ON AUGUST 15, 1620, The Mayflower and Speedwell left Southampton bound for America. Aboard the ships was a mixed group of people leaving England for religious freedom or for economic opportunity. We know a great deal about them, the preparations they made for the journey, the journey itself and life in their new colony thanks to William Bradford who also sailed that day.

Bradford was born in 1590 and, between 1622 and 1656, served 30 times as governor of the plantation they settled. By about 1630 William realised how important it was to record the events and the background to their journey so he set about writing his chronicle Of Plimouth Plantation which has become the primary resource for information about this important period in American history.

Bradford’s handwritten book had been used as a reference work by early American historians but in 1776 it disappeared. Many thought that it had been stolen by a British soldier or destroyed when the governor’s house was sacked during the American War of Independence.

In 1844, while Bishop of Oxford and later Bishop of Winchester, Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce, published The History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. Samuel was the father of Basil, the rector of St Mary’s in Southampton and, following Samuel’s death in a riding accident, Basil had the spire on St Mary’s church constructed in his memory.

In 1855 John Thornton bought Samuel’s book from a store in New York and, on reading it, noticed a reference to a manuscript History of the Plantation of Plymouth in the Fulham Library. Here was a clue to the location of the lost manuscript and, on further investigation, proved accurate. The library was that of the bishop of London and the book was deposited with the bishop as it contained details of the births, deaths and marriages of the colonists and, as the American colonies came under the auspices of the Bishop of London, it was the right place for it.

Negotiations for the return of Bradford’s book were unproductive until Thomas F Bayard, a former US ambassador, became involved. Following meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria, the book’s return was finally agreed and on April 29, 1897, the book passed into Bayard’s custody. On May 8, Bayard, with the book, travelled by train to Southampton where he boarded the SS Paris in Empress dock. The ship’s passenger list tells us there were 390 passengers aboard including Bayard’s wife and daughter.

They sailed on May 8, for New York and on May 26, Bradford’s book was formally handed to the people of the United States of America when this historically important document so entwined with the emotion and spirit of the new nation, it was placed in the Massachusetts State Library.