World’s first mail order brides who inspired Downton Abbey makers' new show Jamestown

THEY were the world’s first mail order brides, shipped 3,000 miles across the sea in 1620 into the arms of sex-starved pioneers.

The 90 young Englishwomen were chosen for their virtue, submissiveness and “wifeliness” — but turned out to be some of history’s great badasses.

Once in Virginia, they found themselves vastly outnumbered by desperate blokes who had barely set eyes on a woman for 12 years.

And some of the women twigged that this gave them power — unimagined power for poor young servant girls used to the unrelenting oppression of life back at home.

One woman, called Sarah, cottoned on particularly fast.

In the middle of her wedding to one of the men who had QUEUED for a wife as the women’s ship came in, she boldly interrupted the ceremony when  the clergyman asked her to “love, honour and obey” her husband.

Sarah said: “No obey.”

The minister tried twice more and got the same response: “No obey.”



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He then caved in, and Sarah began her wedded life in a position impossible to have imagined in England.

These newly self-confident women proved key to making the struggling colony flourish, and their story is now being told in new Sky1 series Jamestown, produced by Downton Abbey’s creators Carnival Films.

Producer Sue de Beauvoir said: “The women turned the fortunes of the colony around.

“And it was a big thing for empowering women because there were eight men for every female.

“They ended up having much more power because all these men were vying for them.”

The sheer force of supply versus demand meant the women had not just a greater say over their marriages, but also far better legal rights and privileges than their contemporaries back in Britain.

Unlike in England, women could own their own land, and could inherit their husband’s property.

This let them build their own power and independence.

Many married multiple times, outliving their spouses, and expanding their own wealth.

Quite something for poor young women who had been “bought” by their new husbands for 120lb of “good leaf” tobacco, giving them their nickname “tobacco brides”.

They had been recruited by posters put up back in England after the all-male settlement was deemed to have become “dissolute” without women to curb men’s drinking and gambling.

In 1619 a boss of the London company which had set up the colony ordered that “a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable.”

The posters promised young women a prosperous new life wedded to a rich man, in a land of opportunity.

Other incentives included a dowry of clothing, linens and other furnishings, plus free transport to the colony and a plot of land.

They were things that they could have worked a lifetime without achieving as domestic servants in England.

The selection process for “perfect” wives-to-be was rigorous, and winning a spot as one of the lucky 90 was the 17th Century equivalent of being picked to go into the Big Brother house.

De Beauvoir said: “It was actually considered an honour to be selected as one of the maids to go there to marry.”

What the adverts did not mention and what nobody ever told the applicants, was what had happened to the first group of women who had sailed over 12 year earlier.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, established in 1606 and named after King James I.

The idea was for the English to tame the American wilderness, grow tobacco and bring glorious riches to themselves and the Crown.

What they got was starvation, disease and danger from Native Americans outraged to see their lands overrun by invaders.

And nobody had it worse than the handful of women who in 1608 and 1609 had been lured over to join the over-confident, underprepared Englishmen.

At least two of them were killed and EATEN  by their starving husbands.

One colonist, according to a report of the time,  “slue his wife as she slept in his bosome, cut her in pieces, powedered her & fedd upon her till he had clean devoured all her parts saveinge her heade.”

And during the particularly harsh winter of 1609, a 14-year-old English girl was also killed, dismembered and cannibalised.

Almost none of the first group of women survived the famine and rampant disease which nearly destroyed the colony between 1609 and 1610.

Known as The Starving Time, the Jamestown residents ate dirt —  and sometimes dug up bodies from their graves to eat.

The men who survived were desperate for female company — which was worrying the company shareholders back in London.

They feared that other settlers might follow the example of Lincolnshire-born John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas, the daughter of the local native chief, in 1614.

She had reportedly earlier saved the life of another settler about to be killed by her dad.

But such interracial marriages were viewed with suspicion by the authorities, who believed that native women would plot with their families to destroy their new husbands, and thereby England’s new colonial outpost.

Hence the plan cooked up to lure over a larger group of Englishwomen, en masse.

Many of the 90 who set sail probably only really began to get an inkling of what they were really in for when their ship drew into the river that led to the settlement

Historian Martha McCartney said: “Imagine what it must have been like to sail up the James and see all these tree-lined shores — and hear all these tales about the Indians and the dangers they posed? The risks they took were tremendous.”

De Beauvoir added: “And then they were allocated a husband.”

Peaky Blinders actress Sophie Rundle, 29, who stars as farm girl Alice in the eight-part series, said: “It’s extraordinary this happened.

“Being shipped over to be wives.

“Can you imagine how terrifying it was?

“But it really happened.

“I’d love to say I’d have coped brilliantly, but it would have been disastrous."

The series, penned by Lark Rise To Candleford screenwriter Bill Gallagher, also stars Max Beesley, Dean Lennox Kelly and Stuart Martin.

But it focuses on three women — Alice, streetwise Verity, played by Holby City’s Niamh Walsh, 26, and the more sophisticated and extremely outspoken Jocelyn, played by Naomi Battrick, 25.

Former Waterloo Road actress Naomi said: “The circumstances are so different and archaic.

“But the characters are relatable.

“The women are fabulous role models for young women.

“They’re powerful people.

“Joceyln should be governor — she’s be brilliant at that.”

  • Jamestown starts on Friday at 9pm on Sky 1 and streaming service NOW TV.


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