I am a native Plymothian and have lived in the city for most of my life. I think that it is no coincidence that my passion for imperial subjects is connected to my hometown roots. Although every location in Britain, however large or small, oozes history and heritage, there are not many places which can challenge Plymouth in the way that its history connects it to so much of the wider World. This is due to Plymouth's central role in Britain's maritime history and in particular the role of the Royal Navy and the Dockyards built to service it. For much of its history, Plymouth's fortunes have risen and to some extent fallen with the ebb and flow of Empire. Plymouth led the way in the initial and crucial phase of England's exploration and its search for new trading opportunities during the Tudor era. It served as a base to help defend the islands from becoming a colony of other powers, be it Spain, France or any other would-be invader. South West mariners were at the forefront of colonisation in the recently discovered New World lands of North America and the Caribbean. Geographically, the South West peninsular provided an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to travel across the Atlantic or further afield after marine technology opened up this new highway of trade, exploration and colonisation.
It was thanks largely to the successful rise of Holland as a maritime power that the Dutch born King William of Orange made the decision to build a new dockyard in Plymouth; guarding the all important approaches to the Channel. With the failure to discover a North West or a North East Passage to gain trade routes to the spices and exotic goods of the Orient, attention moved back to the established routes around the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape Horn, and Plymouth was the best placed, safe harbour to take advantage of these routes. It also helped that the rivers surrounding the port had enough deep anchorages to safely harbour what would eventually become the world's largest fleet as the Royal Navy expanded in size and scope throughout the Eighteenth Century. As the island nation decided that its wealth and prosperity was increasingly dependent on international trade, a safe base of operations was required to police and patrol this empire and Plymouth provided the perfect location to organise the production of ships, maintain existing vessels, fit them out with fresh victuals and water and recruit and train the crews and artisans who were necessary to man this ever growing institution.
The Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars further enhanced Plymouth's strategic suitability as Britain engaged in a titanic struggle for influence and domination with the French who had their own naval bases just on the other side of the Channel. Years of warfare turned Plymouth into a hub of frenzied activity and not just of sailors, soldiers and marines passed through the city to fight in ever increasingly exotic parts of Europe and the wider World. It is no coincidence that at the end of these wars, Napoleon himself was brought to Plymouth, a city which had dedicated itself for two decades to frustrating his ambitions. He became something of a public spectacle in Plymouth Sound before he was exiled to the remote British colony of St. Helena.
Plymouth's contribution to the imperial story is not just bound to wars and conflict though. The Royal Navy increasingly understood that knowledge and scientific endeavour were fundamentally important to Britain maintaining its competitive advantage which in turn helped fund the ships and improve the efficiency of the Royal Navy. Sailor scientists like Captain Cook, Captain Bligh and Charles Darwin all used Plymouth as a launching pad for their voyages of discovery and enquiry. Plymouth Museum and Aquarium were set up in part to catalogue and process the many specimens that were brought back from all corners of the globe.
Not all those who left Plymouth on important voyages did so voluntarily. Convict ships bound for Australia set off from Plymouth carrying cargoes of unwilling passengers the vast majority of whom would never see England again once the coast of the South West slipped over the horizon. Political prisoners such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs joined the unfortunate common criminals in their journeys of misery to the other side of the world. Although in their case, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were later reprieved and so became some of the few prisoners who actually travelled in the opposite direction and alight in Plymouth as free men once more.
Plymouth also provided the starting off point for myriad settlers looking for a fresh start elsewhere in the ever growing colony. The first four ships to New Zealand departed from Plymouth with emigrants determined to make a new life for themselves thousands of miles away. Other voluntary emigrants followed to Canada, Australia and South Africa amongst other places.
The human traffic was by no means one way throughout Plymouth's long history. Mariners have long been in the habit of recruiting anyone with a pulse to help with the rigging or running of a ship. The Royal Navy happily recruited crew from prize ships or foreign ports to help feed her insatiable desire for manpower; French, Spanish, Americans, Caribbeans, Africans, Asians all passed through the city with varying degrees of loyalty to the Crown! Those who resisted the 'offer' of employment could be shipped back to Plymouth before being escorted to prison on Dartmoor. Many graves of Britain's foes are located in and around the city.
And of course, Britain's soldiers and marines continued to march through the port on to new wars often in more and more bizarre and remote locations as the Empire lapped up to yet stranger shores and entered wars that were little understood by the soldiers and sailors who had to fight them. Yet, they were dutifully cheered off from Plymouth and welcomed back with open arms on their return; not that everyone did return as many of the gravestones and memorials in Plymouth and in the far flung corners of the World attest to.
In the 19th century, Plymouth's rising importance led to military planners building extensive fortifications to prevent it from being attacked from the landward side. There had always been formidable defences on the shoreline at least as long as the Royal Navy had used it as a base. But after the Crimean War, British planners were concerned that a continental power might land an army on any one of the many beaches of the South Coast and move overland to capture the Dockyards and destroy the capability of the Royal Navy to defend Britain. Similar plans were put in place to defend Portsmouth and one of the most expensive fortification programs since the building of Hadrian's Wall was undertaken on mainland Britain. The defence of Plymouth and the Dockyard was regarded on a par with the defence of the realm.
The age of explorers had not yet been completed. Many of the polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th Century hailed or at least sailed from Plymouth bringing the final phase of imperial exploration back to the place that started England's initial phases of discovery. Scott of the Antarctic is the most famous of these, but many of the polar explorers had very strong connections to this maritime city.
The twentieth century may have seen Plymouth's attention focus back on European conflicts but the imperial connections did not cease as men, supplies and equipment flooded into the city from the Empire and beyond in the First and Second World Wars. Indians, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders passed through Plymouth on their way to fight or were brought back to Plymouth to be treated in her hospitals before being repatriated home.
World War Two saw the aerial war bring Plymouth into the front line for the first time in its history as it became the most heavily bombed city for its size in the country. The dockyards were the inevitable target, but much of Plymouth's history and heritage was destroyed by the less than precise bombing of the Luftwaffe. What the German bombers missed, keen urban planners in the 1940s and 50s ripped up and reorganised for the sake of a 'modern' city rebuilt in the aftermath of war. But not all of Plymouth's landmarks and imperial heritage have gone as I hope to explain and explore below. Her history is long and fascinating and as I said at the outset, her imperial connections are so strong that they have fundamentally shaped her relationship to the rest of the World. Personally, it is this history and heritage that haw shaped how I understand and engage with the wider World; I have a deep love of the sea, for exploration and for engagement with cultures where-ever they come from in the World. These are traits that are synonymous with the City of Plymouth and the evidence of which is still around for all to see.
Plymouth as an Early Port
Plymouth, or rather Sutton as it was then called, was a tiny settlement compared to the nearby town of Plympton. However, the natural harbour was already identified as providing excellent protection from the prevailing Westerly Winds and its south facing hills made it a good place to grow crops on those surrounding heights. Additionally, the River Plym had been silting up. This was largely due to the extraction of tin on Dartmoor around the Cadover Bridge area. This meant that vessels were finding it more and more difficult to travel to Plympton to pick up or land goods. Consequently, Plymouth began to supplant its more ancient neighbour and began its rise as an important port from the thirteenth century onwards.
Plymouth's first mention as a military port was made during the reign of King John at the beginning of the 13th Century. After John had lost land in Normandy, Plymouth was identified as the main base of operations for campaigns against France and to the recovery of their ancestral lands. In many ways, this was England's 'First Empire' - the Empire of the Norman Knights with lands on both sides of the Channel. In 1295, a national fleet was gathered in Plymouth as King Edward I prepared to embark on a war tp reclaim Gascony for his Crown. Edward stayed at Plympton Priory which was located on the site of the present day St Mary's Church. The local area was expected to provide victuals and supplies to the army. In many ways, this expedition was the first of many military expeditions that would set forth from Plymouth Sound over the following centuries.
Plymouth steadily grew in strategic importance as the Hundred Years War played itself out. Plymouth was the perfect staging post for many of the military expeditions and ventures as many of the lands that the English were fighting for were located in the South and West of France and were easier to get to from Plymouth than from ports further up the Channel. This was illustrated by the military actions of Edward III's son, the Black Prince, as he sought to take advantage of his father's initial successes in the war. He gathered together an army in Plymouth in 1348 and again in 1355. He also stayed at Plympton Priory to coordinate the expeditions. Ultimately, his 1355 expedition culimanted in the overwhelming victory at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 where he managed to capture the King of France, Jean II. Both the Black Prince and Jean II returned to Plymouth in May of 1357 before travelling triumphantly to London to imprison and ransom the French King at the Tower of London. Jean II was not the last French leader to be brought to Plymouth as a prisoner!
Plymouth's offensive capabilities meant that it was placing itself in the limelight for retaliatory strikes and raids against itself. The French descended on the town for the first time in 1339 setting fire to what was then largely a wooden settlement. Another expedition entered the Hamoaze in 1350 but only destroyed outlying farms and settlements. There were further attacks in 1377, and 1400 before culminating in the most devastating raid in 1403. This last expedition saw 30 ships carrying 1200 men land from St Malo a mile to the north of the port. They then proceeded to attack the town from this direction getting as far as Exeter Street but not able to enter the port itself due to intense fighting from the defenders. The area is still known as 'Bretonside' in honour of this fight. Indeed, for many years the fight was reenacted between those who would later live inside and outside of the town walls that were soon put up to help protect the port. This tradition lasted until the Eighteenth Century before being banned for being 'too unruly' and resulting in too much violence between rival gangs. Still, the incident showed that defence was a priority for the growing settlement and a castle was soon built to guard the entrance of Sutton Harbour. A chain could be pulled across the harbour to prevent enemy ships from entering Plymouth. This was followed by walls to surround the town.
Plymouth was more than just a military port, it had long shown itself to be a good base for fishing and was replacing Plympton as the port of choice for merchants and traders. It became an important port for the wine trade and brought in much of the wine from Bordeaux and La Rochelle. It exported fish, tin, wool and cloth. In 1362 it was granted a license to trade with Portugal as England sought an ally to help fight the growing antagonism from the Castillian Royal Family (which would later become Spain). In 1381 and 1385 two new armadas were assembled in Plymouth in order to help the Portuguese in their fight against Castille. These armadas were designed to guard the approaches of the Channel and show an early indication of the value of the strategic location of Plymouth that would later see it at the heart of England's naval defences. As it was, this war saw England cement its friendship with Portugal which would go on to become England's (and then Britain's) longest alliance in history and which is still technically in effect to this day. It also marked out England's early antipathy towards what would become Spain, even before any Reformation marked out differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Plymouth was to earn itself one additional Royal Monopoly in 1390 when it was designated as being one of only two ports from which religious pilgrims were allowed to sail overseas from. This early form of control of movement was a way to help the King collect customs and dues from pilgrammages but it also allowed him the ability to sanction or curtail voyages to destinations that he might feel were undesirable. It was a crude form of control but one that perhaps would help explain why Plymouth would go on to become such an important centre of religious and radical activity in the Tudor and Stuart periods.
Plymouth was officially incorporated as a town in 1440 and was allowed to be ruled by a guild. This meant that all traders and businessmen in the town had the right to select a town council and mayor to run the place. It also meant that commerce was given a pre-eminent position and anything to protect or enhance trade was seen as the priority for the town council. Unfortunately, Plymouth was about to enter some choppy economic waters as first the Hundred Years War came to an end, which saw a diminution in supply ships and military expeditions, and then the growing problems of the Wars of the Roses which paralysed much of the trade and commerce of the country as the Yorkists and Lancastrians fought for control of the Crown. There was little the town council could do to counter these forces and considerable division and suspicion was unleashed in the wake of what was effectively a Civil War.
It was during these Wars of the Roses that Plymouth became an unlikely staging post of a French army that was landed in the port in order to help the Lancastrians in their battle against the Yorkists in 1461. A Yorkist army was despatched to try and repel the French army but it was fought off by the French at Yealmpton to the East of Plymouth. The French withdrew from Plymouth in good order when it became clear that the Lancastrians were not going to dislodge Edward IV - at least not for the time being.
The Wars of the Roses saw great divisions in and around Plymouth but little fighting actually took place in the South West. However, Henry VII did attempt to land in Plymouth from France but his small fleet was spotted. He realised that he would have had to fight his way ashore and so returned to Normandy. He finally returned to England in 1485 before going on to win the important Battle of Bosworth Hill. There was one more local connection at the end of this battle when Richard Edgcumbe was knighted on the battlefield. Richard Edgcumbe had been a Lancastrian supporter who had barely escaped from Cotehele House on the River Tamar north of Plymouth. He only escaped by throwing his cap and some rocks in the river to convince his pursuers he had drowned. He later managed to take a boat across the Channel and offer his services to Henry. In honour for his sacrifices and loyalty, he was knighted and given the lands of the Yorkist who had tried to hunt him down. The Edgcumbe family thus took control of the estate around Cotehele but later, through marriage, would also acquire the lands at what is now called Mount Edgcumbe opposite from Stonehouse and at the mouth of the River Tamar. Technically, although now in Cornwall, Mount Edgecumbe was considered part of Devon as late as 1844. It overlooked the entrance to the Tamar and would later have cannons and defences added to it to help secure the approaches. Some of these defences are still in evidence and can still be seen to this day.
Henry Tudor's victory marked the end of a tumultuous period in English history. Fortunately, Plymouth was about to enter more prosperous economic waters. The reign of Henry VII, and that of his Tudor heirs, would coincide with a remarkable period of economic and social flowering in England. Plymouth would very much take advantage of the new opportunities flowing in this Tudor era.
The age of the Tudors would see Plymouth gradually escalate in importance from being a growing provincial centre to a globally important port. But this was not an overnight rise and would see many false dawns before Plymouth finally defined its relevance to the strategic needs and aspirations of England. The key to its success would be its connection to the sea. As the world began to open up to global trade, exploration and colonisation in the age of the Tudors, Plymouth found that it was in a better strategically placed than had ever been hitherto presumed. Its position at the approaches of the English Channel made it increasingly important for the defence of the kingdom, but also, as the Atlantic became a highway of trade Plymouth, with one of the largest natural ports in the World, found that it was in the best location to take advantage of the new mercantile and exploratory opportunities. Previously, being in the west, it had been too far from London and the commercial centres of the Low Countries that had dominated English trade since Medieval times. In that period, it made much more sense to keep the ships of Henry's VII and VIII in South East England or the Portsmouth area. However, with the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration opening up the World's highways Plymouth was the best placed English port to take advantage of these new opportunities.
The shift in strategic focus also meant a shift in the technology of ships required. When all that was required of ships was to hop over the narrow part of the Channel, they could afford to be top heavy with plenty of guns for their defence. Ocean travel would require nimbler ships capable of withstanding harsher seas for longer periods of time. At first, the English emulated the ship building techniques of the Portuguese and Spanish. However, given their own expertise in seafaring and skill in working with wood they would soon go on to build ships that surpassed the quality of even the Iberian maritime powers.
Henry VIII was slow to follow up on the voyages of discovery launched by his father Henry VII who had sent John Cabot to try and locate a new route to the Orient via what was hoped to be the 'North West Passage'. John Cabot found little but fish stocks and icebergs, so the Tudors turned their attention back to consolidating power in England before Henry VIII reembarked on dabbling in European politics. His split from Rome created new enemies for England and meant that defences had to be upgraded. Fortunately for him, he found the means to pay for these defences through the dissolution of the monasteries. This gave him huge amounts of land and resources to pay for the upgrading of the coastal defences of England. Plymouth's castle was fairly recent at this time and so was not upgraded as significantly as other West Country ports like Falmouth or Dartmouth were. However, he did update the shoreline defences in 1519 with gun platforms on the Hoe and on the approaches to the Cattewater. There was a second burst of activity in the late 1530s after his war with France began. He ordered towers at Stonehouse, Millbay, Devil's point and at the mouth of the Plym at Fisher's Nose on Madeira Road.
Plymouth had a direct connection to the upheavals of Henry VIII's reign in that it was the port that received his first wife Catherine of Aragon. She actually arrived in Plymouth in 1501 to marry Henry's older brother, Arthur. She had a very rough crossing and so stayed in Plymouth at Palace Court for two weeks to recover from the ordeal. She said mass at St. Andrew's Church which was still a Catholic Church at that time. Henry VII had been attempting to form an alliance with the growing power of Spain and this marriage was meant to cement that relationship. Arthur died and so Henry VII forced his son Henry to marry Catherine instead. This would later give Henry VIII an excuse in his own mind to have the marriage annulled. However, when the Pope refused to sanction this annulment Henry started his 'break from Rome' which would be the cause of great enmity between Spain and England for many years to come.
