It was a common practice in England for scrapped wooden sailing vessels to have their wood reused. In many cases the timber would be reused to build a barn so you could say reclaiming wood is not a new idea! This should be no surprise as ships were made to be sturdy enough to survive the North Atlantic and carry the loads of cargo that helped make the British Empire so large that the sun never set on it.
In 1624 a South Buckinghamshire farmer named Thomas Russell decided to expand his estate called Old Jordans. Having enough means to purchase the timbers of a scrapped ship from the ship breaker’s yard in Rotherhithe in Southwark Borough outside of London he did so. The ship had been sitting in the Thames deemed unseaworthy by the Admiralty and had been sold to settle the estate of the ship’s late master and owner Christopher Jones. The ship was just another cargo vessel used for trans-Atlantic and trans-Channel voyages and thus hardly remarkable or so everyone there though. Russell bought the scrap for 50 pounds (about $10,000 today).
That was not what a professor of history at Cambridge University named J. Rendel Harris believed in the 1920s. He examined markings in the wood and determined where the ship had been built. He noticed a cross-beam that had been damaged, exactly as had been recorded during one of the ship’s more famous voyages. The timing of the barn’s construction only cemented his opinion that this barn could be the remains of only one ship: the Mayflower.
Yes, the ship that brought the Puritans from Europe to North America. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was not the first European or even English colony in the New World but it is perhaps the most famous. Many English were only too happy to see the Puritans leave in the days before the English Civil War and that feeling was only intensified following the Civil War with the deposition of Richard Cromwell (along with the “execution” of his already dead father Oliver) and the restoration of the monarchy. The estate itself may have also hosted another future New World colonist, William Penn, as he planned his settlement called Penn’s Woods or more famously known today as Pennsylvania. Penn, a native of the area, is buried at Old Jordans along with his wife and ten of his children.
After Harris’ findings were published in his book the barn became known as the Mayflower Barn and opened as a tourist attraction. Ironically, pilgrims from all over came to see it. There are some today who do not believe that the barn is the remnants of the Mayflower and its days as a tourist attraction are over but the barn does still stand today, nearly 400 years after its construction. The estate is now a hotel and conference center.
Tens of millions of modern-day Americans may have had their ancestors come to the New World protected by those timbers. Eight U.S. presidents claim a lineage from the Mayflower passengers (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, U.S. Grant, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush). Other notable Americans include astronaut Alan Shepard and actors Clint Eastwood, Alec Baldwin, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart and Bing Crosby. If you are interested in seeing a list of famous Mayflower descendants click here.