The Pilgrims in Boston


The Pilgrims and the important part they played in America’s history when they left England to eventually land on the shores of the New World is a story known the world over.  However new information that has recently been identified and pieced together is revealing more than we originally thought we knew about the story of the Pilgrims in Boston, including links to the founding of Boston Massachusetts in 1630…. Our new exhibitions share much more about Boston’s involvement which go beyond the original story that we told until now.

Boston’s role in their story

In secret, one night in the autumn of 1607, a passionate and determined group of men, women and children met a boat on the edge of The Wash at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft, near Boston. Their plan was to escape across the North Sea to Holland and live in religious freedom away from the authority of the English church. They had travelled 60 miles from Scrooby, near Gainsborough, and were weary but hopeful for their new life across the sea.

Who were they and why did they try to escape?

They were a group of like-minded men, women and their children from Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire who wished to have the freedom to worship as they wished rather than as the church dictated. They felt that the established church was too prescriptive, dictatorial and ‘papish’ in how it set out the order of sermons, as in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’. They were also opposed to the broader authority of the church as well as practices such as the use of wedding rings, kneeling for communion and making the sign of the cross during baptism, none of which was in the bible.  Instead of wishing to try to change and ‘purify’ the church from within, as the ‘Puritans’ did,  they felt compelled to separate completely from it and were called ‘Separatists’.

The group were acutely aware of how the church viewed their stance and aware of the persecution that similar separatists had been subjected to. They had been worshipping in secret in a variety of venues such as Gainsborough Old Hall and Scrooby and Babworth churches, led  in worship by John Smyth and Richard Clyfton and decided escape was the only answer. Holland was a place where they knew they could practice their worship as they wished.


They had made arrangements with a captain to hire a ship wholly to themselves and were taken aboard during the night. They met this ship at Scotia Creek, Fishtoft  near Boston. To their horror the captain of the ship had betrayed them and once on board searchers and officers ran on to the ship, seized the group and put them into open boats, rifling and ransacking both the men and women for their money, books and personal possessions which they took from them. They were carried back, upriver to the town in the boats, where they were a great spectacle with crowds flocking to see them.


Stripped of their possessions and hope, the group were brought to Boston and the Guildhall, the home of the magistrates court and the cells, and messengers were sent to inform the Privy Council in London. Whilst the Privy Council decided upon charges the group was held. The local magistrates treated them courteously and showed them what favour they could. After a month’s imprisonment within the Guildhall the order eventually came from the council to send back the majority “from whence they came” whilst seven ringleaders were imprisoned longer and bound over to the higher court of the Lincoln Assizes.

It is not known if they ever attended the higher court but they did escape to Holland from near Immingham in North Lincolnshire the following year.

Why were the Boston Magistrates courteous?

It is known that the town of Boston would have wished to show some sympathy to the group having strong puritan, reformist and separatist leanings. Though not recorded it is quite likely the larger group were only kept under “house arrest” in the Guildhall, with the ability to move freely in the non-council areas of the building whilst only the ringleaders were confined to the cells. Why else would William Bradford, one of the group’s leaders and most influential men when they reached America, record in his book “Of Plymouth Plantation” that they were fairly treated?

When did they get to America?

Their final and most famous achievement came in 1620, 13 years after trying to escape from Boston and after living in Holland for 12 years, a group of these men and women sailed to England and then eventually from Plymouth and on to America in the Mayflower and a completely new life in new lands.

This wasn’t the end of the story…. 

For Leonard Beetson, a Boston town draper who, after being listed on an arrest warrant with other known Pilgrims, remained in Boston when the others left England for Holland in 1608 where the Pilgrims remained until they travelled back to England and Plymouth to board the ship ‘Mayflower’ for America in 1620.  Leonard Beetson became a town councillor…. a man of standing within the town and also a close friend of Reverend John Cotton to whom he left 20 shillings to in his will. Leonard Beetson did not travel to America but he was sympathetic to both the Separatists and the Puritans bids for religious freedom. 

The Jackson brothers – two of whom who sat on the Spalding Court of Sewers and one brother who was a known Separatist – also have further links to explore…. how did the Pilgrim’s know of the local waterways, why was the town so gracious to this group of people? A network of intrigue and research must continue…  Having now identified a local man within the stories of the Pilgrims and the Cotton Congregation, we will continue to explore the ‘threads’ of history to share more stories from Boston’s history.


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