Plymouth's monasteries and religious houses were also swept up in the great dissolution of the 1530s. The destruction of Plympton Priory was completed in a particularly ruthless manner. However, it meant that Plymouth's historic local rival had been removed once and for all. In fact, the lands were transferred to St. Andrew's in Plymouth which became the religious centre of the region for the first time thanks to Henry VIII's policies although it still lost its own silver crucifixes, communion plates, etc... to his treasury.
John Cabot's discoveries in Newfoundland may not have impressed the Court or his investors but it did wonders for Plymouth's fishing fleet. Plymouth became one of the first ports to take advantage of the stocks off Newfoundland. New, hardier fishing boats had to be developed to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to get to the fishing banks and return in one piece. The skills acquired in these trans-oceanic voyages would later provide talented and experienced crews for the likes of Hawkins, Drake and Raleigh.
In an era before decent roads, the seas provided the main form of transportation for goods. Thus, coal from Newcastle or grain from East Anglia was sailed into Plymouth. Continental trade might mean hops being imported from Holland or hemp from the Baltic and of course wine and fruit from France and Spain. The most common exports in this period were still tin and wool from Dartmoor. At least some Plymouth mariners had a taste for more ambitious trade. William Hawkins seems to have been the first Englishman to have engaged in Trans-Atlantic trade as early as 1530s and may have been the first Englishman to cross the Atlantic at all. He seems to have travelled to Guinea in Africa before crossing the Atlantic to Brazil where he bought local produce and brazilwood from the native people there. He even managed to convince a Brazillian Chief to return to England with him. He left a crew member in South America as a hostage to the Chief's return. The Chief actually died on the return voyage but Hawkins managed to still have his man released. His last Trans-Atlantic voyage earned him a 1000 per cent profit. It was profits like these that would encourage later generations of Plymouth mariners to engage in international trade. For William though, war was about to close off this option but it would also show him an alternative way of making money.
Annoy the King's Enemies
Plymouth's defences had been upgraded at just the right time. In 1544, France concluded a peace with its rival Spain so that she could concentrate on her fight with England. Although war was a bad thing for the kingdom of England, it provided an interesting model for the future development of Plymouth's maritime strategy. The King gave permission for privateer activity to be conducted out of the port of Plymouth to Annoy the King's Enemies. Commissions were awarded to the Mayor of Plymouth, James Horswell, and to William Hawkins (father of John Hawkins) to harass and attack French shipping. There were serious concerns of a French invasion and so anything that could be done to weaken, destroy or capture French shipping was thought to make an invasion less likely. It seems as if Hawkins had trouble sticking solely to attacking French vessels and also plundered Spanish, Breton and Flemish ships. When these were discovered, he had to pay restitution and even spent some time in jail whilst the cases were investigated and settled. This fine line between outright piracy and being an agent of the state was one that would cause continual tensions and difficulties for the rest of the century and yet it was one that held enormous appeal to Plymouth's mariners; Enriching themselves in the service of the state. It suited the monarch too. The monarch wanted military capabilities without the requirement to pay for them. The mariners of Plymouth supplied the ships and sailors but expected to make a return on their investment and if no 'enemy' ships could be found, others might be attacked to defer their costs and outlay. Privateering might have been financially cheap for the monarch but it could be diplomatically expensive for the state.
The young Edward took over from Henry at the age of just nine in 1547. Yet, his reign saw a marked increase in the religious assault on Catholicism. The imposition of a new prayer book started a region wide backlash against the new religion in 1548. A force from Cornwall marched towards Exeter but a significant force attacked Trematon Castle in Saltash before camping outside of Plymouth's defences. On one attack, they managed to enter Plymouth Castle and set fire to the records room and thus destroying many of Plymouth's earliest records. Plymouth did hold out as the rebels moved to join the main force at Exeter. Plymouth stayed loyal to its young king and resisted the rebels. It is not clear why they were loyal to the new religion, perhaps being a port they had been more exposed to mariners from Northern Europe and were antagonistic to the Catholic religion of their historic enemies France and Spain. The defenders of Plymouth were helped by the updated defences provided by the King's father. It appears that some of the Cornish rebels were captured and executed on the Hoe. A gibbet was formed to warn other rebels of the fate that might befall them if they challenged the authority of the king.
The death of Edward VI at the age of just 15 meant that his Catholic sister, Mary would ascend to the throne. There was obviously a lot of resentment against Mary in what was a religiously progressive part of the country. It seems as if William Hawkins was involved in a plot to prevent Mary's new husband, Philip II of Spain, arriving in Plymouth. It is not known how, but within a year of this episode, William Hawkins was dead. Philip returned to Plymouth in 1557 to examine its defences and petition his wife to form an alliance with Spain against France and Holland. The war would eventually go badly for Mary who would lose England's last foothold on the continent at Calais. Philip was unpopular in the kingdom but paradoxically did much to strengthen England's navy for which he sought an increase in investment into it from his wife. He believed that England's navy could help Spain against her enemies in Europe and in the Mediterranean. Paradoxically, the upgraded navy would be used largely to destroy the Spanish Armada launched by him in 1588 and disrupt myriad other Spanish maritime endeavours for the next half a century.
Slavery, Silver and Spices
Plymouth made its first substantial mark on the imperial scene with the voyages of John Hawkins in the 1560s. He was attempting to muscle in on the trade routes of the Spanish. Spain was growing wealthy from its South American colonies and Hawkins was determined to try and break into the strict trading restrictions imposed by the Spanish government on any trade conducted to and from its colonies. The Spanish had granted the sole right to trade slaves in its empire to Portugal. Hawkins understood that the Spanish craved more manpower than the Portuguese could supply and so decided to try his luck. His plan was to sail to the Portuguese colonies of West Africa, gather, purchase or otherwise 'procure' slaves to take to the Hispaniola and exchange them for goods to bring back to Europe. John Hawkins' first voyage successfully transplanted slaves forcibly seized from Portuguese possessions to Spanish colonies. However, the authorities were less than impressed with his breaking of their monopoly agreements with the Portuguese. One of Hawkins' ships which tried to unload cargo in Spain was seized as compensation by the Spanish authorities. Hawkins had been accompanied by one of his kinsmen Francis Drake who would learn the ins and outs of trans-oceanic voyages during this period. Hawkins' first voyage returned to Plymouth in 1563 and not withstanding losing a ship in Spain, still created a handsome profit for all the investors and crew. Hawkins decided that he would try his luck again the following year.
Hawkins left from Plymouth to head to West Africa in 1564 and gathered more slaves to trade to the Spanish colonies but he was finding it ever more difficult to conduct the trade as Spanish officials were warned against trading with what they regarded as the heretical English. A third voyage (funded but not led by Hawkins) and a fourth voyage gained ever diminishing returns for investors with the fourth voyage ending in disaster when their storm battered fleet was set upon by a Spanish fleet at San Juan de Ulua. Hawkins and Drake barely made it back to England alive. The failure to muscle in on the Spanish trade rankled deeply. They had tasted the potential profits of dealing in slaves but had been denied the opportunity to do so legally. These voyages whetted the appetites of English mariners, but the realities were that the Iberian powers were too strong and dominant for the English at this point in time. But that would change and largely due to the courses of action chosen by Hawkins and Drake in response to their rebuttal.
Both Hawkins and Drake decided to get revenge on the Spanish but in different ways. Hawkins designed new ships for Elizabeth's navy that would be able to sail the Oceans but with nimbler ships and with far greater firepower than had ever been seen on the seas before. These ships would prove to be invaluable at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake, on the other hand, turned to raiding the Spanish outposts directly and to attempting to understand the sources of their wealth and gain a mastery of the seas of the New World. He was the first Englishman to see the Pacific and the Caribbean at the same time whilst laying an ambush for a Spanish silver train in Panama. This convinced him that it should be possible to sail a ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sure enough from 1577 to 1580 through good fortune, impressive seamanship and considerble bravado he managed to find a route through the Straits of Magellan and become only the second captain to lead an expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Drake was free to harass and harry the Spanish in what they had hitherto regarded as their own private lake. He took prize after prize and sailed north to escape retribution. Drake seems to have claimed two new colonies for Elizabeth; Elizabeth Island in the Straits of Magellan and New Albion somewhere along the West Coast of North America. It was clear that he felt confident enough that the English could begin challenging Spanish hegemony over the New World. Drake had one more trick up his sleeve which was to sail across the Pacific to find a new route back to Plymouth and so avoid the Spanish ships sent out to intercept and destroy his expedition. This crossing of the Pacific brought him to the fabled Spice Islands where he loaded up on spices and pepper to bring back to Europe. When his ship, The Golden Hind, entered Plymouth Harbour in 1580 he became a national hero. He had been gone for so long, it had been assumed that he had been sunk, shipwrecked or captured by the Spanish. He was the first Englishman and only the second person to circumnavigate the World - in fact, Magellan never made it all around the world as he was killed in the Philippines. Drake's achievement was immense and it fuelled a generation of English mariners who were desperate to emulate his successes against the Spanish and to bring back spices from the Indies to make their fortunes. He had shown that the English could challenge the greatest power of the age, and get rich doing it.
The Spanish Armada
Elizabeth's encouragement of privateers like Drake rankled deeply with the Spanish. Philip II of Spain was determined to stamp out the heretic kingdom once and for all and launched his ill fated Spanish Armada in 1588. Certainly, there had been provocation, Drake had set out to raid the West Indies from Plymouth in 1585. Two years later Drake led a raid on the Spanish port of Cadiz. English and Spanish relations had fallen to an all time low and that was largely due to the privateering exploits of Plymouth's mariners.
Plymouth provided the assembly point for a fleet for national defence. It was under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham with Drake as his Second in Command. There had been great debate in whether the English fleet should be concentrated on the Straits of Dover where the invasion was expected to land or to the approaches of the Channel at Plymouth where an invasion fleet could be intercepted before landing on English soil. Drake lobbied hard on the latter and was proved to be right. The Spanish fleet was spotted off the coast of Cornwall and the English fleet was readied at Plymouth. The story of Drake playing bowls may have been apocryphal but may as well have occurred as the English had to wait for the tides and winds to leave the port and pursue the Spanish along the Channel. A combination of the smaller and nimbler ships designed by Hawkins, superior maritime skills and training of the English crews and the weather helped to prevent the Spanish from collecting their forces from the Low Countries and dispersed their fleet as it attempted to return home around Scotland and Ireland. The victory was total and confirmed that England was taking its place amongst the premier powers of Europe. It could challenge the greatest power of the age and hold its own.
Plymouth's defences were greatly expanded in the 1580s and 1590s in the wake of the threat from Spain. Additionally, France was returning to a hostile state after a brief interlude of Huguenot rule. The population of Plymouth was wary of retaliatory attacks from the Spanish in revenge for their role in the Armada's defeat. Drake had identified St. Nicholas' Island as providing the key to the defence of the port and made provisions for it to be fully manned and cannons placed upon it. Later, it would take the name of Drake's Island in his honour. Provisions were also made for a permanent garrison to be established in Plymouth. Indeed, the very first purpose-built barrack block for soldiers in England is thought to have been constructed in 1596 at Plymouth Fort. The idea seems to have been copied from the multitude of foreign armies fighting in the Low Countries of the Spanish Netherlands as the wars of the Reformation played themselves out. The purpose of barracks was to lessen the impact of forced billeting on the local population or overwhelming local facilities, water supplies, etc... With soldiers and sailors constantly travelling through Plymouth it seemed as if a purpose built facility provided the perfect answer. The fort's captain was Fernando Gorges who also went on to provide much of the stimulus for the early colonisation of North America.
Drake also oversaw one of the most important infrastructural upgrades to its fresh water supply. He was instrumental in getting the population of Plymouth to pay for fresh water to be brought to the port from Dartmoor. A 17 mile leat was constructed in the 1590s which benefitted both the people of Plymouth and the ships that prepared to sail from there. No longer would they have to make do with fetid supplies from local wells. They now had a constant supply of fresh water from Dartmoor. Over time, the water was laid in pipes from the leat to bring water directly into people's houses - or at least for the wealthier inhabitants of Plymouth.
The upgrading of Plymouth's defences would ultimately prove useful and might help explain why it was not raided again by the French or by the Spanish and even managed to maintain itself despite being besieged for four years in the English Civil War. It should be said that Plymouth became an important English base for launching expeditions to raid and attack French and Spanish ports in the years to come. Additionally, as we shall see, Plymouth still had significant upgrades of its defences to come in the wake of the Civil War and in competition with other European Imperial powers.
The New World
Drake's circumnavigation had whetted the appetites of a generation of a English mariners. Some of these explorers were more successful than others but all knew that if they wanted a skilled crew who were not daunted by travelling the vast distances in tiny, wooden ships then Plymouth would be where they would find them. Humphrey Gilbert and his brother Walter Raleigh attempted to set off on a voyage to the New World in 1578 but had to return due to gales and Spanish ships. However, in 1583, Gilbert set off from Plymouth once more and managed to get to Newfoundland which he definitively claimed for England. His attempt to go on to find a route to the Spice Islands was unsuccessful and he had to head home. He died in a gale off the Azores en route back to England. However, his exploits encouraged his half-brother, Walter Raleigh to continue to strive exploring the New World and look for a North West Passage to the Orient.
England's first formal attempt at setting up a colony in the New World was organised and undertaken from Plymouth, but ended in total mystery. Notwithstanding the colonies of Elizabeth Island and New Albion claimed by Drake, England's first attempt at settling colonists was in 1585 and was organised by Walter Raleigh. He had convinced Elizabeth to give him permission to settle a colony in Virginia (named in her honour) at a place called Roanoke. Indeed, Raleigh had sent a preliminary expedition from Plymouth in 1584 which was very favourable about the land, the locals and prospects for a new settlement. They even brought back two Indians to show to the Queen and to possible investors in Raleigh's enterprise.
Plans were made to settle a colony at Roanoke Island. The first settlers sailed from Plymouth in 1585 with high hopes. The timing of the enterprise was poor as Elizabeth began to fret about a possible Spanish Armada invading England. This made it difficult for Raleigh to organise regular resupply expeditions. Furthermore, relations with the local Indians was not as easy as had been hoped. Tribal rivalries and suspicions of the motives of the European settlers and their reliance on Indian food and supplies made tensions increasingly difficult. Francis Drake did arrive after having attacked Spanish bases in the Caribbean but was surprised to find that many of the colonists wanted to return home. This was not helped by a storm that scattered Drake's fleet and damaged a ship set aside for the use of the Roanoke colony. A skeleton colony was left behind which was never seen again.
A further attempt to land new colonists was undertaken in 1587 which again set off from Plymouth. But these mysteriously disappeared and were never seen again. A relief ship that was sent after the danger of the Spanish Armada had been defeated found a mysterious message 'CROATOAN' etched on a tree but no further clue to their whereabouts. They had been told to mark a maltese cross if they had to leave under duress, but no cross was found. Poor weather forced the relief ships to leave and nothing more was heard of the Roanoke colonists.
Plymouth had become a renowned base for exploration and for maritime endeavour thanks to the exploits of sailors like Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh. In recognition of its growing importance it had been awarded a new charter by Queen Elizabeth in her final years. During Elizabeth's reign, Plymouth had been transformed into a port known by friends and enemies alike. The coming seventeenth century hinted at greater prospects yet for the traders and mariners as England sought to expand its reach across the Atlantic and to take advantage of the prospects identified by Tudor sailors like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. Plymouth was both the key to defending the approaches to England, but it was also the natural springboard from which to begin England's imperial adventures.
Plymouth had one of the very first ports to take advantage of the Trans-Atlantic trade in cod that was generated by John Cabot's 1497 discovery of massive fish stocks off the coast of the New World at 'Newfoundland'. A fishing fleet regularly set off from Plymouth across the Atlantic where they would fill their holds with fish and then come back to Plymouth to sell them. The monarchs may have been disappointed not to find the gold, silver and spices that the Portuguese and Spanish seemed to be discovering for themselves through their own voyages of exploration, but excellent fishing grounds had tangible benefits for local fishermen and the communities that bought their fish. For some time, these West Country men attempted to keep the source of their fishing grounds secret, but when their location became widely known a Plymouth Company was set up to lobby for Royal protection. They asked the new Stuart king James I to issue a Royal Charter giving them rights and privileges that they could use to defend their commercial interests. In return they would pay the King for the license to exploit the lands and resources within the areas they claimed.
The Plymouth Company of Merchants represented an early joint stock company attempt at colonisation organised and funded from entrepreneurs and mariners in Plymouth. It fed off the exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh and his attempt to set up a colony in Virginia and Sir Francis Drake's claimed New Albion during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Also known as the Plymouth Adventurers, they petitioned the new Stuart King James I to grant them a charter in order to establish colonies in the New World. As far as James was concerned, he seemed to be getting something for nothing. By selling charters to establish lands on the other side of the Atlantic, he could raise money for no outlay. Furthermore, he was not beholden to help or protect the fledgling colonies in any way. In effect, the company took all the risks but asked only for the legal right in English law to colonise the lands and to prevent other rival English companies from impinging on their exploits. Other companies included the Virginia Company and the London Company. The Plymouth Company was given permission to establish colonies between the 38th and 45th parallel of the North American coastline.
