He was only six when he was disowned by his wealthy father, torn from his adulterous mother and shipped to America with the pilgrims on the Mayflower to begin a new life as a servant.
For centuries, the extraordinary tale of the Shropshire childhood of Richard More – a celebrated New England sea captain and one of the “first comers” to America – was lost in the mists of time. Now a group of local historians hopes to reignite interest in More and his three young siblings, who died shortly after leaving for the new world on board America’s most famous boat.
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the crossing of the Mayflower this year, the group is putting on events in Shropshire throughout the summer to commemorate the four children and reassert their place in history.
“For years, historians thought these More children were waifs and strays plucked from the streets of London to be used as servants in America,” says Mike Brogden, spokesman for the group. The truth was finally discovered in 1959. Court documents tucked away in a descendant’s attic revealed that Richard’s 23-year-old father, Samuel More, the owner of two large estates in Shropshire, had accused his 31-year-old wife Katharine of adultery with a local yeoman farmer.
Samuel and Katharine were second cousins, and Brogden thinks they are likely to have had an arranged, or even a forced, marriage in 1610, in order to keep Katharine’s estate within the family. Their long court battle details how Samuel first denied Katharine’s children were his, then banished all four to America, assigning them as servants to passengers on the Mayflower.
“He [Samuel] was saying they weren’t his children, but he still had the right to dispose of them,” says Brogden. “They were handed over to the important Puritans travelling on the Mayflower – the sort of people the Americans call Pilgrim Fathers.”
Court records show Katharine was not told what her husband, a Puritan, had done with the children until three of them had died from the arduous, disease-ridden Atlantic crossing. The eldest, Ellen, was eight; the youngest, Mary, only four. “It is so sad. I can’t imagine what was going through the minds of these poor children, or their mother, when they were taken away from her and sent on the Mayflower,” says Brogden. There is a view, he adds, that Samuel was being kind – because of the censure heaped on illegitimate children at the time. “But I can’t think of a more cruel thing to do.”
Richard More, sole survivor of the siblings, went on to become a successful merchant and landowner, winning battles at sea and captaining ships that supplied the colonies. He is also thought to have been a bigamist, with wives and children in both England and America – and, at 74, he was excommunicated from a church in Salem for “gross unchastity with another man’s wife”. Brogden says: “One of the accusations, which I think is more than a little silly, is that he ‘inherited’ a quality of adultery.”
Brogden first became fascinated by the Mores after hearing another local historian speak about the tragedy more than 20 years ago. “Here in deepest landlocked Shropshire, it’s a bit surprising that we’d have a connection with the Mayflower.” Even now, he says, it’s not common knowledge that the Mores came from Shropshire, and the group’s application to join in this year’s official Mayflower 400 celebrations was rejected. “The Mayflower 400 organisation has produced a map of places in England linked to the Mayflower, and we’re not on it.”
He wants the story of the More children to be better known. “Also, we do need to correct the history myth that this ship was full of ‘decent Puritan people’ who had suffered religious persecution and wanted to make a new life. They represented less than half the passenger list. The other half were traders and merchantmen – people hoping to make a fortune.” The Mores were the only children on board without their parents, and the only passengers from Shropshire.
Events planned in July and September to celebrate the Shropshire Mayflower children include talks, a play, an evening of 17th-century choral music and a guided walk from the village where Katharine’s lover lived towards the More ancestral home.
There will be a display of documents, pictures and objects relating to the children in a museum in Much Wenlock, and Brogden is raising funds via a Justgiving page to erect a brass plaque dedicated to the children.
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