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Local Man Tackles Atlantic

Mike Wilson, Bridlington historian and writer

I have always been fascinated by the story of Robert Fowler and his ship Woodhouse.
I have collected these extracts telling how he sailed to America with a group of Quakers. I try to use original quotes when recording the histories I am interested in. This is so I do not affect what was recorded. There is an image of the ship on the internet but it is not very good quality.

Robert Fowler, the Bridlington fisherman, just once in his life, experienced a summons from "Above" (or Within?). He was to take his tiny fishing boat to London (never having been further than Scarborough!). On the bank of the Thames, he found a group of Quakers who begged passage to the New World. This was at the time when it was a criminal offence to assist the escape of a Quaker from England, and not much safer in America. Without any navigational equipment, beset by storms that could have capsized a ship, holding "Meeting" to decide how to set the sails, and repeatedly hearing a "voice" that bade him "steer a straight course" – though in seaman's terms that was not a very bright thing to do – he landed his passengers safely on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Fowler returned to Bridlington, went back to fishing for sprats and mackerel, and never had a "leading" to do anything so foolhardy again. -
http://members.lycos.co.uk/themission/newpage14.html

August 1, 1657 The Woodhouse, from England and bound for New England ("the Massachusetts colonies"), was carried south and arrived at New Amsterdam, New Netherlands. The Woodhouse was a small coastal trading ship, nearly unserviceable, and too small for long ocean crossings. It was owned by Robert Fowler of Bridlington, England, a ministering Quaker. He offered it to a Quaker group unable to depart England due to the high fines on Captains who transported Quakers on their vessels. He and the group arrived, after a perilous journey, at "Nieuw Amsterdam" on August 1, 1657. These were, then, the first Quakers of "New York". -
http://english-america.com/spls/657na001.html

It was only fourteen years later that a Quaker called Robert Fowler set sail from Bridlington to America with eleven Quakers and with absolutely no experience of sailing. Remarkably they landed safely in America only a few miles from their intended destination. -
www.thenortheast.fsnet.co.uk

Yet, some Quakers felt they simply had to share their beliefs in Massachusetts. Robert Fowler built a small craft, the Woodhouse, and loaded it with Quakers bound for New England. They landed in Rhode Island, and some entered Massachusetts to spread their views. Quaker Mary Clark went to Boston to test the law, and she soon had twenty stripes of a 3-corded whip "laid on with fury" and then spent twelve weeks in prison. Even so, the Quakers continued to arrive. So, in October, 1658, stronger laws were passed. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were sent to the gallows. -
Christian History Institute

Our Long Island Meetings stem from the arrival of the ship Woodhouse at New Amsterdam on 1st day, 6th, month of 1657. This was about 25 years before William Penn's settlement of Pennsylvania and about 20 years before Burlington, N. J. was settled by Quakers. Robert Hogdson, who came in the Woodhouse, held a Meeting at Deborah Moody's in Gravesend in 1657. A few days later he preached at Jamaica, from his prison window, while his jailor was at church. These were the first public meetings on Long Island. -
http://longislandgenealogy.com/QuakerSmith.html

As with the puritan separatists before them, the Quakers would find a new home in the American Colonies. In 1657, the voyage of the Woodhouse (Ship) was undertaken for the settlement of Quakers in modern day New York (State). -
http://www.exlibris.org/nonconform/engdis/quakers.html

The Society of Friends was formed in the 1640s, when religious dissident George Fox began to preach the concept of the "inner light" throughout England. His beliefs spread to the colonies, and eventually to Newport aboard the ship Woodhouse, which arrived with a group of English Friends in 1657. The simplicity of Fox's message appealed to many of Newport's early settlers, who flocked to the Society in the 17th century. Newport's philosophy of toleration provided a safe haven for early Quakers and here they flourished and grew. - http://www.newporthistorical.com/thegreat.htm

The spread of Quakerism into America during these years makes a remarkable story. The best known event is the voyage in 1657 of the "Woodhouse", which was sailed to New Amsterdam (New York) by a group of Quakers "acting under guidance"; their safe arrival in America is a matter for wonder. It was this group of Quakers which later met with such persecution from the Puritans of Boston. -
http://people.cryst.bbk.ac.uk/~ubcg09q/dmr/chap2.htm

Records of the Society of Friends (Quakers), New York Yearly Meeting by Suzanne McVetty, C.G. Originally published in The NYG&B Newsletter, Fall 1997. "The Quaker movement began in England in the 1650s and soon spread to the New World. In 1657 the first Quaker missionaries from England arrived in New Amsterdam aboard the Woodhouse. They quickly attracted supporters in the English towns on Long Island: Flushing, Hempstead, Newtown, and Gravesend, as well as in Oyster Bay beyond the jurisdiction of the Dutch." -
http://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/modules.php?name=Sections&op=printpage&artid=28