The first Plymouth Company colony was that of Popham in New England in 1607. However, they underestimated the costs of resupplying the new colony and the colonists found it difficult to thrive in the alien wilderness. Furthermore, they antagonised local Indian tribes by abducting some of them and taking them back to England as trophies to show to the curious and to justify their endeavour. The exploit only lasted a year before the hungry and desperate colonists returned to England on ships which had arrived to resupply them.
Without a colony, there was no income stream for the company but that did not stop further attempts to establish colonies in collaboration with the London Company in 1614. However, by 1619, the Company was liquidated. The following year a new charter was granted to a new company called the Plymouth Council for New England which had many of the same investors but was a separate legal entity in its own right.
The newly arrived Scottish King James provided opportunities to Plymouth through supporting exploration and overseas commercial activity. Yet, he also provided the seeds of distrust and undermined his own authority to many in the realm and particularly in Plymouth. Local privateers were dismayed when James ended the almost constant state of war between England and Spain in 1604. This meant that Plymouth's privateers could no longer gain permission from their monarch to raid Spanish ships, ports and coastline with impunity. Rather, they were arrested and fined or imprisoned for disturbing the new peace treaties. Apart from the effect on patriotic feelings, this had a devastating effect on Plymouth's economy which had long benefitted from the booty and prizes coming into its port. The money earned by the mariners was often reinvested back into the port of Plymouth or in hiring new crews for further expeditions. Peace with Spain did not benefit Plymouth.
Further ill-feeling towards the new Royal family was engendered with the treatment of local hero Sir Walter Raleigh. On coming to the throne, James had had Raleigh arrested under suspicion of having plotted to keep James from taking over from Elizabeth. Raleigh was arrested at The Exeter Inn in Ashburton before being taken to the Tower of London. He spent the next decade under arrest before convincing the King that he could provide his monarch with one last service by discovering El Dorado. Raleigh set off from Plymouth with seven ships in 1617 to the area of present day Guiana and Venezuela in a forlorn attempt to discover its location. He believed that Spanish officials in the area might have better intelligence on its location and attacked one of their provincial towns seeking aid in their endeavour. This was to be Raleigh's final undoing - along with failing to find the fabled lost city of Gold! The Spanish ambassador to James implored the king to have this man executed for attacking Spanish possessions in light of the peace that now existed between the two nations. He was arrested upon his return to Plymouth in 1618. He was taken to London where he was given a show trial where it was claimed that he was trying to provoke war between England and Spain. He was executed in October 1618. To the people of Plymouth, his execution was a dreadful betrayal of a local son who had done so much to further the port's fortunes. It engendered a growing tension between the inhabitants of Plymouth and their monarch. During Tudor times, Plymouth had been a most loyal town to the Crown. This would not be the case during the reign of the Stuarts.
Although the Mayflower colonists originally came from the East of England (via Holland), they had a brief but important interlude in Plymouth that greatly impressed their religious sensibilities. Being puritans, they were keen to leave the 'High Church' aspects of the Anglican Church and King James I which they regarded as too similar to the Catholic Church. Originally they had settled in Holland but the unstable political situation there made them consider an alternative. The pilgrims attempted to gain permission from the London Company of Merchants but negotiations stalled. They were informed that a new Plymouth Council for New England was to be formed and attempted to gain permission from them to form a colony in their lands.
The Speedwell left Holland for Southampton where the Mayflower was also waiting. The two ships travelled down the Channel before they had to put in at Dartmouth due to leaks on the Speedwell. At Plymouth, it was realised that the Speedwell would not make the journey across the Atlantic and so the crew and stores were all moved to the Mayflower. During this period in Plymouth the pilgrims were impressed by the puritanical strength of feeling in the port. A generation later, the puritans of Plymouth would stand up to James' son, Charles for the duration of the English Civil War. At this point in time, the Mayflower pilgrims considered that if all of England was as devout as Plymouth there would be no reason to leave the mother country. It was for this reason that they decided to take the name of Plymouth to their first colony in the hope that the religious feeling of this Old World port might be replicated in the New World.
As mentioned above, the Mayflower sailed with the understanding that it would come under the charter of the Plymouth Council for New England under the guidance of Fernando Gorges but the formalities had not yet been finalised before they departed. It did not help that the Mayflower drifted far further north than had been anticipated, eventually arriving at Cape Cod. As there was no charter in place, the pilgrims established their own legal framework known as the Mayflower Compact. They named their new settlement Plymouth Colony which despite some early difficulties, ultimately managed to survive and eventually thrived in the New World. It offered an alternative model from the Virginia model which had been based on tobacco cultivation and aggressive expansion at the expense of local Indian tribes. The Plymouth Colony was based on hardy Protestant ethics and ideas of self-improvement through hard work and self sacrifice. Both of these models fed into the American character but in competing and often contradictory ways.
The Plymouth Council for New England eventually controlled the area around the Plymouth Colony established by the Mayflower settlers but the Plymouth Colony continued to use its own 'Mayflower Compact' for its own governance. The Plymouth Council for New England saw much of its land divided and given to rival companies and so moved its focus further north to Maine before finally surrendering its charter in 1635. Basically, the colonies required a great deal of money to become established, but being agrarian communities they did not generate vast amounts of money or products of high value to sell back in England (unlike those in Virginia). The New England colonies were becoming self-sufficient, which was an achievement in itself, but they were not making their investors back in England particularly rich. Investors would soon turn their attention to the more profitable sugar and cotton plantations sprouting up in the Caribbean and the South of America. These plantations required vast quantities of labour which were supplied by indentured servants at first but chattel slaves later. They would prove to become a very different model of colony to those formed by the pious religious pioneers who headed towards New England.
Attempts to rekindle Plymouth's buccaneering spirit were attempted in the seventeenth century but were less successful than they had been in Tudor times. In 1619, the governor of the Fortress of Plymouth, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, actually declared war on the Turks. This was in response to their repeated pirate raids along the southern coast of England including the waters around Plymouth. They ransacked local fishing boats and came ashore to take captives back to North Africa or the Ottoman Empire with a view to selling them into captivity or ransoming them back to the English Crown. Money was raised to assemble a large fleet in Plymouth in 1620 under the command of Sir Robert Mansell and Sir Richard Hawkins. However, the fleet did not set sail due to supply and monetary problems. Besides, James I was ambivalent towards the whole situation and was more concerned with his budget than the welfare of Westcountry fishermen and mariners.
Charles I was the next to see a failed expedition, although this one at least set sail. Charles had married into the French Royal Family and was switching Stuart support away from Spain towards France, which still did little to please the people of Plymouth who generally regarded the French with equal contempt. Charles ordered the taking of Cadiz in an attempt to resurrect Drake's bold attempt from 1587 and neutralise Spanish shipping. This time though the logistics of the operation were deplorable. Ninety ships were assembled in Plymouth Sound where 10,000 soldiers boarded the waiting ships. The King had given the responsibility for victualling and preparing the fleet to James Bagge who lived at Saltram House. Bagge was notoriously corrupt and provided sub-standard food and equipment to the fleet. The fleet set sail but returned just two days later totally disorganised. A second attempt to launch the fleet was undertaken a week later which did at least get to Cadiz, but the military equipment was found to be of very poor quality and the hoped for Spanish Treasure Fleet was nowhere to be found. The sailors and soldiers got drunk through ill discipline and poor leadership and the whole sorry expedition returned to Plymouth empty handed. Unfortunately, some of the soldiers had contracted the plague whilst in Spain and in their weakened state from poor diet and supplies it became rife throughout the returning fleet. On returning to Plymouth they returned to local billets and spread the disease with them. Plymouth lost a quarter of its population and ceased to accept or trade with ships whilst the disease ravaged the population. Plymouth's relationship to Charles did not get off to a happy start and many longed for the days of Elizabeth and of better fortune for the town.
The Barbary Corsairs
The Seventeenth Century saw the height of pirate activity from the Barbary Corsairs operating principally out of Sale in Morocco. Fishing and trading vessels going to and from the Westcountry were attacked frequently with crews often taken as slaves and their cargoes plundered. Between 1609 and 1616, for instance, the Admiralty recorded that 466 vessels had been attacked with the the vast majority of these occurring in and around Devon and Cornwall. The fishing fleet going to and from Newfoundland was particularly vulnerable especially as the Corsairs valued the skills of mariners to help replenish their own crew needs.
The Corsairs had a deep hostility towards Christianity and could justify their attacks as a form of proselytisation. They also relied on a steady stream of slaves to fund their activities. White slaves from European countries were particularly prized due to their relative rarity and perceived exoticness. 1625 saw the most audacious Corsair pirate fleet operating along the Westcountry coastline, in fact there were two fleets, one operated along the southern coastline and sacked Mount's Bay, Looe and Penzance whilst a second fleet along the northern coastline captured Lundy Island hoisted their crescent flag there and used it as a base to raid Padstow and Ilfracombe amongst other ports. The Plymouth Naval Commander, Sir James Bagg, implored the king to send more ships to help defend the coastline and the local fishermen from Corsair predation. Official reaction was too slow though and hundreds of Cornish and Devonians were carried off into slavery.
English patience began to run out and after disappointing negotiations ultimately led a maritime attack on Sale in 1637. The largest contingent of freed white slaves were found to be from Plymouth - 37 most of whom had been mariners. The Barbary Corsairs were a multi-headed hydra operating out of Sale, Tripoli and Algiers and quite independently from one another and so it was difficult to know who to entreat with and a deal struck with one group would have no effect on the others. Corsair activity continued throughout the English Civil War years and into the Commonwealth era and into the Restoration beyond. 1640 saw another large fleet of 60 Corsair ships raid along the Westcountry shoreline. Insurance premiums rose for mariners and communities throughout the Westcountry remained vigilant to attack. The Royal Navy sent a contingent to sack Tripoli in 1675 and impose a cessation from that particular centre, but although strikes to the coast of England fell away, mariners had to be wary of attack for many more years yet. There were still isolated attacks from the Corsairs until as late as the Napoleonic Wars but increasingly they confined their activities to the Mediterranean.
The Civil War
The Civil War saw Plymouth support the Parliamentarians rather than the Royalists. Plymouth had long been a puritanical strong hold but King Charles' attempts to get around raising money without Parliament through issuing a 'Ship Tax' sorely tested the loyalties of all those who lived and worked in ports. The people of Plymouth were tired of subsidising a king who they felt was too Catholic minded within his Anglican beliefs and too friendly towards England's traditional enemies of France and Spain, who were Catholic to boot. Plymouth's elders were also unimpressed when the King intervened to veto two of their chosen puritanical candidates for the post of vicar of St. Andrews. An Anglican and staunch Royalist was chosen for the people of Plymouth but the elders and laity did not appreciate this royal meddling in their spiritual affairs.
When war broke out in 1642 Plymouth was a parliamentarian bastion in a sea of Royalist support. Nearly all of Cornwall and Devon had declared for the Royalist cause and it seemed as if Plymouth's situation was precarious and likely to be short lived. Repeated attempts to capture the port were made by the Royalists but the fact that it could rely on parliamentarian ascendency in the naval war meant that it could remain supplied and supported for the entire duration of the war. The Royalists controlled Mount Edgcumbe where they set up batteries of cannons and later gained control of Oreston and the Mount Batten area to prevent ships entering directly into Sutton harbour. The people of Plymouth depended upon control of Drake's Island to allow ships to come in under the cover of darkness and unload supplies at Millbay before disappearing before daylight in feats of remarkable seamanship. The town came closest to falling on December 3rd 1643 when the army of Prince Maurice breached the outer walls only for the inhabitants of the walled town to sally out and defeat the advancing Royalist Army at Freedom Fields.
King Charles himself led an attack on Plymouth in 1644 towards Pennycomequick and Millbridge but was repulsed with heavy casualties from the formidable defences overlooking the approaches. The final attack on the town occurred in 1645 when Maudlyn fort was captured before the Parliamentarians repulsed them once more and chased them back over Mutley Plain. The siege was not raised until 1646 when General Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell himself entered the town to great fanfare and rejoicing. A 300 gun salute was fired in honour of their visit. They were both very impressed at the extent of the defences and the resolve of the people of Plymouth to have withstood such privation and danger for four years. It was estimated that 8,000 people died in the campaign to preserve Plymouth for the Parliamentarian cause which did not include those who died fighting on behalf of the Royalists.
The war had some significant economic and imperial related effects for the people of Plymouth. Firstly, Plymouth had long been the principle port to supply the colonists of North America with their goods and especially fish. However, the length of the war had encouraged these colonists to provide for themselves and they had constructed their own fishing fleets and trading vessels in response to the drop off in trade from the mother country. The colonists had also turned to trading with other European powers, notably the Dutch. To try and counter this threat, Cromwell's new government issued a Navigation Act in 1651 which banned English colonists from trading with any ships except English ones. In the short term this effect had the result of restoring some of the lost trade but in general it just meant that the colonists determined to build up their own fleets and ships to get around this restriction. Additionally, the Acts led to war with the Dutch from 1652 to 1654. This was largely a naval war that took place at the Eastern end of the Channel, but it did have the effect of restoring ship building activity and in supplying vessels for their military campaigns.
A war with Spain also helped rekindle fortunes in Plymouth. The Parliamentarians had become seasoned warriors thanks to the English Civil War and did much to reverse the losses of the Stuarts. Cromwell was also keen to reassert Parliamentarian control in the colonies of the Caribbean and North America which had felt detached enough to retain their loyalty to either side. Expeditions were sent out to remind any rebellious governors or local officials of who actually won the war and who was now in charge. Plymouth's maritime credentials appeared to be rising with the ambitions of the new power. Unfortunately, the finances of the Commonwealth could not keep up with the expenditure required to see through these ambitions. Consequently, many crews and mariners failed to be paid and resentment grew against Cromwell's regime in its dying days. There was also great anxiety about what form of government would replace Cromwell upon his death.
One of the earliest minorities to find its way to Plymouth was the Jewish community. Jews had been exiled from England in 1290 by Edward I. By a strange coincidence, Plymouth had its first recorded mention as a fishing community at almost exactly the same time in 1292. Jews had been seafarers and navigators throughout the Mediterranean for many centuries. It seems as if it was through their seafaring skills that jews began to return to England, all be it in very small numbers. The first recorded communities of jews occurred in the ports of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham. It is no surprise that Sir Francis Drake hired a jewish navigator, who went by the moniker 'Moses the Jew', on his circumnavigation of the world. What is interesting is that the address given for Moses the Jew was The Barbican, Plymouth suggesting that jews were already established in the port.
Jews were not officially welcomed into the country until the time of Oliver Cromwell who encouraged their return. During the time of the thirty years war, Jews tended to move away from the Catholic areas towards the Protestant areas of Northern Europe where their was more toleration for their beliefs. Once again, Plymouth's identification with the parliamentarian cause, its seafaring tradition and its cosmopolitan nature made Plymouth a natural destination for jews wishing to come to England.
Their numbers were always small but were swelled in the 18th Century with the arrival of German and Dutch Ashkenazi jews especially during the War of Austrian Succession. Some Jews were concerned of Catholic inroads into Germany and the Low Countries and sought the relative security of Britain. The Jews who settled in Plymouth funded the building of the Plymouth Synagogue which was opened in 1762. It is the oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in the English speaking world.
Being a port, Plymouth would have been far more accustomed to seeing non-Caucasian faces than most other towns in England. Ships often needed muscle power and did not really care where it came from. If they needed replacement crew whilst in the Caribbean or off the coast of Africa then necessary muscle power would be requisitioned one way or another. There would have been churnage as Plymothians put ashore in obscure ports around the World and people from all over the World may have found themselves ashore in Plymouth at one time or another. We know for a fact that at least two Black men were buried in Plymouth in Elizabethan times. Church records record 'Bastien, A Blackmoore of Mr Willm Hawkins' being buried on December 10th 1583 and 'Anthony, John, a neyger' was buried on March 18th of the same year. Intriguingly there is also mention of a baptismal record for 'Helene, daughter of Christian the negro svant to Richard Sheere, the supposed father binge Cuthbert Holman, illeg.' In 1596, St. Andrew's Church recorded another baptism of 'Susan, daughter of a Blackamoore'. Presumably, there were far more black people in Plymouth who slipped by the official channels without leaving a trace. Most were probably seamen who may have stayed in the town only briefly before finding a position on a ship out of the port. Or perhaps, they wished to remain anonymous assuming that they would not be made to feel welcome by authorities who might not wish to take responsibility for people born so far outside of the parishes of Plymouth. The language of the parish records refers to terms which make uncomfortable reading to a modern audience but were very much regarded as purely descriptive rather than derogatory terms within the culture of the time. In general, 'neyger' or 'negro' referred to people from Africa or the descendents of African slaves from the Caribbean whilst the terms 'Moor' or 'Tawny' referred to Arabs or Indians from the New World. Confusingly, 'The term 'Black a Moor' is believed to refer to black Africans who lived amongst a white population but who married into that local population and produced children of mixed parentage.
