1957: The Reception

By Randal Charlton in The Wicked Pilgrim

1957:  The Reception

There was something not quite right about that first day on the shores of America, but blinded by the sheer excitement of the occasion, Warwick Charlton did not see it. There was just a nagging worry at the back of his mind.

Even later, all he could really remember with absolute clarity was the look on a young boy’s face.

The boy was ten, maybe 12 years old and he was running through the crowd, wide eyed with wonder, his gaze locked onto the beautiful little wooden sailing ship. He kept bumping into other spectators in the dense crowd but ran on without apology. Several times the boy tripped and nearly fell as he ran along the harbour front but he was unable to take his eyes off Mayflower II as she glided into the bay.

Warwick Charlton would never forget the absolute joy on that boy’s face as he arrived at Plymouth Harbour on June 13, 1957. It was the end of a journey that began many years earlier when he dreamed of building a replica of the original Mayflower that brought the first settlers to North America in 1620. Now the journey was reaching a climax after 53 days at sea under sail with a Captain and crew.

An estimated fifteen thousand people, and enough media to report a major war, were there on June 13, 1957 to greet the Mayflower II, and tens of thousands would flock to Plymouth in the days of celebration and welcome that followed.

Warwick had come to give the ship to the American people. He was resplendent in the costume of a seventeenth century military man as he was rowed ashore close to Plymouth Rock with his Captain and cabin boy. Warwick surveyed the sea of faces gazing back at him from the shore and thought how different this welcome was from the cold empty coast that awaited the first settlers when they arrived 337 years earlier at the same spot.

Back then, when 102 adults and children had waded ashore at a place they named Plymouth Rock they had no idea if hostile Indians were hiding in the wooded coastline. One woman was so upset by the landscape that she fell overboard and drowned in the harbour. Half of those who made land would die in the first horrific winter.

Three hundred and thirty-seven years later the Mayflower II was to be welcomed by Vice President Richard M. Nixon representing U.S. President Eisenhower. The young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy would drop by to shake everyone’s hand. The retiring governor of Massachusetts, Christian Herter, had already presented Warwick with a signed illustration of the Mayflower II, praising his vision and important contribution to Anglo-American relations. Eleanor Roosevelt would devote part of her weekly column to celebrating the achievement.

The National Geographic Magazine described the voyage of Mayflower II as one of the great adventures of modern times. When, several years earlier, Warwick Charlton conceived the idea of building a replica of the Mayflower he had no financial resources. Yet, over time, he raised the funds he needed to complete the ship, an amount that in today’s currency would be in the millions of dollars. Then he sailed it to America where, for a time, the world took its eyes off its day-to-day troubles and gloried in a powerful and romantic early chapter of American history, a history that Warwick had brought dramatically to life.

Following the arrival of Mayflower II in Plymouth there would be two weeks of celebration attended by an estimated 250,000 people, including a parade led by vice president Nixon.

However, on that first day in Plymouth, there was a restrained formality in the handshakes of some of the officials that greeted Warwick, and then there was confusion concerning where Warwick would sleep that night. All the hotels were full but the committee that had planned the welcome for Mayflower II had been working on the accommodation details of the crew for months.

The residents of Plymouth had begged for the opportunity to host one or more of the 33 man crew when they arrived from Plymouth, England. Ronnie Forth, the man in charge of the welcoming committee, had been obliged to disappoint dozens of local homeowners.

For some strange reason, no one had been assigned to open their home to Warwick. At the last minute, he was found a four-poster bed in a museum – historic Howland House, just off Main Street. Warwick was unconcerned, in fact he rather liked the idea. In the end, the only interest in Warwick’s accommodation came from the wife of his business partner who visited him in the middle of the night. After nearly two months at sea in the company of 31 men and Felix the cat, she was welcome.

Warwick Charlton had been both invigorated and rested by the journey and felt fitter than he had been for years. He was thirty-eight years old, over six feet tall, handsome and possessed a powerful soft baritone voice that had seduced both men and women over the years. He was ready for the next chapter in the Mayflower story. He had already made the

Mayflower II the main news of the moment, not just in America but around the world.

The interest that had boiled to the public surface followed years of obsessive promotion of the Mayflower II; first the idea of building the ship, then raising the funds, then finding a builder, and a captain and crew. Then a permanent American berth had to be found and plans for the long term developed.