The English Friends, perhaps partly showing the tendency of some Friends of today, wanted to defy the law and said, "We will go to Massachusetts to preach even if they don't want us!'' They collected some money, built a little ship known as the "Woodhouse"ú and made a daring voyage across the ocean with very poor navigating equipment, having long Meetings of Worship and praying to the Lord that they would come to the right place. They didn't reach New England. They reached another little colony a little farther south, known as New Amsterdam, the present State of New York. But at that time New Amsterdam was held by the Dutch. -
http://members.tripod.com/~PlainfieldFriends/regen2.htm

In early August, 1657, a small vessel called the Woodhouse sailed into the harbor at New Amsterdam with 11 Quakers aboard. The two Dutch Reformed ministers, Johannes Megapolensis and Samuel Drissius, immediately reported to their superiors in Amsterdam. "When the master of the ship came on shore and appeared before the Director-General, he rendered him no respect, but stood still with his hat firm on his head, as if a goat,'' the churchmen wrote on Aug. 14. They noted that the ship sailed the next morning with most, but not all, the Quakers aboard. -
http://www.newsday.com/community/guide/lihistory/ny-history-hs316a,0,6371264.story?coll=ny-lihistory-navigation

The voyage of the "Woodhouse" was one of the most amazing sea journeys ever undertaken, based on following the best Divine leadings that came. Robert Fowler, a master mariner of the Yorkshire coast, had a leading to build a ship for the "Service of Truth," without knowing exactly what this meant. So, acting on his leading, he built a fine and graceful ship, although not one large enough for a long voyage on the open sea. Having completed the boat, he was not sure what to do with her until one night he received directions in a dream to sail around to London.
Meanwhile, in London were eleven Friends in ministry—seven men and four women—who felt an undeniable leading to go to America to share the Quaker understanding of Truth. They had no visible means of traveling, but they continued to pray and work in faith that a way would open. Imagine their delight and joy when Robert Fowler arrived with the "Woodhouse!"
Robert Fowler was dismayed and horrified. He had not built his sturdy little ship to withstand the treacherous voyage across the vast Atlantic. He was adamant he was not called to carry eleven Friends in ministry across the ocean. But Friends such as Gerald Roberts, William Dewsbury and George Fox labored with him to discern the Divine voice. At last he came to the point where he said, "I was made to do God's will." And so the "Woodhouse" made for the open sea.
What an unusual voyage it was! Each day, weather permitting, the eleven Friends in ministry and Robert Fowler met on the deck for open worship (all the days but three). They sensed the Divine Voice saying, "Cut through and steer your straightest course and mind nothing but Me"—and so they did. At one point, Robert Fowler wrote in the ship's log, "We see the Lord leading our vessel even as it were a man leading a horse by the head." Now that is a powerful sense of Divine guidance!
Divine guidance was surely with them. Once in danger from Dutch warships (England and Holland were at war at the time), a contrary wind arose and allowed them to escape. They made land in the very place in North America where some of them felt most led to visit—New Amsterdam. They had safely sailed between the treacherous rocks of a passage called HellÕs Gate between New Amsterdam and Rhode Island which no English ship had done before without a pilot. -
Friends United Meeting: Quaker Life: Jan./Feb. 2002

THE WOODHOUSE

Robert Fowler is my name
I am a master mariner
I build fine ships to sail at sea
And kit them well for adventure
The Woodhouse is a beautiful bird
White wings gleam in the sun
She is built to carry bales of goods
On the Mediterranean run.
Yet no peace lies in my heart
For the purpose of this vessel
By God's direction I must sail
Or with conscience I must wrestle
My friend Gerard Roberts and I did meet
Face to face in London City
Then I knew it was to New England's shore
This journey would not be so pretty.
When the press gang took my crew
Leaving only five to sail her
Eleven Quakers came aboard
And among them not a murmur
For faith accompanied us that day
As we set to sail the Atlantic
Oh the Woodhouse is a blessed ship
And will carry us there so safely.
The thrill of seeing longed for land
Having battled on so bravely
Midst the storms and heaving sea
We arrive on new shores safely
The prayers of Friends back in old England
Kept us true to hold our vision
And the Woodhouse oh that marvellous ship
Into history books been written.
- http://quaker.org.nz/whatwearedoing/janzcd.htm