From Pilgrims to Pilots

Featured in:
November 2022

Dr Sam Edwards looks at Lincolnshire’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

Standing proud in the middle of Immingham’s aptly named ‘Pilgrim Park’, the monument provides a powerful reminder of a deep historical connection joining north-east Lincolnshire with distant New England. Inscribed with a dedication to the famous Pilgrim Fathers and carrying a capstone of Massachusetts granite, it was originally placed on the banks of the Humber itself and unveiled in 1925. The monument was relocated to its present site in 1970 due to the expansion of Immingham’s port facilities. It is just one amongst many memorials and markers that reveal Lincolnshire’s unusually close connections to North America. Let’s take a tour and uncover some of the history and heritage behind the county’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

Immingham’s monument to the Pilgrim Fathers is a good place to start. It commemorates the famous 1608 flight of a small group of Protestant Separatists to Leiden in Holland. Some of these Separatists (including a number with links to Gainsborough) had first attempted to escape Britain from the Haven at Boston in 1607. But many were arrested and imprisoned by local authorities, a fact now remembered by a memorial unveiled at Fishtoft in 1957. Undeterred, they tried again the following year, enlisting the support of a Dutch captain who agreed to collect them from a tidal creek on the Humber. On this occasion they were more successful, hence the monument’s original site – the creek near Immingham was the assumed point of departure (although more recent research suggests that the real location was most likely at Stallingborough).

Twenty-five miles to the south of Immingham, in the medieval market town of Louth, lies another Lincolnshire link to the land across the Atlantic. This time the connection centres on one of the most famous figures involved in English settlement in Virginia: John Smith.

Smith, who was educated in the 1590s at Louth Grammar School, was an experienced soldier and explorer who had already campaigned far and wide before joining the Virginia Company in 1606. He arrived in the New World in 1607 and within a year had established himself as the colony’s leader. But it was his encounter with a remarkable young woman known to history as Pocahontas for which he is now most remembered.

Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, a powerful Native American leader in what is now Tidewater, Virginia. The exact details of what happened between Smith and Powhatan are unclear, but according to Smith himself (the only source available) he was captured while exploring local waterways and subsequently threatened with execution, only to be saved by the intervention of Pocahontas. It is an attractive story full of the sort of romance that later generations – especially the Victorians – so loved. Whether or not it in fact happened like this is another matter entirely. Smith may well have played loose and fast with the details so as to burnish the reputation of himself and Pocahontas prior to the latter’s visit to England in 1616!

Lincolnshire’s connections with the era of colonial settlement in North America are clearly deep. But the county’s links across the pond also persisted well beyond the 17th century, something that became especially apparent during the First World War.

In 1918, for instance, a squadron of American naval aviators found themselves posted to Killingholme on the south bank of the Humber, just a stone’s throw from the very location where the Pilgrim Fathers had fled to Holland all those years before. Their presence is notable for marking the start of something which would become a defining feature of the Anglo-American relationship for the rest of the century (and beyond): the establishment in Britain of an American airbase. The stars and stripes was raised above the base in July 1918 and during the following months American pilots flew around 170 missions over the cold, grey, waters of the North Sea (most were convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols). When they departed at the war’s end they gifted a flag to the vicar of Immingham, and for many years it hung in the village church as a memorial to a connection forged and re-forged over three centuries.

Further to the north, meanwhile, a coincidence of geography again placed American pilots close to the Pilgrim Fathers’ 1608 departure, this time at Goxhill. Occupied by the ‘Yanks’ between August 1942 and March 1945, this new American airbase on the Humber was an operational training facility. It was home during the war to a series of US Fighter Groups readying for combat in the European theatre. A memorial now stands on the outskirts of the old base, an arresting reminder of this historic moment drifting over the horizon.

When the war ended in 1945 most of the airfields occupied by the Americans became surplus to requirements. The bases were closed, the buildings shuttered, and the facilities mothballed. But heightening tensions between East and West in the post-war period meant that it was not long before the US military was back in Britain. At East Kirkby, units of the American ‘Strategic Air Command’ – poised to fight the Cold War should it go ‘hot’ – took up residence between 1954 and 1958. A similar American presence was seen at Sturgate, this time lasting from 1953 to 1964. Other bases in the region also hosted a Cold War American presence (albeit sometimes briefly) including at Scampton, Hemswell and Spilsby.

Today, with new tensions between NATO and Russia, as well as between the West and China, Lincolnshire’s military heritage has become ever more poignant. These landscapes – which also include the county’s many RAF Bomber Command airfields – remind us of the fragility of peace and the potential costs of conflict. They also point to some of the momentous 20th-century events that shaped what Winston Churchill called the ‘special relationship’ (an idea he first popularised in 1946, just as the Cold War intensified). Uncovering Lincolnshire’s long-running connection to the USA – from 17th-century Pilgrims to 20th-century pilots – thus sheds light on the four centuries of history so central to Churchill’s enduring vision. Visit some of these memorials if you get the chance and spare a thought for the now distant days they recall.

Words: Dr Sam Edwards

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