Mayflower: Picturing the Past

The Box

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Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower in 2020, means considering Plymouth in 1620. What did it look like? Where were the streets? Who lived there? While we have some archives about the period, along with a few plans, much of the evidence lies in the archaeology and in the buildings which survive today.

The town of 1620 connected St Andrew’s Church with Sutton Pool. It featured a school, a fish market on Whimple Street and a new Guildhall at the top of Looe Street. Vauxhall Street, Woolster Street and Southside Street marked the shoreline down to the New Quay, the ruined castle and the Elizabethan fort.  

While some of the streets and structure of the Tudor town remains, many of the buildings have been lost. However, there are reminders. They are the remains of Palace Court, Abbey Court, and the Ring of Bells archway, and within the Minerva Inn and the Kings Head. 

Fortunately, some of the buildings which stood in Jacobean Plymouth are still with us today. Many are now listed. We have been recording them – inside and out. 

To inform the ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’ exhibition at The Box, we asked photographer Tim Mills to capture images of the buildings which were part of Plymouth in 1620 and remain part of our environment today. These photographic images are now part of the digital collections at The Box and a legacy of Mayflower 400. 

The process of documenting historic buildings within a contemporary context presented a number of challenges. The most apparent hurdle was how to isolate 17th century architecture within a cluster of varying styles throughout the centuries? All of the buildings, to a lesser or greater extent, have been ‘modernised’ with the necessary inclusion of intruder alarms, guttering and drainage pipes, car parking bays, wayfinding signage and so forth. While the Merchant’s House was a relatively straightforward building to isolate and produce, the Elizabethan House was particularly difficult to capture in its entirety given the narrow width of New Street, which in turn created technical problems with ‘converging verticals’ that had to be resolved sensitively using post-production software.

Elizabethan House, 32 New Street

Elizabethan House

This is the most complete and unaltered example of a jettied merchant’s house in Plymouth. It was probably built in the early 1600s and restored in the late 1920s. Its current restoration is also allowing for new research to be carried out on its structure and residents. Architects, archaeologists, curators and designers are currently working with wood, paint and plaster specialists to discover more about 32 New Street. 

Merchant’s House, 33 St Andrews Street

Merchant’s House

This house dates from the mid-1400s, but it was significantly altered in the late 1500s and during the 1600s. Its front gables and roof were replaced in the 1920s, and the building has been restored more recently. Its most notable merchant was William Parker. As well as sailing on the Mary Rose, Parker contributed to the Plymouth Company of Virginia, which established the Popham colony in Maine in 1606.  

Island House, 9, The Barbican

Island House

Island House was a merchant’s house. It’s thought there may have been a house here from 1495. This structure dates from 1580-1620, although 1640 is painted on part of the roof. The inscription also features a ‘G’, which may relate to the builder or the owner. The building was extended in the 1600s too. It now has some modern features inside and out.

Prysten House, Finewell Street

Prysten House

This is a large merchant’s house built for Thomas Yogge in the 1490s. He also funded the tower of St Andrew’s. The house was extended in 1635 and restored in the 1920s. The building now features the Door of Unity commemorating the American sailors killed in the Anglo-American maritime war of 1812. 

Customs House, 18, The Parade

Customs House

Originally a merchant’s house from 1586, this building later became a customs house.  The town records of 1620-1621, now held in the collections at The Box (ref 1/162), detail some of the goods coming in. They include Welsh coal, hops, iron, barley, Irish beef, wool, herrings, salt, wheat, sugar, French cheese, and rope. The origins of the ships include: Newcastle, Chichester, Arundel, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Dunkirk, St Malles [St Malo?], Deep [Dieppe?], and Dartmouth. There was also recorded trade with Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Holland. 

St Andrews Tower, St Andrews Church

St Andrew’s Church

St Andrews Street was first recorded in 1386, although it is probably older. The church dates to the middle 1400s and the tower to 1460. It was funded by Thomas Yogge, a merchant, and the owner of the Prysten House.  In 1620, St Andrew’s was Plymouth’s only church. Henry Wallis was its vicar. The register of 1620 (ref 58/2 in the collections of The Box) records 247 children baptised, 92 marriages and 220 burials.

Jo Loosemore, Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy curator and Tim Mills, Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy photographer 

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