The exploits of John Hawkins notwithstanding, Plymouth was never really a major player in the slave trade which was operated mainly out of Bristol and Liverpool. Consequently, Plymouth may not have built up the same kind of prejudices against black sailors and workers that almost certainly was byproduct of the majority of those who worked within the slave trade system. Plymouth was to become primarily a military port and the Navy itself was a remarkably colour blind institution for the time. Although it should be said that conditions on board warships were brutal for all the lower ranks - of whatever skin colour. Paintings of the ships of the Napoleonic Wars often include the presence of black sailors even if they are often seen more to the background. It is safe to assume that many of these sailors would have put ashore in Plymouth at some point or other.
It should be remembered that it was not just black Africans who would have appeared in Plymouth. Explorers to the New World keenly brought back native Americans to show off to investors and the elite. An excellent example of this is the arrival of Pocahontas in Plymouth in 1616 as the wife of John Rolfe. Later, there would also be travellers and passengers arriving from Asia who would disembark in Plymouth before travelling on to London or other commercial centres. Plymouth was one of the few places in England that a non-white person was not a totally unheard of event and somewhere that skin colour would not be regarded as a major cause for concern. Mariners generally saluted the skill of fellow mariners whilst dignatories and visitors were often the guests of important nobles who were bringing them ashore in Plymouth in a semi-diplomatic capacity and so were accorded the necessary decorum and respect.
In general, the people of Plymouth were wary of the idea of the return of the Stuarts to the throne. Having sided against the throne in the Civil War they were concerned at what fate might befall them should Charles' son, Charles, return. In fact, two local men were instrumental in organising the return of Charles from exile in Europe. One was William Morice and the other was Sir John Grenville. Morice helped arrange a meeting between General Monck and the local Royalist leader and the King's emissary, Sir John Grenville. This meeting was vital in establishing contact between the army and the monarch in exile that led directly to Charles returning and reclaiming his throne. Morice was knighted for his role and appointed as Secretary of State. Grenville was elevated to the Earl of Bath and Governor of Plymouth.
Drake's Island became something of a makeshift prison island for those who whose loyalty was felt to be questionable. The clergy of St. Andrews' Church were placed there for refusing to use the new Book of Common Prayer that was required to be used by all Anglican churches. Various non-conformist preachers were also taken to the island or to Exeter gaol.
A second war with the Dutch broke out in the 1660s under the Stuart king. This war went badly for the English but its consequences were significant for Plymouth and in a more positive way. First of all, the King's officials recognised the need for adequate defence for England's principal ports. This became critical after the Dutch sailed up the Medway and destroyed the English Fleet in the Thames. Plymouth had already been earmarked for upgrading its fort into a full blown Citadel on a far larger scale than had ever been seen in Plymouth. Virtually the entire Hoe was signed over to the King with little hesitation perhaps as they sought to avoid a conflict with a king who might yet bear a grudge against their actions towards his father. The belief persisted for many years that the fortification was built overlooking Plymouth to ensure that it could never rebel against the Crown again and it was noted that a large number of the cannon emplacements looked out over the port of Plymouth rather than out to sea. Be that as it may, the principle justification was to protect Plymouth from the Dutch and also the French who were once more turning on Protestants with greater vehemency.
The other consequence of the Second Anglo-Dutch War was that it confirmed England's pre-eminence in North America and its relegation from economic activity in the Spice Islands of the Far East. The English took control of what was to become New York but were kept out of the lucrative nutmeg and pepper islands of the Dutch East Indies. In the short term this was regarded as a disaster for English traders but over time, the North American colonies and New York in particular would prove to become important trading destinations in their own right. It also meant that Plymouth would continue to play a vital role in communicating and trading with the North American and Caribbean colonies.
French Protestants had long been welcome in Plymouth. Francis Drake had conducted many of his successful campaigns with the help of what were called Huguenots. The Protestant bastion of Plymouth had traded with the Huguenots who were often the merchants and mariners in French ports like La Rochelle. The seventeenth century had seen Huguenot influence and political power undermined and assaulted by successive French Catholic kings. These included pogroms and whole sale slaughter of Protestants living in France. Many of these Huguenots decided to flee to safety and a large number arrived in Plymouth. This was almost certainly due to existing trading connections between Huguenot families and the port of Plymouth. The 1680s saw successive boatloads fleeing persecution and seeking sanctuary in Plymouth. A large Huguenot community settled in Plymouth with another at Stonehouse. These entrepreneurial and often highly skilled merchants and traders found themselves at ease in their new homes. They thrived in their new surroundings and provided new opportunities and contacts to the traders and merchants of Plymouth. French language services were held at St. George's Chapel and at the old friary on Southside Street as the Protestants sought to continue their faith in their mother language. Their presence and their persecution was a reminder to the people of Plymouth of what might lay in store for them should Catholicism ever make a return to England. They and presumably the Huguenots were therefore extremely nervous upon hearing of the death of Charles II and the accession of his openly Catholic brother, James II in 1685.
In 1688 William of Orange was invited by Protestant sympathisers to land in England and march his Dutch army to London to take the throne from Catholic James II. Plymouth was the first town to declare its support to him when his fleet sailed into Plymouth Sound. An English ship in Sutton harbour became the first English ship to fly his colours from its mast and the Citadel became the first English fortification to switch its allegiance to him. William would go on to have a profound effect on the fortunes of Plymouth but for the time being his fleet and army sailed on to Brixham where they landed unopposed.
The Governor of Plymouth, Sir John Grenville and the Earl of Bath and the person who had done so much to see the Stuarts return to the throne, was charged by James to hold Exeter and block the advancing Dutch army. The Earl of Bath claimed that he was too weak to prevent their advance and stood aside and allowed the invading army to pass unopposed. In reality, the Earl of Bath had become disillusioned with James' rule and was happy to see him replaced by a more virile king.
William of Orange took control of the Crown in a bloodless coup that saw him declared king alongside his Stuart wife who became Queen Mary II. William was a renowned anti-catholic fighter and soon England joined in his campaigns against the Catholic French and her allies. James had fled to France to seek support in regaining his throne. Plymouth was about to become the beneficiary of this renewed period of hostility. William had identified Plymouth as being the perfect port to create the ships that he would require to fight in his anti-French crusade. Ship-building had long taken place in and around Plymouth but it had always been by private companies and contractors. William proposed building a purpose built dock for the building and maintaining of warships. It was the first stone built dock in the world and it illustrated a growing professionalisation and awareness of the needs of the military and of the navy in particular. The English had been embarrassed by the previous Dutch attack on the Medway back in 1667. It was believed that Plymouth was located far enough away from mainland Europe to afford it some added security. Plans for the dockyard were drawn up in 1689. There was some debate about whether it should be centred on Oreston to the West of the city or along the Hamoaze and the River Tamar. The former was nearer to the existing main settlement at Plymouth but the latter had more scope for expansion and for sheltering large numbers of ships. Eventually, building work began in 1691. The King personally came to Plymouth to inspect its construction. It took the name Plymouth Dock despite being some distance from Plymouth on the Hamoaze on the Tamar. Later it would take the name of Devonport. Construction of the first dock was completed in 1693 but it had only begun a process that would result in it becoming the largest dockyard in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. The first ship built was the Looe which was launched in 1696. The dock still exists and is located next to Mutton Cove with a statue dedicated to William next to it. Construction of ships would continue there for the next three centuries. The last warship built there was the Scylla which was launched in 1968. Interestingly, the Scylla was deliberately sunk off the nearby Cornish beach of Whitsand to provide a recreational and study wreck and so can still be visited - if you are a diver!
One further advance for the people of Plymouth was William's change in the law regarding billeting troops. Being a port, Plymouth had often had to entertain large forces moving through it en route to some foreign battlefield somewhere. As has already been mentioned previously it could end in disaster when billeted troops brought disease with them. Even if the soldiers were not sick, it was regarded as a painful and unpopular burden by the local population. In a highly popular move that illustrated the professionalism and wisdom of William in raising and maintaining an efficient army he ordered that English troops should follow the Dutch example in requiring them to reside in purpose made barracks or, if these were not available, at inns and hotels. This started the process whereby garrisons were built to service the garrisoning or moving of troops to the expanding Plymouth Dock. Extensive fortifications with ditches and ramparts were added to defend the docks - especially during the Seven Years War - evidence of which existence can still be seen in parts of Devonport Park. These were served by a series of six barracks built to house the defending garrison and could be defended in their own right. Each barrack block housed three to four hundred men and officers. The navy still persisted in relying on decommissioned hulks lying out in the Hamoaze for its accommodation needs. These were unpopular with the men due to the dark, cramped conditions that were difficult to keep clean. Disease often broke out in the confined spaces but for the admiralty they had the advantage of being very cheap and flexible for their needs and requirements. It was easy to add or take away hulks as required. These hulks were also used to house prisoners during time of war for the same reason.
The Eddystone Rocks off the coast of Plymouth were a notoriously dangerous patch of rocks that caught many a ship out by their presence in open sea. As a result, the area around them was strewn with shipwrecks. As the navy identified Plymouth as a primary base, steps were taken to protect the approaches to the port by building a lighthouse on the exposed rocks. Work began on the project in 1696 under the direction of Henry Winstanley.
Bizarrely, whilst working on the project a French privateer landed on the rocks and seized Winstanley as a hostage of war. However, when the French king heard of the seizure he ordered Winstanley's immediate release. Apparently he remarked 'that France was at war with England and not with humanity'. He realised that French shipping in the Channel would equally benefit from a light house warning of the existence of the rocks. Sheepishly, Winstanley was returned by the French to complete the project. The lighthouse worked for about 5 years but was battered by the harsh conditions and required constant repair. It was whilst making some minor repairs and additions to the structure that Winstanley was washed off the Eddystone rocks with his crew of workers and dragged out to sea never to be seen again.
A second lighthouse was constructed in 1708 by John Rudyard which lasted a more impressive forty years until it burnt down in 1755. John Smeaton was contracted to build a more substantial stone replacement and undertook a massive building programme to construct the lighthouse. It was completed in 1759 and remained there for over a century and was then only replaced by a more modern structure designed by Douglas in 1882. Smeaton's tower was moved to Plymouth Hoe where it is still a recognisable landmark in the city. The current lighthouse is no longer manned permanently but it is essentially the same building as the one built in 1882.
The fortunes of Plymouth and particularly of Plymouth Dock were now irrevocably linked to the success of the Royal Navy and the fortunes of what became known as the British Empire after the Act of Union in 1707 formally united the Crowns of Scotland and England. The commercial port of Plymouth continued to import sugar and tobacco but Plymouth's location far from the centres of the burgeoning industrial revolution and particularly the lack of any nearby coal deposits meant that it could not compete in this field as effectively with the likes of Bristol or Liverpool. Plymouth was still Britain's fourth busiest port but it was increasingly clear that it was going to be the military side of Plymouth's economy that would provide its sustained growth in the future.
The eighteenth century was a bright one for Britain's expanding commercial and maritime ventures. The East India Company was striking it rich in Asia and bringing back its proceeds. The industrial revolution was in full swing allowing Britain a competitive advantage over all other countries on the planet. It was capable of producing the best quality goods at rock bottom prices. The technological advantages of the industrial revolution found their way into the weaponry of the British Army and the Royal Navy giving them increasing advantages on the battlefields and oceans. This technology fed its way into the construction techniques used at Plymouth Dock where all new Royal Ships were furnished with copper bottoms to keep the hulls cleaner and allow the ships to maintain higher speeds for longer periods than all of their competitor naval ships. In short there was a virtuous circle in the fortunes of Britain's commercial and maritime exploits that in turn allowed Plymouth to become a centre of excellence through investment in its facilities and in attracting the very best craftsmen from miles around to the opportunities presented. It became a world leader in the construction and repair of the latest state-of-the-art ship technology for the world's pre-eminent maritime power.
Admiral Anson pioneered the tactic of replenishing ships at sea when he set off to circumnavigate the World from 1740 to 1744. Victuals including livestock, water and ammunition were loaded up in Plymouth and sent out to rendezvous with Anson at predetermined points. These supply ships could then update the authorities to his progress. They even pioneered ship to ship transfers at sea which greatly increased the reach and range of Royal Naval ships. This skill would come in particularly useful for blockading enemy ports during the wars of the second half of the eighteenth century.
The Wars of the Austrian Succession from 1741 to 1748 and the Seven Years War from 1756 to 1763 provided Plymouth with massive contracts and requirements of seamen. The Bank of England allowed Britain to borrow money on an unprecedented level which allowed it to take on and even beat the far larger French Kingdom. Much of this money was spent in Plymouth in the construction of a fleet of unparalleled size and sophistication. The tiny dock built at the time of King William was dwarfed by the expanding facilities required. Activity even spilled over to the other side of the Tamar as Torpoint and the Lynher provided berths and facilities for the growing Dock. Plymouth Dock was in danger of outgrowing the 'Old Plymouth' and certainly left the third town of Stonehouse in the dust.
No less an authority than Dr Samuel Johnson noticed how the people of Plymouth were 'stirred by jealousy' at the rising fortunes of Plymouth Dock. He visited the area with his old friend and local painter Joshua Reynolds. Although from Plympton, Joshua Reynolds was able to rise to become the founding President of the Royal Academy thanks to the increasing wealth of local families and numbers of aristocratic sons passing through the area on naval service. He went on to paint the portraits of many of the local gentry and high born sailors. He even sailed to the Mediterranean with Viscount Keppel, one of his key patrons, so that he could view the actions of the Navy and its key ports in operation.
As the Royal Navy increased its military capacity and imperial duties so it moved into the realm of science to keep it at the cutting edge of military technology, exploration and imperial expansion. Sailors like Captain Cook and Tobias Furneaux set off from Plymouth to map the world, chart the stars and find suitable anchorages and refuelling stops for the ships of the Royal Navy. Cook left from Plymouth in 1768 on the Endeavour. In 1772 he set off from Plymouth on his second voyage on the Resolution. This voyage nearly came to grief before it began when the ship was nearly foundered on the rocks below the Citadel.
William Bligh was given the mission of moving breadfruit from Tahiti to the Caribbean so that the plantations there might find a more efficient foodstuff for their workers and slaves. The Royal Navy had gone beyond being a mere military arm and its base at Plymouth was the perfect launch pad for its expanding scientific horizons. Artists and Botanists were also attached to ships as they travelled the world looking for new species or commercial activities that the British economy could get a head start on. The most famous of these would be Charles Darwin who sailed from Plymouth on a five year voyage in 1831. This voyage would form the foundation for his theory of evolution and showed just how far the Admiralty was prepared to go in subsidizing the pursuit of knowledge and a better understanding of the world.
Unfortunately, tradition and conservatism could undermine even the Royal Navy's own attempts to improve itself as an institution. An example from 1747 illustrated this when James Lind who had been tasked with finding the best solution to the scourge of Scurvy that so afflicted so many sailors on long voyages. He sailed from Plymouth on HMS Salisbury with 12 sailors suffering from scurvy and tried six different remedies. He found that those who ate fresh oranges and lemons recovered the fastest. He forwarded his research to the Admiralty in London who promptly ignored his sensible suggestions. This was possibly due to his lack of 'influential contacts' and was forgotten in the embers of the War of the Austrian Succession when other priorities came to the fore. It would take another half century before Gilbert Blane was able to recommend lemon or lime juice to the entire fleet in 1795 just in time for the Napoleonic Wars. During the War of 1812 - 1814 captured American sailors found it amusing to see the British sailors religiously take their medicine daily and called them 'Limeys' as a result.
Economically, Plymouth saw the pioneering of the production of Chinese style Porcelain by William Cookworthy in the 1750s. Europeans had long admired the sturdy and beautiful porcelain imported from the Far East. It was for this reason that it was given the name 'China'. Europeans had long tried to fathom the process kept secret by the Chinese so that they could produce it closer to its intended market. William Cookworthy was a chemist who was fortunate to be living and working in an area that had access to all the key ingredients required, notably China Clay and Moorstone which were both found on nearby Dartmoor. It helped that Plymouth was a port in that it allowed him to load up his delicate cargoes for export around the country and even to Europe and the colonies. Plymouth was joining the industrial revolution in earnest.
