A Special Relationship: The Early History Of London And The US

By joe_carroll Last edited 36 months ago

Last Updated 04 June 2021

A Special Relationship: The Early History Of London And The US

The special relationship between Britain and the United States has long been invoked by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic as a unifying symbol in fighting fascism (Churchill and FDR), strengthening economic ties (Reagan and Thatcher) and justifying questionable international interventions (we don’t think we need to name these two).

Although the initial identity of the US as a nation with predominantly British ancestry explains the fundamental link between these English-speaking countries, the creation of the United States of America in 1776 by the Thirteen Colonies who declared independence from British rule reminds us that relations have not always been so amicable. Down the centuries, throughout various family feuds (the mother of all being the American Revolutionary War) and the shifting balance of power, the importance of London in the early history of the United States should not be underplayed. So let’s take a look at some of the Founding Fathers who walked London’s cobbled streets, and the Englishmen who left those streets behind to settle in America.

Captain Smith sets sail

The Yabsley Street Waste Disposal Centre just south of Blackwall DLR Station might seem like the furthest thing away from some of America’s earliest history, yet on this modern industrial site can be found the remains of the cobbled Blackwall Stairs where Captain John Smith last touched dry land before sailing across the Atlantic to found the Jamestown settlement. The expedition set sail on 20 December 1606 in three small ships, the Discovery, the Susan Constant and the Godspeed, which held a total of 104 pilgrims hoping for better lives.

The recycling yard where it all began, via Google Street View.

Only 44 people survived the brutal conditions of the first year but as more pilgrims reinforced their community, Jamestown grew to be an important trading centre for the Virginia Colony. On the treacherous voyage, Smith himself survived mutiny and the threat of death to be named one of the leaders of Jamestown before embarking on further explorations of the New World for the Virginia Company of London. Unfortunately the stairwell is currently inaccessible to the public. Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church near the Old Bailey memorialises Smith’s infamous voyage with a beautiful stained-glass window, as his remains were interred in its grounds after his death in 1631. You can also find a statue of the pioneer beside St Mary-le-Bow church a little further east.

Captain Jones and the Mayflower

Across the docklands at Rotherhithe you'll find a 16th century pub that backs directly onto the Thames. It was from The Shippe Inn that the Mayflower left her home dock in 1620 to Southampton, Dartmouth and Plymouth before sailing to the New World. It is believed that Captain Christopher Jones, who part-owned the vessel, moored the Mayflower at the public house (now suitably renamed The Mayflower) to avoid paying the official docking fees of the port authority.

The Mayflower from the river, sporting British and US flags.

Captain Jones is thought to be the only Londoner out of the 65 passengers on board the Mayflower and was also a parishioner of the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Rotherhithe. He, like John Smith, was a commercial explorer who viewed the dangerous Atlantic crossing as a business venture rather than an act of faith or ideology, so he ultimately returned to London. He is buried in the graveyard of St Mary the Virgin, which is now marked by an impressive sculpture depicting Jones holding the symbolic infant of America in his arms.


In March 1617, three years before the Mayflower set sail, the sudden death of Rebecca Rolfe in Gravesend foreshadowed one of the disturbing realities of the European settlers’ colonisation of North America. Rebecca Rolfe is more widely known by her native name Pocahontas, as she was the daughter of Chief Wahunsenacawh of the Powhatan tribe who ruled over much of modern-day Virginia. She had been captured in 1613 as a teenage girl by English forces in Tsenacommacah territory during Anglo-Indian hostilities. Pocahontas was initially held for a ransom but during her captivity she converted to Christianity, taking the name Rebecca and rejecting an opportunity to return to her tribe. A year later in April 1614 she married an English tobacco planter John Rolfe and gave birth to a son, Thomas, in January 1615. The young family, which is considered to be the first recorded North American interracial marriage, was already on-board a ship returning to the New World when Rebecca became ill from what is now believed to have been flu or smallpox. She died near Gravesend where she was buried in an unmarked grave. John Rolfe continued to the Virginia colony with his son but it is interesting to note that Thomas Rolfe later returned to London and was married in 1632 at St James Church in Clerkenwell.

US by the Tower

All Hallows by the Tower, by M@.

Further along the Thames, many American tourists come to Tower Hill to see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge but often pass by All Hallows by the Tower church without realising its historical links with America. Pennsylvanians may be interested to discover that the founder of their state, William Penn, was baptized at the church in 1644 and educated there during Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector. The church boasts another claim to American fame as the sixth President of the United States John Quincy Adams married Louisa Johnson, the London-born daughter of a US merchant, at the church in 1797 while he was gaining diplomatic experience in Europe.

Adams family in Mayfair

In the same year as Adams’ marriage, his father John Adams became the second US President at the end of George Washington’s second term. Adams Snr was no stranger to London himself. He had been sent to Britain to reinstate diplomatic ties following America’s independence. In fact, if you look away from Saarinen’s modernist beast of the outgoing US Embassy, towards the Georgian terraces on the corner of Brook and Duke Streets, Mayfair, you will see 9 Grovesnor Square where John Adams lived between 1785 and 1788. The Georgian terrace is not open to the public because it is now the official office to another political leader: this time the former British PM Tony Blair.

Franklin's House

One of Adams’ fellow Founding Fathers had also lived in London, but before US independence. The statesman and polymath Benjamin Franklin was sent to London by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a colonial agent to appeal to the British government about the increasing influence held by the descendants of William Penn. The mission was ultimately a failure. However, it was during his residency at 36 Craven Street from 1757 to 1762 and again from 1764 to 1775 that Franklin’s politics became radicalised through his involvement at Whitehall and the discussions in the coffee houses of Covent Garden. The Georgian terrace is the only surviving Franklin residency in the UK and is now a museum called Benjamin Franklin House, which is dedicated to educating visitors about Franklin’s scientific discoveries and his life in London.

Benedict Arnold

Image by kind permission of the vicar Canon Simon Butler and the PCC of Battersea Parish Church St Mary.

While most of these iconic Americans are revered in their homeland, there is one individual who stands out more for his infamous treachery rather than his patriotism. After a failed plot in September 1780 to surrender to the British Army at the height of the American Revolutionary War, General Benedict Arnold deserted his post and switched allegiance to Britain. Not surprisingly, the US did not invite Arnold to return to his homeland after they won independence. He spent his later career as a brigadier general in the British Army, living out his last years from 1796 at 62 Gloucester Place in Marylebone, which still stands to this day. He is buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Battersea and is commemorated in one of their stained-glass windows rather amusingly as the ‘Sometime General in the army of George Washington'.