer finer vintages like claret from the Bordeaux region. Jones’s first charter in the trade in 1610 was to the Charente where his cargo included wine and cognac purchased from twelve different merchants. The principal export carried by the wine ships at the time was part-finished woollen cloth in great bulk. Finished in Holland and other locations on the Continent it was used for blankets, coats, waistcoats and trousers. The wine ships also carried pewter, iron, tobacco, stockings, and fox and rabbit furs for export. In 1614 Jones took a pause from the wine trade and made two voyages to Hamburg bringing back a variety of European fabrics for fine clothing, including taffeta, satins, a silk fabric called ‘sarcenet’ and a lightweight sheer linen weave known as ‘lawn’. And in 1615 he went as far as Malaga to collect a cargo of wines from Spain.


Jones’s most prosperous associate in Rotherhithe at the time was Anthony Wood, who ranked among the top local taxpayers and owned three ships and several properties on both sides of the Thames. Wood owed his wealth to the importation of fine vintages of Spanish port which became a great favourite of James I. Christopher Jones’s wealthiest client was William Speight who lived in Vintry Ward in Bankside, named for the merchants who landed wine, and close to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He owned a country estate in Suffolk and had invested in both warehouses and tenements in London. Demand for wine continued to expand and in 1615 the trade was worth three times what it had been twenty years earlier.


Christopher and Josian Jones were members of the local parish church of St Mary which suffered from periodic flooding and was later demolished. The current Rotherhithe parish church was not completed until 1713, having been moved to safer ground, and contains several commemorative plaques to Jones and the Mayflower voyage to America.


From The Mayflower: Myths, Truths and Legacies by Rita Cruise O’Brien, publication April 2020 from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

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