The near foundering of Cook's ship the Resolution on the rocks below the Citadel in 1772 was no isolated event. The sharp South Westerly winds could whip up powerful waves that made it difficult for ships to leave the anchorage safely. It was particularly difficult on the Cattewatter and Sutton harbour which was more exposed than the Hamoaze. However, ships leaving the Hamoaze still had to follow a deep water channel the long way around Drake's Island which could expose them to the harsh winds. In an age of sail, the constant tacking and changing of direction could be a cumbersome process on entering or leaving the Sound. If the winds were too strong, it was impossible to leave the anchorage at all.
Events in 1796 epitomised the need for some protective breakwater for Plymouth Sound. An East India ship the Dutton was foundered on the same rocks below the Citadel that had nearly finished off Captain Cook's Resolution. A disaster was narrowly averted thanks to the quick thinking and rapid response of Edward Pellew who successfully managed to rescue 500 men, women and children aboard the ship.
As the Napoleonic Wars saw Plymouth Dock grow even more in strategic importance and size, it was decided that it needed to have a breakwater. Various schemes were proposed before the Admiralty and town officials settled on a broad scheme with two access points on either side of it. Work was started by John Rennie and Joseph Whidbey in 1811 at the height of the Napoleonic Conflict. However, it would take far longer than anyone expected to complete. John Rennie ended up bequeathing the project to his son John Rennie Junior and it was not finally completed until as late as 1848. As fortune would have it, Napoleon himself was able to survey the impressive works when he arrived as a prisoner in Plymouth in 1815. Much to the satisfaction of Rennie, Napoleon was said to have admired the scale, extent and ambition of the project before being sailed off to his island prison at St. Helena.
The Seven Years War had already seen a sharp increase in the facilities and defences of Plymouth Dock. From 1758 saw the building of a new facility at Stonehouse which would become the most cutting edge hospital of its time. It was built for the Royal Navy on grounds made available from Lord Edgcumbe. Previously, the Royal Navy had relied on hulks and existing ship capacity to care and tend for its sick and wounded. The unhygienic conditions of these cramped, dark and dingy hulks were totally inappropriate for medical care and caused many good sailors to die needlessly. Public health in and around Plymouth Dock was further undermined by one of the more unhelpful traditions of the Royal Navy. The disposal of dead sailors overboard was not confined to long ocean voyages. If any sailor died on a ship in port in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he was given a ceremony and then released over the side of the ship in accordance to naval tradition. Ships could remain in Plymouth for long periods of time waiting for victuals, crew or simply further orders. There were also the training and prison hulks which similarly disposed of its dead by releasing them overboard. This meant that the Plymouth Sound frequently had corpses of sailors or prisoners bobbing around on it. When the tide went out, all sorts of gruesome human remains could be found amongst the rockpools and seaweed of the coastline.
Clearly a new health regime was required for a Royal Navy that liked to see itself as being at the cutting edge of military technology and martial prowess. It seemed only sensible for the Admiralty to seek better ways of caring for its sailors. The hospital was built in an innovative manner of detached blocks linked by covered walkways in order to minimise the spread of infection which was a real issue in the eighteenth century. There was a surrounding wall constructed in order to prevent sailors from absconding without permission and to regulate access to the facility.
The hospital was accessible by a landing stage on Stonehouse Creek. This is where the english phrase 'Up the Creek Without a Paddle' originated from. It refers to the fact that sailors who were ill and sick were not expected to row the boats to the landing stage. Those who had the oars knew that they were allowed to return to their ship once the patients had been deposited. It was also felt that some patients might be so reluctant to attend the hospital that they might have been prepared to use the paddles as weapons and so should be denied access to them. These days, the creek has been drained and the area is now a series of Rugby Grounds for Stonehouse Sharks and Devonport Services.
In 1787, two prominent French surgeons, Jacques Tenon and Charles-Augustin de Coulomb visited the hospital and were very impressed with the facilities and conditions that they saw. They had been touring hospitals throughout Europe but agreed that this was the finest that they had seen so far. They proceeded to use it as a template and model for all future French hospitals. Their proposals even managed to survive the upheaval of the French Revolution. It is an irony that Stonehouse Naval Hospital provided the inspiration of what became known as Pavilion hospitals for Napoleon's forces and for all of France for another century to come.
A burial ground was acquired on the site of where St. Dunstan's School was later founded. At first, it was used for those who died in the hospital, but as the Navy was encouraged to consider alternative ways of disposing of its dead rather than dumping then in the Sound, it began to be used more and more although many sailors preferred to be buried in church yards near to their home towns and loved ones. However, they would be expected to shoulder the costs of any burial other than at the designated Royal Naval graveyard.
Plymouth has had a long and complicated connection to slavery. In many ways, its progression and involvement in slavery mirrors Britain's own tortured relationship to the foul business. Plymouth went from being the launch pad of slaving expeditions from John Hawkins in the sixteenth century to being at the forefront of the anti-slave trade movement in the eighteenth century to providing the facilities, personnel and ships to allow the Royal Navy to stamp out the slave trade in the nineteenth century.
Plymouth never supplied the same extent of slaving ships and investment that ports like Bristol and Liverpool dedicated to the enterprise. Although undoubtedly many of Plymouth's mariners almost certainly served on the slaving ships in their hey day of the eighteenth century. Plymouth was more likely to supply the victuals or receive the products required by Caribbean islands reliant on slave and plantation labour. Other than Hawkins' early slaving voyages, few ships left Plymouth to pick up slaves in West Africa and transport them across the Atlantic. However, occasionally slaving ships did call into Plymouth for repairs or supplies. The stench and foul conditions of the ship clearly marked these out as slavers. It is no accident that in 1788 the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade published what became one of the truly iconic images of slavery; the Brookes Slave Ship. This was an artist's representation of how cramped and inhumane the transportation of slaves was. It was almost certainly inspired by viewings of slave ships that called into Plymouth en route to West Africa or having returned from the Caribbean. The image was so effective that it was reproduced and replicated many times in what was one of the first successful humanitarian campaigns of modern times. A copy of an original version of this image can be seen in Saltram House.
Ford Cemetery nicely sums up Plymouth's complicated relationship with slavery with the location of two graves that could not be more different in their approaches and responses to the issues of slavery. On the one hand it contains a gravestone to an unsavoury character called John Williams Coath (1839 - 1874) who apparently was murdered in the South Pacific after partaking in what was known as 'blackbirding'. This was a ruse to encourage Islanders to come on to a ship that they believed to be a missionary ship. In fact, Coath was preceding a genuine missionary ship but once he had got islanders on to his ship he clapped them in irons and took them off to be sold as slaves. Barely a hundred yards away is a substantial obelisk memorial to 14 more reputable sailors and marines who died aboard HMS Rattlesnake whilst serving off the West African station on the Royal Navy's Anti-Slavery patrol from 1867 to 1871. West Africa was not known as the 'White Man's Grave' for nothing and whether it was disease or action that saw these men die, the fact remains that they died attempting to suppress and stamp out the slave trade. What is surprising about their endeavour and sacrifice is that the Royal Navy was over-extending its legal powers by intercepting ships of foreign navies on the High Seas. The only right they had was the moral argument that slavery was wrong. Britain's high handed humanitarian stance caused a great deal of ill-feeling from those powers still engaged in trading slaves.
Plymouth Dock had steadily expanded throughout the eighteenth century and the importance of the Dock to Britain's strategic requirements had been recognised by friends and foes alike. Plymouth Dock represented the military reach of a nation growing in power and confidence. As such, it was recognised as being central to the power of Britain at a time when some suspected that their liberties were in danger. Revolutionaries on the other side of the Atlantic had taken up arms in defence of their ancient liberties as Englishmen. They looked towards the Magna Carta and Common Law against a series of colonial governments that appeared to treat Englishmen differently overseas than they were treated at home in England. The Atlantic may appear to be wide and the colonies appear to have been remote from Plymouth but in an era where it was far easier to travel by ship than by land it felt proportionately closer than it does today. Besides, mariners from Plymouth had long engaged in Trans-Atlantic fishing and trading and regularly brought back news and information from their cousins in the New World. News of their rebellion was as likely to remind the people of Plymouth of their own stand in the English Civil War for their ancient rights as it was to engender hostility to their aims and actions. American revolutionaries found many sympathisers on this side of the Atlantic. The Scottish pamphleteer Thomas Paine is perhaps the best known, but a fellow Scottish radical by the name of James Aitken took his sympathies for the American cause to more destructive levels. He travelled to many of the dockyards in Southern England attempting to start fires and destroy Britain's military infrastructure. Dockyards were notoriously combustible places with large quantities of rope, tar, sail and wood in abundance. James Aitken was unsuccessful in his attempt to start a fire in Plymouth Dock, but was more successful in Bristol and Portsmouth where he caused extensive damage. It was James Aitken's actions that prompted a new offence being created on the British statute books of causing 'Arson in His Majesty's Dockyards' which was punishable by death. Devonport Dockyard would later have one of the last functioning hangman's nooses available in it. The law against Arson in Her Majesty's Dockyard was one of the very last death penalties removed from the statute books alongside treason as recently as 1998.
The American Revolution had a negative effect on the commercial activity of Plymouth but this was probably more than compensated for by the increase in military activity to service the ongoing campaign there. The Royal Navy played a large role in moving troops and bringing supplies to the armies fighting there. Once again large numbers of soldiers were passing through the area.
The American Revolution sped up the barrack construction process in and around Plymouth and Plymouth Dock. The idea of billeting soldiers on the population had backfired on the British in the 13 colonies where the colonists resented it as much as the English had done so a century earlier. Proposals for new barracks were quickly given permission. Plymouth Dock was about to expand its defences and facilities once more.
Widespread public opinion only turned against the American revolutionaries after they sought and received support from England's traditional enemies of France and Spain. Now, all could agree who the enemy was. The war had escalated in the minds of Plymothians from a fight about rights to a more traditional showdown with ancient enemies. 1779 brought home the international nature of the Revolutionary wars when a large Franco-Spanish fleet of 60 ships carrying 30,000 soldiers entered Plymouth Sound and anchored in Cawsand Bay. It is believed that they were working on intelligence gathered by a spy who went by the name of Comtes de Parades. He seems to have spent a great deal of time, money and effort in Plymouth gathering information about Plymouth Dock, the Citadel and the surrounding defences. He seems to have bribed a sergeant in the Citadel to gain schematics of its layout and he had entered the dockyards frequently claiming to be a legitimate trader in maritime equipment.
The arrival of the Franco-Spanish fleet was the greatest threat to Plymouth since the Spanish Armada or the Bretonside raids of the Middle Ages. Hurriedly, cannons were dragged into position, booms were placed across the Cattewater and Prisoners of War were taken off their hulks and marched into the interior lest they be released and join in the expected slaughter.
As fortune would have it, a storm on August 21st dispersed the fleet back into the Channel. Further fortune favoured the British when a returning flotilla of Royal Naval ships under the command Sir Charles Hardy hove into sight. As the Royal Naval ships readied for action, the larger but more cumbersome troopships of the Franco-Spanish fleet broke off and sailed home without firing a shot. The authorities were greatly relieved but the affair convinced them of the need to redouble efforts to fortify and improve the defences around Plymouth Dock and the Sound in general. A new blockhouse was built at Higher Stoke to cover the landward entrance to Plymouth Dock. The remains of this blockhouse are still very much in evidence and it is now a park with wonderful views across the Tamar, the Sound and Devonport. Further gun battery emplacements were built around the Hoe including at Mount Edgcumbe overlooking Cawsand Bay! Additionally a new barracks was built for the The Royal Marines at Stonehouse where they still have facilities to the modern day.
The foresight of dockyard planners was made apparent to King George III as he visited a new fourth dock being constructed at Plymouth Dock in 1789. He asked why they were building a dock that was far larger than any ship in service in the Royal Navy. The answer was given that the French were constructing a new ship Commerce de Marseilles that was larger than anything in the Royal Navy and might one day be captured as a prize and would need to be serviced and repaired somewhere. Sure enough, when war broke out in 1793, the Royal Navy captured the ship almost immediately off Toulon and it became the first ship to enter the new North Dock upon its completion!
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the government had offloaded its unwanted criminals and vagabonds by sending them to the Caribbean or latterly to North America. They were sent as indentured servants to serve in very harsh conditions in New England farms or in Southern plantations. This had allowed the colonies to add much needed labour and removed what were seen as unwanted elements from what was thought to be an increasingly overcrowded mother country. The Industrial Revolution was creating huge urban conurbations and agricultural improvements were forcing many to leave the countryside. Transportation of those who had committed even the most minor of crimes suited the authorities at both ends. This cosy deal came to an end with the rebellion of the American Colonies. From 1775, the British no longer wished to send criminals into a civil war that pit the local population against the British authorities. They figured that the indentured slaves were more likely to join the rebels than the government. Transportation was ceased and alternative arrangements had to be put in place.
For the next decade, the industrial revolution only expanded in scale which just exacerbated all the problems of migration, urbanisation and crime. Temporary prison facilities were provided in the form of prison hulks. These were usually decommissioned naval ships stripped of their rigging and weapons and used as accommodation for prisoners. Even famous warships like Drake's Golden Hind and Captain Cook'sDiscovery ended their lives in ignoniminy as prison hulks. The conditions on board the ships were often appalling as little light penetrated the thick oak of the cramped and claustrophobic ships. Rats, lice and diseases thrived in the dark and dank conditions. Prisoners were often forced to 'pick oakum' which was a tedious and painful job of picking apart old ropes to fill mattresses with the by-product. The Hamoaze started filling up with these hulks as the quantity of prisoners increased but the means of disposing of them declined. The local towns were fearful of epidemics breaking out and spreading from the ships to shore. The authorities decided than an alternative destination was required fpr transporting undesirables.
Many destinations were considered including plans to send them to Africa or to the West Indies. However, it was regarded that these areas were particularly ill-suited to the constitution of Europeans. Besides, considerable resources would have to be set aside to guard the inmates from local populations. Captain Cook had identified a possible solution in the form of Australia in the Southern Seas. Although not empty, the local aboriginal population was not regarded as being sophisticated or numerous enough to pose significant risks to the would-be colonists. Additionally, the French and Dutch had expressed interest in establishing their own colonies in this part of the world. It was felt that the British might solve multiple problems by setting Australia as its transportation destination. That is to say, they could offload their convicts and clear the prison hulks from her ports and send the unwanted criminals to Australia to build the infrastructure of a new, fledgeling colony and even provide its population in the longer term. Experience in North America had taught the authorities that few convicted criminals made the journey back to Britain. After having invested so much time and established new relationships and acquired new skills few had the means or the motivation to bother returning to Britain.
On the 13th March, 1787, two ships sailed from Plymouth carrying convicts bound to serve a minimum of seven years in the wilderness of Australia. The ships, Friendship and Charlotte joined with a flotilla of nine other ships from Portsmouth to form what was referred to as The First Fleet under the command of Arthur Phillip. Certainly some of these forced first colonisers were from Plymouth itself including petty criminals like Edward Perkins, Charles Granger and Edward Petherick, amongst others no doubt. They were completely ignorant of their destination as were most of their Royal Marine gaolers. The journey lasted an awesomely long eight months with great privation for all on board before they arrived at Botany Bay. This was the spot selected by Captain Cook just a few years earlier. However, the first fleet thought that it had found a better location and moved further north to Port Jackson.
The First Fleet was followed by many more ships over the next half a century and even longer in the case of Western Australia which was still accepting convict ships as late as 1868. Plymouth continued to hold prisoners in prison hulks for many more years yet awaiting their ships to be taken to their new lives down under. These criminals were joined in the hulks by French, Spanish and later American prisoners of war when the Napoleonic Wars broke out. However, alternative accommodation was later constructed on Dartmoor to take these prisoners of war, therefore freeing up the hulks for civilian use.
Of course, Plymouth did not just supply many of the convicts but also many guards and administrators for the new penal colony. Many of those who were sent to guard the convicts ended up carving a life for themselves in the new colony through their privileged positions and personal industry. Returning was at least an option for the Royal Marines and administrators but one that was beyond the means of the vast majority of convicts who were forced to transition from penal servitude to enforced colonists.
Plymouth administrators in this new world included the 'famous' William Bligh of the Mutiny on the Bounty episode. He was actually to face a second mutiny when he tried to stand up to yet another Plymothian, John Macarthur, over control of rum sales and the rights of the militia to police the colony. John Macarthur was an example of one of the Marines who had remained in the colony and carved a new life for himself, but he resented it when new administrators tried to reduce his privileges and prerogatives. George Arthur supplies an example of a Plymouth man who became the administrator of the penal colony within a penal colony, Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). This became the dumping ground for prisoners who were convicted of new and violent crimes in the new colony. Van Dieman's Land soon gathered for itself an unenviable reputation for itself as a place of harshness and brutality.
