Anyone who walks along the riverfront near Blackwall and the Virginia Settlers Monument could be forgiven for believing the area is a bit of a backwater, however for over 400 years this was the site of great importance in British Naval history for it was in this spot that hundreds of Merchant and Royal Navy ships were repaired and built.
Blackwall’s location just before the bend of the Isle of Dogs gained its popularity as an important anchorage from which travellers embarked and disembarked from as early as the fifteenth century.
The Virginia Settlers Monument pays tribute to the Virginia Settlers who set off from this part of Blackwall in 1606, Captain Christopher Newport led the Virginia Settlement expedition with three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. On board the ships were 105 men and boys, plus 39 sailors.
They carried with them a charter from the Virginia Company to establish a settlement in the New World. They arrived in Virginia in 1607 and created a settlement called Jamestown which became the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Captain Christopher Newport was born in nearby Limehouse and amongst the settlers were Captain John Smith who is known for his association with Native American Princess Pocahontas who later visited London and passed Blackwall on her way home, unfortunately she did not make it back to America but died at Gravesend.
The Virginia Settlers Memorial has a curious history, it was initially just a plaque on the wall of Brunswick House which was unveiled in 1928.
On the plaque is a depiction of three ships and a banner with the inscription ‘Dei Gratia Virginia Condita’
From near this spot, December 19 1606, sailed with 105 “adventurers”:
The “Susan Constant” 100 tons. Capt. Christopher Newport in supreme command;
The “Godspeed” 40 tons. Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold;
The “Discovery” 20 tons. Capt. John Ratcliffe.
Landed at Cape Henry, Virginia April 26 1607.
Arrived at Jamestown Virginia May 13 1607 where these “adventurers” founded the first permanent English colony in America under the leadership of the intrepid Capt. John Smith, Edward Maria Wingfield President of the Council, the Reverend Robert Hunt and others.
At Jamestown July 30 1619, was convened the first representative assembly in America.
Erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in 1928 in commemoration.
In 1947, following bomb damage, Brunswick House was demolished and the quay redeveloped. The Port of London Authority used the plaque as part of a large monument, which was made up of a pile of stones from the West India Docks or East India Dock with a bronze mermaid on top. Harold Brown designed the monument and the mermaid.
Remarkably there is a British Pathe news film of the unveiling in 1951. It was a very windy day as the American ambassador unveils the memorial but is fascinating to watch here
As the docks declined, so did the memorial which was vandalised and the bronze mermaid stolen. Eventually the area around the docks began to be developed for housing and Barratt Homes moved the monument to the riverfront of their development and commissioned a mariner’s astrolabe by Wendy Taylor to replace the mermaid. The renovated memorial was unveiled in 1999 and now has a pride of place opposite the O2 entertainment complex.
The Virginia Settlers were not the only pioneers to the New World to set off from this stretch of water. The Pilgrim Fathers sailed in the Mayflower from here to North America in 1620. The Mayflower pub and a statue in Rotherhithe celebrate this particular journey.