Mayflower 400th anniversary: The story of Mullins and the Dorking Six

PUBLISHED: 17:35 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:24 01 September 2020

Mullins blue plaque from Mullins’ House in West Street. Image: Royston Williamson

Mullins blue plaque from Mullins’ House in West Street. Image: Royston Williamson

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One Surrey town is a focal point for the transatlantic commemoration of this moment in history

William Mullins’ House on West Street as it is today. Image: Dorking Museum CollectionWilliam Mullins’ House on West Street as it is today. Image: Dorking Museum Collection

Dorking is rightfully proud of its place within the events of 400 years ago. Dorking shoemaker William Mullins is one of six Dorking residents who sailed on the Mayflower, and his daughter, Priscilla, is sometimes known as ‘the mother of a nation’. Their imposing house in Dorking is the only known surviving home of a ‘Pilgrim Father’, and now a major attraction for Mayflower tourists from both sides of the Atlantic.

Back in Mullins’ time, Dorking – known as ‘Darking’ – was a relatively modest market town with around 1400 inhabitants, a long day’s walk south of London. Transport in and out of the area other than on foot was difficult, because of the terrain. It was the market town for the surrounding villages and farms, holding regular markets and well provided with shops, mills and inns.

The buildings were wooden-framed, using local oak, and many can still be seen today, including Mullins’ own home in West Street, close to Pump Corner in the commercial centre of the small town.

Mullins was born in the town in 1572, the son of shoemaker John Mullins and, along with his brother, John, followed his father into the shoemaking business. It appears that he left Dorking for a while, probably living near Guildford, but returned as a married man with children.

The Mayflower at sea by Allen Stanley Pollock, 1949. Image: Susannah HorneThe Mayflower at sea by Allen Stanley Pollock, 1949. Image: Susannah Horne

Mullins clearly had some status in the community, being elected to the responsible position of ‘tithingman’ for the Eastborough neighbourhood, and by 1612 sufficiently prosperous to buy the substantial property in West Street now known as ‘Mullins’ House’. It is not clear whether the success of his business would have been sufficient to give him this wealth or whether he may have married a woman of some substance.

The property was a prestigious building, a terrace of four timber-framed, gabled houses with the lower floors used as shops or workshops. It is thought that Mullins, his family and his business may have occupied one unit with the other three rented out. The building was sold again in 1619 (at a small loss) providing the assets to invest in the company that would fund the Mayflower voyage.

READ MORE: Find out more about the town of Dorking

The venture was instigated by a group of religious Separatists who, rejecting the authority of the protestant church in England, moved to Holland, but now sought to follow others to find religious freedom in a new ‘England’ on the other side of the Atlantic. To fund the voyage, the ‘Saints’ (as they were called – the term ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ only came into use in the 18th century) sought to recruit investors (the ‘Strangers’) who would pay for their passage. Mullins was a ‘Stranger’ who probably

sympathised with the Separatists but also saw the voyage as a commercial opportunity – along with personal possessions he also took a large stock of shoes and boots.

Dorking Men's Shed have installed Mayflower planters around the town to commemorate the anniversary. Image: Lois LeylandDorking Men's Shed have installed Mayflower planters around the town to commemorate the anniversary. Image: Lois Leyland

Mullins joined the voyage with his wife, Alice, and his two younger children, Priscilla, a teenager, and Joseph, an infant. William’s two older children, Sarah and William, were married and settled by the time of the voyage. They also took a young servant, Robert Carter from Dorking. The sixth Dorking voyager was Peter Browne, in his mid-20s and apprenticed as a weaver in the town. Browne would have known Mullins and there were likely family connections – he may have been Alice Mullins’ nephew.

After having to abandon a companion ship, unfavourable weather, cramped, damp and insanitary conditions and initial landing on inhospitable terrain, the voyagers eventually found a suitable site for settlement in December 1620. Weakness from the voyage, sickness, inhospitable conditions, and lack of survival skills soon accounted for many of the voyagers. Mullins, his wife, son, and servant died soon after arrival, leaving only Priscilla and Peter Browne of the ‘Dorking six’.

Although it is usually William Mullins who is celebrated in England, his daughter, Priscilla – ‘the mother of a nation’ – merits much greater prominence. In 1621, she married the Mayflower’s cooper, John Alden, their courtship immortalised in a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The couple had ten children, their many noted descendants including Longfellow, Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Vice President Dan Quayle, and actors Orson Welles and Marilyn Monroe.

For a the full story, see The Weaver, the Shoemaker and the Mother of a Nation by Kathy Atherton and Susannah Horne, pubished by The Cockerel Press and available from Dorking Museum online shop.

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