It was another Plymothian, Edmund Lockyer, who was responsible for British expansion to the West of the continent. In late 1826, Lockyer led an expedition to claim Western Australia for Britain. He sailed on the brig Amity, arriving at King George Sound with twenty troops and twenty three convicts. The military base established by Lockyer was named Frederick's Town, later renamed Albany, and would become an important deep water port and expand British control over the continent and denying it to rival European powers.
By the 1850s, Australia no longer needed or wanted the convicts being sent its way. They preferred voluntary emigration and with an infrastructure in place and land plentiful it soon was able to attract migrants voluntarily. Many of these passed through Plymouth too, going through the emigration depot which was a purpose built facility just below the walls of the Citadel at Baltic Wharf. These were willing migrants who had purchased their own passages or were subsidised by destinations keen to attract skilled labour rather than have to rely on the lottery of skills afforded by reluctant emigrants. They primarily boarded ships to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the USA in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
The 1790s proved to be a tense time for the British as Revolutionary ideas threatened to spill over from the Channel and sweep all before it. The defensive measures begun during the American Revolutionary Wars were proving to be invaluable but incomplete. Yet more barracks needed to be constructed to deal with the inflow of troops who were required to fight on a truly global scale. Frankfort Place saw the construction of new barracks as was the case at Millbay next to Mill prison. These barracks were also to supply the guards for the prison which was used to house American, Spanish and French prisoners of war and would be very heavily utilised over the coming years. Overcrowding became such a problem that many of the soldiers had to be moved onto prison hulks or taken out onto Dartmoor.
The superiority of the Royal Navy was soon illustrated by a fleet that left Plymouth in 1794 under Admiral Howe. Howe sailed his Channel Fleet to intercept and defeat a French Fleet of 26 warships off Brest in what was known as the 'glorious first of June'. Prize ships were brought back to Plymouth for processing and happy sailors spent their rewards in the pubs and brothels of the port.
Not all expeditions launched from Plymouth were so successful. A fleet had been assembled in Plymouth to take the fight to the Caribbean. Disease and mismanagement assailed the enterprise from the very beginning and soon many thousands of sick and wounded were returning to Plymouth. The Navy had their own hospital ships and naval hospital to deal with their wounded but they did not wish to take on the costs or responsibility of treating soldiers. By 1795, Plymouth was overcrowded with sick and wounded soldiers. Temporary hospitals were set up in the newly constructed Frankfort and Millbay Barracks but could not cope with the volume or severity of troops needing medical attention. Plans were made to construct a purpose built hospital close to Stoke Damerel Church on the opposite bank of the creek that housed the Royal Naval hospital. Four blocks were constructed and linked by an impressive colonnade of 41 arches, the longest arcade in Britain at the time. It was to be reached by road or by creek via its own landing stage. The name given to the new institution was Stoke Military Hospital. It is now the site of Devonport High School for boys (to which the author attended - and recalls the tuck shop being the old morgue!). In 1809 the shattered remnants of Sir John Moore's army arrived in Plymouth after their retreat from Corunna. Many thousands of sick and wounded passed through the hospital. Interestingly, the hospital had no permanent staff of its own but rather the regiments using the facilities provided the staff necessary. One interesting doctor who seemed to serve in this hospital from 1813 was the first female ever to have graduated from medical college in Britain. Bizarrely, the only way she could achieve this accolade at this point in time was to dress as a man which she did for the rest of her life. She went by the name of James Barry and went on to have a very full and active medical career with postings all over the Empire.
1796 illustrated how dangerous warships could be when HMS Amphion exploded on the Hamoaze with the loss of 300 men. It was being victualled when the accident occurred. These wooden ships were full of gunpowder and accidents were an occupational hazard. What made the tragedy even worse was that families were aboard the ship in anticipation of its sailing the next day in order to maintain the blockade on Brest. Only 10 people survived the accident.
Perhaps the most illustrious visitor to Plymouth during these wars was Horatio Nelson. In 1801 he was afforded the freedom of the City of Plymouth for his victories to date. One of his more famous crewmen lived in Plymouth at 156 Durnford Street, Stonehouse. This was Thomas Hardy to whom Nelson cried out 'Kiss me Hardy' shortly before his death at the battle of Trafalgar. Hardy went on to become a Vice-Admiral and had a long and illustrious career in his own right.
Plymouth was known to be a town with an exceptional pool of talent for the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, not everyone wanted to take the King's shilling and serve at sea in what could be horrendous conditions. Press gangs were used extensively to round up adequate personnel for the insatiable demands of the Royal Navy in time of war. Even fishing boats returning to Plymouth Sound could expect to be stopped by Royal Naval ships and have their men press ganged into the Navy there and then.
Morale in such a reluctant workforce could be a serious problem and only ferocious discipline could keep the men in place. The use of the Cat o'Nine Tails was not always sufficient and a fleet wide mutiny took place in 1797. News had arrived of the serious mutiny at Spithead and before long Red Flags were flying from the ships at Plymouth Dock. Attempts to diffuse the situation by increasing the pay were handled badly at Portsmouth and word of the failure of the Admiralty to honour their promises hardened attitudes in Plymouth. Officers were thrown out of, or even off, their ships and mobs rampaged through the three towns in search of booze and a good time. The mutiny was only quelled when Admiral Viscount Keith arrived personally to restore law and order. He had been the man in charge of quelling the main mutiny at Nore and was known to be a determined officer. He asked that 50 of the ring leaders be handed over and that the rest would be pardoned for taking part in the disturbances. When men armed with cutlasses and bayonets threatened to attack him he drew his sword and asked who would like to be the first to try to run him through! His authority prevailed and the mutiny was subdued. Fourteen ring leaders were condemned to death and others were sentenced to a lashing.
A drummer boy at the Royal Marines barracks reported to his commander that he had overheard some of the Royal Marines discussing an uprising. The Commandent immediately barred the barrack gates, disarmed all the Marines and began questioning to find out about the conspiracy. After extensive questioning three ring leaders were discovered. It was claimed that one Englishman and two Irishmen were plotting to head to the nearby Mill Prison where they would release the French Prisoners of War, arm them and take over the Government. Revolutionary ideas like these petrified the authorities and all three were condemned to death and executed very publicly on Plymouth Hoe by firing squad to ensure that no one else contemplated harbouring such dangerous ideas.
Overall tension relaxed in the three towns after news reached the port of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805. There was much rejoicing tinged by the sadness of the death of one of their favourite heroes, Admiral Nelson. The threat of an invasion or a raid on Plymouth had been removed and the port looked forward to a steady trickle of prize ships as the Royal Navy asserted its supremacy on the High Seas.
Plymouth provided much of the launch pad for the various Peninsular War campaigns from 1807 onwards. Transport ships crowded into the harbour awaiting their troops before sailing to Portugal or Spain. As mentioned previously, the battered army from Corunna were brought back to Plymouth to recover as best they could. Sir Arthur Wellesley (who would become the Duke of Wellington) used Plymouth to prepare for his own Peninsular Campaigns in 1809 and he was back in Plymouth again in 1812 to launch his Salamanca campaign. The troopships often brought back French and Spanish prisoners of war to join those taken from ships.
It was clear that the facilities in Plymouth could not cope with the influx of prisoners of war. It had been Plymouth's MP, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt, who had proposed building a new prison on Dartmoor at Prince's town. Work was started in 1805 but it was not until 1809 that it received its first inmates. At its height it held nearly 10,000 American, Spanish and French prisoners of war. The men were employed in the nearby quarries or in building dry stone enclosures for the farmers, many of which can still be seen today.
Whilst the British were busily fighting Napoleon, Americans attempted to take advantage of Britain's overstretched military machine by invading Canada in 1812. They did not fully realise that the French in Canada were more sympathetic to the Royalist cause than to that of Napoleon and the Revolutionaries. Determined resistance from the Canadians and the Native Americans prevented the Americans from achieving their war aims. The effects on Plymouth were minimal except that all ships travelling to and from North America were required by the admiralty to travel in guarded convoys, many of which were organised in Plymouth Sound or arrived there. The Admiralty worked very closely with the insurance companies to ensure that insurance premiums for shipping did not rise despite attacks by American privateers or Navy. An example of American raiding ships was that of the Argus that raided shipping off the coast of Wales in 1813. It was intercepted by HMS Pelican and a fierce battle resulted that saw the Americans surrender their ship. Their captain William Allen had been mortally wounded in the fight and died at Millbay Prison hospital. In an example of naval chivalry he was permitted to be buried with full military honours and accompanied by his crew at St. Andrew's Church.
He had surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland in the hope that he would be treated more fairly by the British than he might expect from the Royalist French. Maitland returned to Plymouth with his unusual passenger to await further orders on what to do with him. The British government considered the options throughout July of 1815 before agreeing to sending him to exile to Saint Helena. Whilst awaiting this fate, Napoleon became quite the tourist attraction as people came from miles around to catch a glimpse of the renowned warrior and would-be Emperor on his own personal prison ship. He generally left his cabin to walk around the deck of the ship every evening at 6pm. There could be quite a commotion as people paid boatmen to take them out to see him at that time. There is a famous painting in Plymouth Museum which shows the extent of the mayhem. It reached such a point of pandemonium that at least one person, John Boynes, was killed in an accident whilst attempting to view the Great Man. His gravestone marking the events surrounding his death can be seen in the graveyard of St Andrew and St Luke at Stoke Damerel.
Unusually, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had been good to Plymouth. Most areas had found inflation and declining economic activity. Plymouth Dock on the other hand had received considerable investment into her infrastructure. Furthermore, the success of the Royal Navy meant that prize ships were flooding into the Sound, being auctioned off and the money was being spent by eager sailors in all of the three towns. The war had provided a boom for the local economy.
Plymouth Dock had done particularly well out of the war outstripping the population of Plymouth for the first time. Civic pride demanded that the upstart community illustrate to its older sibling which was the more successful borough. John Foulston was employed to lay out considerable new public amenities and buildings. Much of the development was funded privately as Plymouth Dock's economy had swelled under the successful expansion of the dockyards and from the war itself. An imposing Town Hall, a library built in a distinctive Egyptian style, ballrooms, assembly rooms, hotels and theatres were all laid out in magnificent Regency style with imposing boulevards and vistas. For seven years following Napoleon's visit to Plymouth Sound, Plymouth Dock was a massive building site, but the results were magnificent. Sadly, much of this architecture was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War Two, or by town planners in the post-war period. However, glimpses can still be caught of the ambition of the fledgeling community.
Many of the inhabitants of Plymouth Dock were concerned that the name of the community made it seem subservient to the far older settlement of Plymouth and that it was merely an adjunct to it. In 1823, King George IV was petitioned to allow them to change its name. He consented to it being called 'Devonport' from 1824. To commemorate this historic moment, a magnificent Doric Column was constructed overlooking Union Street, the main thoroughfare to Plymouth. The new community intended to arrive in style.
Stonehouse was by far the smallest of the three boroughs but it would also receive its own opportunity to expand its size and importance and carve out a vital role for itself. Getting enough fresh supplies and victuals to the navy, army and marines had always been an issue. Ships going on long journeys needed the freshest water, vegetables, fruit and meat that it could lay its hands on. The Royal William Victualling Yard was to be built between 1824 and 1835 and provide state of the art barrelling, packing and slaughtering facilities so that ships could pull alongside the warehouses and processing units, fill up with fresh supplies and sail straight out to sea and to their long ocean voyages. it covered an impressive 14 acres of land, half of which was reclaimed from the sea. It had a high wall around it in order to prevent its valuable stores from being pilfered or smuggled out of the facility. It provided a level of logistical support to the Royal Navy that had hitherto been unknown in its history.
The colonisation of New Zealand by the English was largely hatched and conducted from Plymouth through the Plymouth Company of New Zealand. Both the North and South Islands were already known to the English and had already been surveyed by two sailors with strong Plymouth connections; James Cook and William Bligh in the 18th Century. It was felt that the islands were peculiarly promising for British settlers as it appeared, if somewhat deceptively, to be a colony that was a mirror image of Britain and therefore with a geography and a climate that was felt to be conducive to British agricultural techniques.
The Plymouth Company of New Zealand was established at a public meeting on 25th January 1840. It was supposed to be an association of 'worthy' gentlemen from Devon and Cornwall, with the Earl of Devon as its first Governor. Its aim was to offer a fresh start to hard-working families from the 'labouring classes' who were struggling in the harsh economic winds that were effecting countryside and urban settlements alike. They set up a Company headquarters at 'New Zealand House' at 5, The Octagon, Union Street.
The company heavily subsidised those who wished to sail to the new colony. The first ship to set sail from Plymouth was the William Bryan which slipped out of Plymouth on the 19th November, 1840. There is a small plaque opposite the Mayflower steps that commemorates this voyage. The ship had been substantially delayed due to two violent Autumn storms
After a tortuously long journey that took 140 days to complete, the colonists established themselves in Taranaki and named their new settlement in honour of their old one 'New Plymouth'. An Ordinance Surveyor had arrived in the area just three months earlier to chose a suitable site and survey the area. With fertile soil stretching on a gentle slope from the sea, the area was christened 'The Garden of New Zealand' although more in hope than in reality.
Six months after the arrival of the William Bryan the second ship sponsored by the Plymouth Company arrived; The Amelia Thompson. Four more ships; Oriental, Timandra, Blenheim and Essex arrived from Plymouth bringing a total of 585 settlers to the colony.
The New Plymouth Colony did not thrive at first largely due to the fact that the the surveyor had not selected the best site after all. The coastline was dangerous and it was precarious for shipping and fishing. The settlers were reluctant to buy the company land and drifted off to the better placed Port Nicholson. Within two years, the Plymouth Company was in dire financial straits and ended up merging with the more successful New Zealand Company of London.
Throughout the 19th Century, streams of emigrants departed from Plymouth. Most of these were processed and organised for departure at the Emigration depot which was a purpose built facility just below the walls of the Citadel at 'Baltic Wharf'.
Plymouth had started life as a fishing port. However, its deep anchorages meant that ships from all over the world could visit and deposit their wares or pick up new merchandise from the many warehouses in the port. Before trains, transportation by boat and ship was the most economical form of trading and Plymouth joined in with that trade. It first made its reputation in the seventeenth century importing wine from France. This lasted until 1688 and the Glorious Revolution. When James Stuart fled to France all trade with that country was banned. The enterprising traders of Plymouth just sought alternative products to replace French wine. Fortified wines from Spain and Portugal filled the vacuum, with port becoming a particular favourite.
The problem with importing goods was that it was liable for customs and duties. In an era before income tax, these indirect taxes provided the bulk of income to the government. There was therefore a great temptation to avoid paying these taxes by smuggling the goods into the country. Cawsands in particular became a famed smugglers haunt as ships called into the little village before completing the journey into Plymouth and a visit by the customs officer to declare the goods being brought in. Plymouth had its first Customs House in the sixteenth century to process the paying of duties and declaring goods entering and exiting the port. It was updated and modernised to deal with the increased volume of trade after the Napoleonic Wars in 1820.
Plymouth became one of the primary ports to import sugar cane and refine it into sugar crystals. This was one of the most imperial of exports. Sugar became incredibly popular in Europe and commanded high prices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was one of the products brought back by John Hawkins and Francis Drake after there voyages to the Caribbean in the 1560s. It's refining was notoriously tricky to do but it seems to have been attempted in Plymouth almost from the day it first came ashore. Remains of a seventeenth century refinery have been discovered at Coxside and another has been found in Plympton. The heyday of the industry in the port was in the nineteenth century when entrepreneurs like James Bryant set up industrial sized sugar refineries at Mill Lane just behind the Methodist Central Hall (The site is now a Car Park). Production at the site continued until the 1890s when locally produced and cheaper sugar beet took over from the more expensive Caribbean sugar cane. It needed a different refining process and was no longer needed to be so close to a port. Beet could be grown locally and besides, the railway was now providing a more efficient means of moving goods around the country.
For a long time, commercial imports were landed at Sutton Harbour in the old town of Plymouth. However, as Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport all massively expanded in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, there began to be calls for an improved docking infrastructure available to the area. William Burt, the Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to the 'Plymouth and Dock Telegraph' in 1814 explaining that:
"...Millbay might be rendered a safe refuge
for every kind of shipper, by the erecting of
suitable piers, as the tide flowing there, rises
to a considerable height, and vessels might
come in and go out at all times.To make
the design complete, a canal, or passage for
the tide, should be cut into the Marsh
under the management of the company,
which in the event of the establishment of
the West Indies, Newfoundland, South Sea,
and other trades would form an admirable
bason for the ships employed there-in, and
be a motive for strangers to visit the port.
...Warehouses similar to those constructed
around the West India dock (London)
should be constructed around it."