Warwick had never imagined he would have to charm so many people from Lords of the British aristocracy to the leading members of the New York Mafia. And the key to it all had been a relentless media campaign.

Life magazine had been persuaded to put the little ship on its cover. So had the prestigious Paris Match in Europe and literally hundreds of magazines and papers throughout the world, including Argentina, South Africa, Portugal, Rhodesia, Malaysia and Malta had carried stories. Many of these countries had populations with relatively little interest in the United States let alone its history. Yet their media reported on the voyage of the Mayflower II as a major world event.

Warwick was determined that the Mayflower II, like the Statue of Liberty, would have a permanent role in the living history of America. He was convinced the ship would generate a great deal of money because he was convinced Americans would be excited at the prospect of walking the decks of the magnificent little symbol which gave birth to their nation.

With his trademark attention to historical detail Warwick had been listed on the manifest of the Mayflower II as “supercargo”, a term he had gleaned from his study of sailing ships in the 1600s. It was a term recognized and defined by the British Admiralty which meant he was legally the officer in charge of all commercial concerns of the voyage. This included but was not limited to managing the cargo owner’s trade, selling the merchandise in ports to which the vessel was sailing, and buying and receiving goods to be carried on the return journey.

In this case, of course, there was to be no return voyage because the ship was to be given to the American people, but he believed that the Mayflower II would generate a great deal of money that could be used to develop an historical theme park as well as provide funds for other purposes. As far as Warwick was concerned he was, as the supercargo officer, to be involved in all such decisions related to income from the Mayflower II.

Arrangements had been made for the ship to be on permanent exhibition at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The tourist income was to be used to keep the Mayflower II ship-shape with the surplus funds administered by a trust set up to improve Anglo- American relations. Warwick and others whom he chose would represent the English on the board of trustees. There would be educational scholarships which to Warwick were almost more important than the ship. The Mayflower II would bring Americans in touch with their history and the ideas of the first settlers who were in search of a new form of government.

Importantly, annual scholarships from surplus revenue would help to establish a permanent modern dialogue between the UK and the US. Warwick also had plenty of other ideas designed to capture the imagination of people on both sides of the Atlantic and he had already lined up some distinguished Englishmen to serve on the management of the Scholarship fund. They included Sir Francis de Guingand, who had become a friend of President Eisenhower during the war while serving as General Montgomery’s chief of staff.

Sir Francis wrote a letter to President Eisenhower on March 21, 1957 in which he said, “Through the initiative of Mr. Warwick Charlton, who was a member of the old British Eighth Army in the desert, the [Mayflower] scheme has now reached fruition, and the Mayflower II sails from Plymouth in the second week of April for Plymouth, Mass.

“It is hoped that there will be considerable surplus revenue available for an endowment to further Anglo-American relations, and I have agreed to become a trustee of this fund. I thought you might be interested in this development.”

And yet when Warwick Charlton awoke in the museum on that first morning in America, few people seemed interested in talking to him about his grand ideas. The welcoming party was busy entertaining the crew, and the people who were to be entrusted with the care of the ship were according VIP treatment to the ship’s captain. Meanwhile the media, who had fallen in love with Warwick’s dream, were waiting with questions that were to give him sleepless nights.

One of Warwick’s financial backers wanted him out of the way and the Captain, whom Warwick had employed to sail the ship across the Atlantic, wanted nothing more to do with him. Even the crew could not find a good word to say about Warwick as they were fêted in Boston, New York and Miami.

Finally, and more significantly, the people to whom Warwick would entrust the ship were determined to keep him as far away as possible from any involvement in Mayflower II’s future.

What caused those who celebrated the gift of Mayflower II to do everything they could to distance themselves from the donors?

Warwick Charlton died on December 10, 2002. His life before and after Mayflower II was packed with adventure in times of both war and peace.

He became involved with some of the great and notorious men of his time and demonstrated high principles as well as a love of mischievous politics, wild projects and scandal.

He endured bankruptcy, disappointment and eventually made money, before being elected to an unpaid position as the Town Crier of a small community in England.

This last job satisfied both his love of history and dressing up. Town Criers, he would point out, were the first bearers of news. However even in his 80s he could not let go of his obsession with Mayflower II. As it turns out Mayflower II and America cannot let go of him.

Learn more about The Wicked Pilgrim.