You can be forgiven for thinking that the heartless practice of sending orphaned and abandoned children to overseas colonies was a modern one. We are familiar with the heart breaking stories of transported children often facing neglect and brutality in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, far from home, with no hope of parental love and affection.
But It was a practice that goes back to 1618, when homeless children began being rounded up on the streets of London then transported to the New World. And the Mayflower played its part in this – a story so tragic that the sadness of it all seeps down the generations.
The More children were four helpless victims of their mother’s infidelity and her husband’s cruel response in disowning them, separating them from their mother, and placing them aboard the Mayflower without her knowledge.
Only one of the children survived the dreadful sea crossing and its immediate aftermath, when around half the Mayflower’s passengers and crew died from disease after 66 days ploughing through rough Atlantic seas and then months at anchor in the New World.
The More children were all born and baptised in Shipton, Shropshire. Ellen was born in 1612, brother Jasper the following year, Richard in 1614, and sister Mary in 1616. Only Richard would survive into adulthood.
Their mother Katherine had married her cousin Samuel More in Shipton in 1611 and lived at Larden Hall, part of a large Shropshire estate.
It was an arranged marriage, as was the custom among propertied families at the time, and the union was an unhappy one. As the four children grew, Samuel More began to suspect they were not actually his children. They didn’t look like him, and he accused his wife of adultery.
It appears that Katherine had been having an affair with a local farmer, Jacob Blakeway, and that he was the children’s real father.
A bitter legal battle ensued for custody of the children. Samuel won and he moved the children to live with tenants on the estate. There are reports of their mother trying to take back her children in traumatic incidents, with the children’s clothes being ripped as she tried to grab hold of them.
Her husband had a high-level government contact who was also involved in the Virginia Company, chartered by James 1 to create trading links with the north-eastern coast of North America. This is how the More children came to be aboard the Mayflower.
Until the 1950s, historians had assumed the children were London street orphans and that this is how they came to be transported on the Mayflower. Then a More descendant in England discovered a document in a trunk in his attic – and the terrible truth was uncovered: the More children were innocent victims of their mother’s infidelity and her husband’s heartless and cruel reaction. For three of the children, the journey across the Atlantic became a death sentence.
Ellen More died aged just eight in November, 1620, soon after the arrival of the Mayflower. Her brother Jasper died aged 7 some weeks later, and the youngest child, Mary, aged 4, died during the winter of 1620-21. Only Richard, who was then aged six, survived into adulthood.
He and Mary had been assigned as servants to William Brewster for the voyage; Ellen was a servant of Edward Winslow and Jasper had been handed over to John Carver, who became the first governor of the New Plimouth colony.
In 1622, Katherine More fought a last legal battle for custody of her children not knowing that three of them were already dead.
Her only surviving child, Richard, lived with the Brewster family until around 1627 when his indenture with them expired. He married in 1636, moved to Salem, baptized his children there, and went to sea, becoming a ship’s captain. It’s believed he returned to England on one of his voyages but there is no evidence he tried to contact the More family or to find out what became of his mother. Katherine’s estranged husband re-married in 1625, so it is thought she had died by then.
In later life Richard had developed a reputation for “lasciviousness” and “inconstancy”, convicted by local justices for “gross unchastity” with another man’s wife, and censured. He died between the years 1693 to 1696 but lived long enough to witness a friend’s execution as a witch during the witchcraft paranoia of 1692.
The More children are not forgotten. A group called Shropshire’s Mayflower Children has made sure of that by highlighting their story as part of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in the New World.
A descendant of Richard More, David Lindsay, has written a biography of his ancestor (Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, Thomas Dunne Books); and historian Donald Harris, is the author of two booklets about the More children.
SOURCES: Caleb Johnson’s MayflowerHistory.com; David Lindsay; Donald Harris; Shropshire Star; Wikipedia; Child Migrants Trust.