The idea would take another three decades before work on a steamship pier was completed in 1844 after five years of construction. Ideas to expand even these facilities were put forward to take advantage of the newly improved postal system. The British government wanted safe steamship facilities near to a railhead so that letters could be sent and received from the Empire and the wider World. Competition for two rival systems at Sutton Harbour and Millbay were put forward. The Millbay idea ultimately won out as it was felt that it had a deeper port available to it and because a railway could be laid directly to it with a minimum of disruption to existing homes and businesses. Construction started on expanding the deep water port facilities at Millbay with a railway line being laid directly to the port. The entire integrated project was built and developed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and was called the Great Western Docks. This meant that goods could be unloaded and placed directly on the railways or vice versa. In 1845, on her maiden voyage, Brunel arranged for the SS Great Britain to arrive at Millbay Pier, Plymouth, to promote his new venture. Some 1800 ships a year entered and left the port of Plymouth bringing foodstuffs, fuel and minerals to and from the port. This railhead - port combination also meant that Plymouth could start competing for the long haul passenger business. The Duke of Cornwall hotel was built to host wealthy travellers who might be waiting for a ship to take them somewhere in the Empire or to the USA or to recover for a few nights have recently alighted from a journey. It also meant that passengers in a hurry, mail or important communications could get off at Plymouth and take a train to Bristol or London at a considerably faster rate than a ship would be able to manage. It was known as "the route which cuts the corners off".
By the mid-1880s ships belonging to many
famous British and international shipping
lines called at Plymouth, operating routes
World wide; across the North Atlantic,
serving the West Indies, sailing to West and
South Africa and voyaging further east to
India, Australia, New Zealand and China.
In the first half of the twentieth century a total of over 6 million passengers landed or embarked at Millbay including famous personalities such as General Allenby, Charlie Chaplin,
Maurice Chevalier, Judy Garland, Winston Churchill,
Clemenceau, Bebe Daniels,
Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, Douglas
Fairbanks, Helen Keller, John F Kennedy,
Pierre Laval, Vivian Leigh, Lloyd George,
Ben Lyon, Anna Pavlova, General Pershing,
Mary Pickford, Cecil Rhodes, Bernard Shaw,
General Smuts and HG Wells.
The Titanic was scheduled to dock in Plymouth on its return voyage but never had the opportunity to do so. However, the surviving crew of the Titanic came ashore at Plymouth before taking the train back to Southampton after their rescue. The peak year for liner traffic was 1930, when 788 liners visited the port. The very biggest ships stayed out in the Sound and ferried people to and from Millbay by small tenders. This was mainly to save time as berthing large ships was a complicated procedure that was difficult to implement. Often it was the last opportunity for ships to take on fresh food before embarking on long journeys over the Atlantic.
A commercial dry dock was added to the Millbay facilities in 1857. Thanks to the Royal Navy, there was a large pool of expertise in the area to undertake repairs for commercial ships and even to build ships. For a over a century, Millbay dry dock was in operation not closing down until 1969.
Before she became Queen of England, a young Princess Victoria very nearly came to grief in the harbour at Devonport. In 1833 she was lucky to escape alive when the Royal Yacht Emerald, in which she was travelling, failed to stop and was carried under a hulk in the Hamoaze. The mainmast was seriously damaged and the sail and gaff fell onto the deck only narrowly missing Princess Victoria and her mother. The rest of the visit seemed to go smoothly with an attendance to the Dockyard Chapel and an excursion over to Mount Edgcumbe.
She returned in 1843 with her husband Albert. By this time she was Queen of England and was keen to see the extent of the modernisation going on at Plymouth Docks. She arrived by sea but was met by a flotilla of well wishers and struggled to get through the throng to land at Plymouth Dock. Once there she toured the newly launched 90 gun ship HIndostan and visited the defences of the port. She then travelled along Union Street en route to the Citadel.
Victoria returned to Plymouth in 1846 en route to Cotehele house on the Tamar River. On returning back down the Tamar, her yacht stopped at Devonport to receive visits from local and naval dignatories. The queen and her husband seem to have enjoyed an evening's entertainment of dancing and singing from naval personnel in a very relaxed manner.
Victoria's final visit to Plymouth was due to poor weather conditions in the Channel. Her yacht, the Victoria and Albert had to seek shelter from a gale raging. Apparently, Victoria herself had been quite seasick and was glad to come ashore. Once again she visited Mount Edgcumbe and visited the new steam factory in Devonport. She attended a review of troops at Mount Wise but as the weather was still inclement it was curtailed. She eventually left Plymouth by train from Millbay Station as the weather stubbornly refused to clear for her continued onward voyage.
Cork was connected to Plymouth by regular sailings of packet ships. When Ireland began to suffer from the devastating potato famine in the late 1840s many Irishmen, women and children scraped together the passage to Plymouth with a view to going on to a ship to elsewhere in the World; destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the USA. The government Emigration Depot next to the Citadel processed those who had the means to afford the more expensive ocean crossing tickets. Serendipitously, the emigration depot opened its doors for business in 1847, just as the Irish began arriving in significant numbers. Many Irish families crammed into cheap lodging around the Barbican area hoping to scrape enough money from menial work to afford the passage. The quarry on the West Hoe became a focus for this recently arrived Irish community as unskilled but demanding work could be found here as well as cheap lodging. Some were indeed able to afford the next leg of the journey, but others were stuck in Plymouth due to a lack of funds. If they were completely desperate, there was the harsh regime of the Plymouth workhouse. Some may have voluntarily chosen to stay in Plymouth if they found a decent enough job that allowed them to support themselves and their families. The Irish community quickly grew to be one of the most substantial communities in Plymouth with many Irishmen going on to work in the quarries, dockyards, some even joined ships or the various regiments that passed through the port or the Royal Marines. Women were more likely to enter domestic service. Over time, those that remained became integrated into the community and married locally although many retained the Catholicism of their Irish ancestors.
The arrival of cholera in Plymouth in 1849 may have spurred Irish arrivals to stay as briefly as possible in Plymouth. The conditions of the housing of Irish families could be appalling and whole families were crammed into single rooms. Plymouth's fresh water supply was anything but fresh. Drake's leat brought water to the Barbican but it was open to the elements, animals and humans all along its journey. By the time it reached Plymouth it was a liability. Lack of any sewage system meant that rain water washed effluent and waste back into the fresh water supply. Just under 2,000 people died from this outbreak of cholera, but many more were seriously weakened or lost family members and had to seek aid from the workhouse. The poor were disproportionately effected as their cramped conditions and reliance on contaminated water made them particularly vulnerable. The Irish who often arrived in a weakened state after having suffered from the famine were even more likely to succumb. It did not help that the local population blamed the cholera outbreak on the Irish arriving in their pitiful state. It was believed that it had been brought by these emigrants. It particularly devastated the area around the quarry where many of the Irish had found temporary lodging and employment. This confirmed to many locals that the Irish were to blame rather than the condition of the housing. The area around the quarry was cleared by the authorities and those who were uninfected were placed on the Leda, a hulk just off Mutton Cove, or to the workhouse until the danger had subsided
In general, the government did not assist any of the victims of the famine to reach further destinations. This was the height of Laissez Faire economics when it was felt that governments should not intervene or distort market forces in any way. The only exception to this rule was assistance given to Irish orphan girls. That is to say those girls who had lost their parents and had no older male sibling to look after them. From 1848 to 1850, the British government, through the government emigration depot, organised the passage of these female orphans to Australia. This was probably not a humane intervention for a vulnerable group in society. Rather, Australian colonies had long suffered from an imbalance of males to females. It was felt that boatloads of young Irish girls would ultimately restore some of the sexual imbalance in the fledgeling colonies. The fact that they were young and dependent upon the authorities meant that they could be distributed to the more remote locations and would not naturally remain in the more reasonably balanced cities. The girls were expected to enter domestic service in return for board and lodging and the assistance of the fare until they reached a marriageable age. This was an example of social engineering on an imperial scale dressed up as humanitarian intervention. If it was truly humanitarian, then orphaned boys would have been offered the same kind of assistance. They were not.
What is remarkable is just how many Irish remained in the Plymouth area. By 1861, in England only Liverpool and London had a higher population of Irish than the three towns had. Jobs were relatively plentiful. Ports often relied on unskilled or semi-skilled labour to function efficiently. There was also considerable new opportunities with the extension of the Great Western Railway and the new Great Western Docks at Millbay. If paid employment was difficult to come by, there was always the option of taking the Queen's Shilling and serving in the army, navy or marines. Direct steamers from Dublin helped families to stay in contact with home or to invite further family members over to join them. The Irish community required an increase in Catholic churches and schools for their use. In general, they went on to become successfully integrated into the three town's boroughs.
Mr Cyrus Field of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company decided to attempt laying a telegraph cable linking one side of the Atlantic to the other. He hired two ships for the purpose, the Agamemnon and the Niagara. They loaded up with over 3,000 miles of cable at Keyham Steam Yard in 1858. An attempt to link the two continents failed the previous year as the ships laying it lost 300 miles of cable making it impossible to finish the venture. In 1858, they were determined to have the right cable length available. The two ships set off for the middle of the Atlantic from where one would head to Newfoundland the other towards Ireland. There was a very serious storm that nearly sank the Agamemnon which meant that it came close to deciding to jettison its heavy load of cables to save the ship. Fortunately, it survived the ordeal. The two ships set off from the middle of the Atlantic on three occasions thanks to the cable breaking. Agamemnon had lost much of its coal thanks to the storm which had saturated its supplies. The two ships broke off to Ireland to replenish and restock before attempting once more to link the two continents. This next attempt was straightforward enough allowing for the first transmission to be relayed on August 16th 1858 with Queen Victoria sending a congratulatory telegram to President Buchanan:
"The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the greatest interest. The Queen is convinced the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable which now connects Great Britain with the United States will prove an additional link between the two nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem. The Queen has much pleasure in thus directly communicating with the President, and in renewing to him her best wishes for the prosperity of the United States ."
A less famous message relayed a week later read:
"The Military Secretary to Commander in Chief Horse Guards, London. To General Trollope, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The sixty second regiment is not to return to England ."
This showed the real potential of the cable in helping the Empire to communicate quickly and efficiently. It would have taken a ship weeks to reach the regiment concerned who may already have departed by the time the message was received. The cable hinted at the capabilities and advantages to the imperial machine in running its empire. In 23 days of operation a total of 271 messages totalling 14,168 letters were sent from Newfoundland to Valentia and 129 messages totalling 7,253 letters were sent from Valentia to Newfoundland. However, the signal quality declined rapidly, slowing transmission to an almost unusable speed. Eventually even these slow transmissions were no longer possible after excessive voltage had been applied to it in attempt to boost its speed. The life of the cable had lasted just three weeks but the communications revolution it heralded meant that another attempt would be made. Unfortunately, American domestic politics descended into Civil War and so it would take another decade before the intervention of Brunel's SS Great Eastern allowed for the replacement of a fully functioning cable linking the Old World to the New.
The Rajahs of Burrator
Although not technically in Plymouth, Burrator lies to the North of the city and would later be the site of the reservoir that supplied the city with its fresh water. Its proximity linked to the remarkable story of the Brooke family of Sarawak with its overtly imperial connections makes for a compelling reason to include it as history on Plymouth's back door. There is also a family connection for my own family, the Luscombes, who toiled in the farms around the village of Sheepstor and are even buried in the same church graveyard as the Rajahs of Burrator.
Sir James Brooke was an adventurer who went out to Asia to make his fortune in Borneo where he befriended the Sultan of Brunei. Unusually, Sir James was given the Head of State of the government of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei who wished to bring British involvement and protection into the area. The only problem was that the British government did not approve of this arrangement and did not officially sanction it, at least not at first. This meant that Sir James Brooke effectively found himself as a private citizen being the ruler of a substantial chunk of Borneo. He sought to modernise the commerce and government of the region but had to fight with powerful local tribes and powers. He clashed over issues such as piracy, slavery and head-hunting. He personally led campaigns into the interior to impose law and order over the area. He managed to convince many Malays of the force of convictions but was less successful with the Chinese pirates who used the coastline to launch raids on passing shipping. Disease took its toll on Sir James who seems to have contracted smallpox, malaria and various other tropical diseases whilst out East. He also barely survived an attack by Chinese pirates on his house. He decided that he needed to retire and came back to England to settle down. Whilst in Torquay visiting a friend he had a stroke which further convinced him of his need to retire.
The doctors there advised him that a home on Dartmoor would provide the most appropriate environment to recover. In 1859 he purchased Burrator House and retired to live there. He returned to Sarawak twice and took a very active part in its politics and paid particular attention to its diplomatic and international recognition. There were many Malay, Sarawak and British officials who arrived in the remote village to discuss these issues with Sir James. Eventually, he appointed his nephew to succeed him as Rajah of Sarawak and also managed to get the British government to recognise it as a colony. He became a church warden of Saint Leonard's church in Steepstor village and delighted in playing the role of a country squire with his small holding of 72 acres of land. Upon his death a decade later he was buried in the local churchyard where an imposing tomb was created for him which can still be seen today. Thus, the connection between this remote part of Dartmoor with the colourful region of Sarawak on the other side of the world was established. The Burrator estate represented a quintessential England as a counterpoint to his tropical obligations in Borneo. Sir James hoped that his descendants would enjoy the estate as a retreat but his nephew and his wife had their honeymoon there but otherwise felt it was too far removed from the centre of power. Therefore, in 1877 the estate was sold. However, Sarawak's connection to Burrator was not ended after all. First of all, Sir Charles Brooke had had a son out of wedlock with a local girl in Sarawak. This son, Esca Brooke, was brought back to Burrator to be raised by the vicar of the church and his wife. They later emigrated to Canada after an attempt to settle in Zululand was brought to a sudden end by the Zulu War. Secondly, Sir Charles Brooke had always intended to be buried in his beloved Sarawak upon his death. Unfortunately for him, he died in 1917 whilst World War One was still raging. There was no way to get his body to Sarawak. Alternative arrangements had to be made and so it was decided that the most appropriate place would be with the uncle who had selected him to become Rajah of Sarawak. Sir James ended up with Burrator becoming the spiritual retreat of the Brookes after all. Sir Charles was not the last of the Brooke's to be buried there, a tradition had been created that carried on to his own son Vyner Brooke being buried at St Leonard's as late as 1963. All three White Rajahs of Sarawak were buried in that small church in that small village as were other members of the Brooke family. St. Leonard's Church still has Batik decoration and the windows were commissioned to commemorate the deaths in Sarawak during the Japanese Occupation of World War Two.
Plymouth, along with its sister port - Portsmouth, would be the recipient of the largest British construction project of the nineteenth century in the form of a ring of forts guarding the ports, and especially the naval base, from attack. The scale of the project led to massive public expenditure and considerable work opportunities for decades before the fortifications were complete.
The reason for their construction is due to a mix of worries and concerns coming to the attention of Britain mid-nineteenth century. The most important fact was undoubtedly the Crimean War where the British and French allied to defeat Russia. What was interesting were the aims of the campaign. The British and French landed on the Crimea in order to capture Sevastapol the main Russian port for its Black Sea port. Rather than assault Sevastapol directly from the sea, which was felt to be too difficult, an army was landed several miles away and marched to attack the port from the landward side. The idea was that if the Sevastapol was neutralised, the Russians would have no means to support a fleet on the Black Sea and so would be at the mercy of the British and French fleets. This is precisely what happened, only it took far longer than envisioned to complete, partially due to the extensive fortifications around the port itself. British strategic planners realised that the prime British ports on the South Coast were more than vulnerable to a similar kind of attack especially when it was realised that their defences had not been updated since the Napoleonic Wars some half a century earlier. Palmerston believed it was time for a serious upgrade of the ports' defences.
Another factor was the changing nature of maritime technology and the fear that the Royal Navy was falling behind their near neighbours and historic rivals; the French. Steamships had already deprived Britain of one of its key lines of defence; the weather. Steamships could now sail against the wind in all but the severest weather conditions. This meant that the Channel was no longer the substantial barrier to invasion that it had proved in the past. Additionally, the French Navy were updating their steamships with iron plates; the so-called Iron Clads. La Gloire was the world's first ironclad steamship and was launched by the French in 1859 with another 9 ironclads on the production line. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Cherbourg in 1858 they were quietly impressed by the modernisation efforts of the French Navy under the rule of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte - a name which in itself still had the power to concern the British. In addition to the new ironclads being constructed, they were also impressed to see the state of the defences of the French port and quietly noted that Plymouth and Portsmouth were nowhere near as effectively defended. In an era when the Royal Navy's assets were stretched all around the globe, planners were concerned that her more old-fashioned ships might not be able to react quickly enough to a sudden strike from a modern navy just across the English channel.
The British were also reminded of their vulnerability in a most brutal way by the Indian Mutiny in 1857 when sepoys rose up and turned on their officers and the Honourable East India Company. Officers, soldiers, civilians and most shockingly of all to the Victorians; women and children were all targeted and many were slaughtered in an orgy of violence. What captured the public's imagination was the fact that those who managed to survive the uprising did so largely thanks to defendable compounds and forts. Newspaper columns covered the heroic defences of Lucknow and Delhi or reported the slaughter at Cawnpore where the defenders negotiated to leave their defences. It was very clear in the public's mind that more secure defences would have saved more lives. So, when there were discussions to build more fortifications in the late 1850s, it made perfect sense to large swathes of public opinion.
Another factor that made the building of the forts more palatable was the deteriorating political and diplomatic relations with France. In 1858 Louis Napoleon came close to being assassinated by an Italian nationalist called Felice Orsini. The attempt only narrowly missed and killed 8 bystanders and wounded 156 more. There was an outcry in France when it was realised that Orsini and his fellow plotters had been based in England and had been granted political asylum there also. There was further outrage when it was proved that the explosives had been made in England and had been smuggled to Paris with the help of English sympathisers. Within days of these revelations, a group of French officers stationed along the Channel announced that they would happily invade England if given permission to do so. These comments were amplified by the French press which goaded the English press into similarly jingoistic responses. The alliance of just a few years earlier seemed to lie in tatters. Attempts by Palmerston and Louis-Napoleon to patch up their differences led to demands for Palmerston to resign as PM for not standing up to the French. It was clear that reconciliation was not a public priority and that anti-French fears helped provide the environment that led to the construction of the forts.
It should also be remembered that the mid-nineteenth century saw British engineering confidence and financial strength at an all time high. Britain had the engineering talent and financial muscle required to pay to defend the homes of Britain's most important imperial asset; the Royal Navy. It was the Royal Navy that kept the trade routes open and projected British power on a truly global scale. It made perfect sense to ensure that the home ports could never be threatened. The very fact of the existence of these fortifications were to ensure that no power even considered attacking the ports.
A Royal Commission was established in 1859 to consider the defences of Britain's ports and it was to no-one's surprise that they recommended a huge investment in upgrading the clearly inadequate facilities of Plymouth and Portsmouth. The building work started in earnest in 1860 after the passing of a Defence Act which made funds available for the the ring of forts that were to guard the city from attack from any direction. Hence, there are sea defences including the construction of a fort next to the Breakwater and forts on either side of Plymouth Sound and further fortifications on Drake's Island to guard against a seaborne invasion. The existing Citadel was integrated into the coastline defences. A line of fortifications centred on Crownhill Fort was to ensure that no landward attempt to seize the port could be attempted. Forts were also placed on the Rame Peninsular in Cornwall and as far west as Tregantle overlooking the likeliest landing beaches at Whitsands for any attempt to seize Plymouth quickly. The entire city was to be cocooned. Firing lines were sighted from all the forts which had overlapping zones of fire and were connected by a covered military road behind them. Each of the forts was given a substantial budget to garrison and house the soldiers necessary for the defence of the port.
The design was largely undertaken by Captain Edmund Du Cane of the Royal Engineers. The great advances in military technology enabled him to break from the centuries old practice of continuous line defences. Each of the forts was designed as a polygon surrounded by a ditch which itself was protected by caponiers (powerful, casemated structures which provided flanking fire across a ditch). Guns, sometimes in casemates, lined the tops of the ramparts and the barrack blocks within were made bomb-proof by the use of mounded earth.
The outbreak of the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 seemed to confirm the wisdom of Britain's precautions, especially as it started with an initial onslaught on Fort Sumter. The new firepower unleashed in the war seemed to confirm that only modern construction techniques were resilient enough to defend against the latest generation of artillery and munitions. The American Civil War often lapsed into a style of warfare that was a precursor to the First World War.
However, it was a war at the end of the decade that reduced the fortification's military imperative. The Franco-Prussian war unleashed a new and more mobile form of war based on the ability of train lines to move large numbers of troops quickly and efficiently. The shattering defeat of France in that war also removed her as the pre-eminent threat on the continent. She was to be replaced in that role by the newly created Germany. Germany was developing a Continental power with little naval capability available, at least until the Tirpitz Plan of the 1890s. Plymouth's considerable defences were no longer as vital following this Franco-Prussian war, just as they were reaching full completion. Individual forts had been completed in the 1860s but the integrated whole was not finished until 1872, by which time they were already being regarded as being redundant. It was from this time that the term "Palmerston's Follies" began to come into circulation as he was regarded as being the prime motivator for their construction.
A new lease of life was found for the fortifications in the First World War as defences were required to ensure that shipping and troopships could enter and leave the safety of the harbour. The seaward defences in particular could play a role in watching out for submarine threats. The fortifications provided valuable barrack space for British and Imperial units coming into the city before being sent out to other theatres of war, in France or elsewhere. Crownhill Fort, for instance, was used as a transit fort for troops being sent to the Turkish and African fronts.
The Second World War also saw the forts prove their utility and were upgraded and fully manned in the expectation of an invasion in 1940 and 1941. As this threat subsided, the platforms and forts provided excellently defended positions for anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons and searchlight emplacements. The reinforced concrete and iron designs helped protect the city's defenders from high explosive bombs and were unfazed by incendiary devices. Their deep magazines added further protection and utility to the defending forces. Crownhill Fort was designated the headquarters of Plymouth Command and co-ordinated the anti-aircraft and civil defence measures from the relative safety of its formidable walls and embankments. Other forts were set aside for accommodation for American units in the build up to the D-Day landings.
It was not until 1956 that the gun batteries were dismantled. Parts of the defences were still used up until the Falklands War, where it was used as an assembly point for the forces that were to join the invasion fleet. The army gave up its control of Crownhill Fort as late as 1986. Many of the pre-fab buildings that still exist surrounding the fort used to be the extended barracks. Tregantle Fort is still used by the Royal Marines for training purposes.
One Plymothian accidentally launched a hobby that for many encapsulate the glamour, variety and breadth of the imperial experience; Stamp Collecting. Stanley Gibbons was a chemist who was interested in the sheer quantity and variety of stamps coming into the port from sailors and visitors from all over the world. He began to catalogue the weird and wonderful stamps from the Empire and beyond and began to sell them in his shop. His stamp collecting business soon surpassed his chemist work and he began to dedicate more and more time to accurately recording who issued stamps and where. His name still lives on in the catalogues used by stamp collectors and is synonymous with the hobby.
Devonport provided the main part of embarkation for troops setting off to Zululand in 1879. Great crowds watched regimensts arrive at the train stations and march through the streets to the waiting troopships such as the Jumna. A hastily written ditty was sung by many who witnessed the patriotic fervour firsthand:
In actual fact, far from setting the Zulus free, the war was an ill considered attempt to extend British authority through the area and nearly ended in disaster when the British Army was wiped out at Isandlwana - including many of those who had passed through Devonport just a few months before. However, fortunes and honour were slightly restored by the remarkable defence at Rorke's Drift by Plymothian Major John Chard. He stoutly resisted the attack of some 4,000 Zulu warriors on the isolated station at Rorke's Drift with just 130 men of his own, many of whom were recuperating in the makeshift hospital there. For his actions he won the Victoria Cross as did 10 other British soldiers there, making it the most highly decorated action in British military history. Major Chard returned to Plymouth to receive a hero's welcome. He was presented with the Plymouth Sword by local aldermen in front of a crowd of 3,000 invited dignataries.
There was one more interesting visitor to Plymouth in connection with the Zulu War. The Zulu chief, Cetewayo, was brought to Plymouth as a prisoner of war en route to London to meet as the defeated Head of State of Zululand. He arrived in full Chieftan regalia and was the talk of the town. Interestingly, when he returned from London to Plymouth to take a ship back towards Southern Africa, he was dressed in full frock-coat, silk hat and gloves. He even carried a silver mounted walking stick that had been presented to him by the Prince of Wales.
HMS Mount Edgcumbe
In the latter half of the nineteenth century there were earnest attempts to 'reform' young boys and girls who were felt to be growing up in destitute conditions and were presumed to be heading for a life of crime and misdemeanour. Exporting troublesome teenagers or children was no longer an option for Britain as colonies like Western Australia refused to take any more waifs and strays or prison ships. In general, the solution was to send people to workhouses and correctional institutes but in Plymouth an interesting experiment was formulated with a novel training institute for boys at least. On the river Tamar an attempt was made to train young boys for a life in the navy or merchant marine on HMS Mount Edgcumbe which lay between Plymouth and Saltash. It was designated as an Industrial Training Ship for Homeless and Destitute Boys. Originally, it had been the 56 gun HMS Winchester but was converted for use as a floating workhouse in 1877. It could take a complement of 250 boys and was felt to be invaluable for instigating maritime skills. Unfortunately, the training ship was run poorly with much brutality. At the turn of the century it was heavily criticised by government inspectors who found that the boys were often deformed or damaged by the poor diet, harsh conditions and strict discipline imposed upon them. It was reformed from 1910 and continued to serve in its original purpose for another 10 years. Workhouses in general were wound up not much later and by 1930 they had all been shut down or redesignated as local councils took over full responsibility for looking after the poor or orphaned.
Marine and Polar Exploration
Plymouth's role in mapping the World's oceans and collecting flora and fauna was well known. It was therefore deemed to be the logical place to establish the Marine Biological Association for research on marine life in the waters off Britain and around the Empire. The War Department donated a set of buildings beneath the Citadel for the headquarters and research facilities of this new organisation. By 1885 it had opened an aquarium. This was made open to the public and quickly built up a reputation for the quality of its scientific research. For many years it was led by Edgar Allen. Later, when Andrew Carnegie donated money to build a new library and museum between 1907 and 1910, the Marine Biological Association worked closely with the Natural History staff in setting up their collections.
The Marine Biological Association became a natural base of operations for Britain's polar exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic. Nearly all of the polar exploration teams set off from Plymouth and thousands of their specimens were brought back to Plymouth for evaluation and for further study. Many of the household names in polar exploration had very strong connections to the city. The most famous is certainly Robert Falcon Scott who was actually born in the area. Ernest Henry Shackleton, Frank Bickerton and many other less famous polar explorers were all familiar with the work of the Marine Biological Association and had spent a considerable time in Plymouth equipping for journeys or recuperating on their return. Once again, the Royal Navy was happy for its sailors to get involved in expeditions to such hostile parts of the world as it felt that it made for formidable training and helped further its own understanding of the world. The tragic end to Scott's expedition to the Antarctic saw a remarkable outpouring of grief. A final plea from his notebooks had asked that enough money be raised to help support the families of his doomed expedition. The public responded overwhelmingly to this request and raised far more money than he could possibly have imagined. A portion of the extra money was used to create the Scott Memorial at Mount Wise overlooking where the ships enter and leave the harbour. On the memorial is inscribed his famous last words:
"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."
Queen Victoria's Jubilee, which was celebrated extensively in Plymouth, was held in 1897. On paper it marked the apogee of imperial power and the Royal Navy was central to that power. However the period immediately following this jubilee was one of growing unease for the British public. British economic power was being challenged by the rise of America whilst its military power was being challenged by Imperial Germany. Splendid Isolation no longer seemed an envious policy decision but rather it appeared to illustrate aloofness and weakness. The declaration of Germany's Tirpitz Plan in 1898 directly challenged the Royal Navy. The Tirpitz plan was where the Kaiser declared that he would build a German Navy that could directly challenge and compete with the Royal Navy. The only response to German militarism appeared to be increased British militarism.
The implications for Devonport were profound. The dockyards were expanded yet further into Keyham with even bigger docks were built to deal with the ever increasing size of battleships. New weapon systems were developed and tested. A torpedo school was built at HMS Defiance just over the Hamoaze on the River Lynher. Submarines were built and tested for the first time.
There was frenzied ship building activity as the Royal Navy attempted to stay ahead of their rivals. The Royal Navy had taken on a policy whereby they wanted to ensure that they had more ships on the seas than the second biggest and third biggest navies combined. This meant work for the dockyardies at Devonport on an unprecedented scale. In 1902, King Edward VII visited Plymouth to launch HMS Queen and to lay the keel of a new ship to be built in his honour HMS King Edward VII.
In an attempt to intimidate the Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Tirpitz, King Edward VII invited the German Fleet to pay a visit to Plymouth and to allow the naval officers of the Imperial German Navy to see for themselves the futility of trying to challenge the Royal Navy. In 1904 a fleet of a battleship, four cruisers and an armoured cruiser entered Plymouth to much fanfare. The lead German ship fired a 21 gun salute as it entered the Sound to which the guns of the Citadel replied gun for gun. The ships anchored and the crew came ashore for three days. There was actually a lot of consternation in the public press and even at parliament when questions were raised about the wisdom of allowing German sailors to examine the defences of one of the Royal Navy's primary ports. The Kaiser did not sail with this particular fleet but he had been to Plymouth before as a young cadet. According to his memoirs, whilst in Plymouth he 'descended in a diving-bell' which illustrates yet again the experimentation that happened in and around the naval base.
The ultimate naval weapon that transformed the naval arms race before World War One was the launch of the Dreadnought at Devonport in 1906. This was the largest battleship that had ever been built and was armour plated all the way round and even on the decks. It was such an advanced design that it had the unintended consequence of making all previously built warships redundant in comparison. The naval planners had done such a good job at thinking outside of the box that they had accidentally made it easier for the Germans to copy their design and catch up with the Royal Navy. The advantage for Devonport was that these new ships were incredibly large and required vast amounts of manpower to build. Lloyd George's budgets from 1909 to 1911 set aside huge quantities of cash to build more and more ships in a desperate attempt to keep Britain ahead of her German rivals. Economically, Devonport thrived but the rest of the country struggled to balance its budgets. The increased militarisation did little to reassure the population that peace was the inevitable outcome.
Plymouth's communication systems and military infrastructure had improved to such an extent that it became the natural choice for embarking the many thousands of troops who would end up fighting in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. Many thousands of Plymothians went to war with the army, but even sailors got to fight on land in in this war in what were referred to as Naval Brigades. At several points in the war, particularly in the early stages, the British forces were under incredible pressure and staring at defeat. All available hands were required to avert a national catastrophe. A memorial to these Naval Brigades can still be seen in Plymouth in Devonport Park. Rather bizarely, the sailors from HMS Doris managed to capture a British made Boer machine gun that they had purchased before the war broke out. The machine gun would soon go on to dominate the battlefields but at the turn of the century they were still large, cumbersome and unreliable. The sailors were keen to use this captured trophy as a memorial to their fallen comrades. It stands overlooking the dockyards from the grounds of this elegant Victorian park.
One Naval Brigade tradition that was brought back to Plymouth from the Boer War was the Field Gun Race. This was a dramatic, competitive re-enactment of moving the guns from HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful to help relieve the siege of Ladysmith in 1899. The Naval Brigade had had to move their heavy guns over difficult terrain to help lift the siege. This became a regular fixture at the Royal Tournament and would pit crews from the various naval bases against one another. Devonport's arch rival was always Portsmouth, but teams from the Fleet Air Arm, Chatham and other bases have also competed in these arduous races.
The war went on for far longer than anyone had anticipated. It revealed some painful home truths that would have to be addressed in the future. Firstly, it revealed that Britain really was splendidly isolated and that it was dangerously exposed on the international stage. This would be remedied in 1902 with an Alliance with Japan in order to help spread the imperial load in Asia. More importantly, it would see an Entente with France and even a rapprochement with Russia as Britain clearly identified Germany with its naval plans as its number one threat. Another weakness revealed was the state of health of many Britons. The army had been dismayed at how few volunteers were in a fit state to join the service. Various government initiatives would seek to remedy this problem by introducing milk into schools, initiating regular health checks and clearing slums and improving housing. Plymouth would see new housing estates built as a result during the Edwardian period and these often included names of battles and places from the Boer War; Streets like Durban Road, Mafeking Road and Ladysmith Road (Mafeking Road was later renamed as Lydford Park Road). Perhaps the most serious weakness was the relative poor performance of her armed forces compared to the motivated and well-trained Boer farmers. There was much soul searching for this seeming decline in national vigour. Strenuous efforts were made to enthuse the nation's youth, train them more effectively and reform the army to better be able to deal with the new kind of warfare illustrated by the Boer War. As a consequence of these requirements, Scout troops were established for teenage boys to develop camp-craft skills, gun clubs were subsidised and opened up to younger teenagers and the army completely reorganised its weapons, uniforms and tactics. Plymouth saw its first Scout troop open at Harwell Church on Harwell Street in 1908 but it quickly spread in popularity and by 1914 there were 22 Troops in the area. There was a similar burst in the creation of shooting clubs and cadet forces throughout the area.
In a strange way, the Boer War came at just the right time for Britain. It may have been a badly managed and awkward war that revealed some serious home truths. But it ended up giving Britain a decade and a half to reorganise and prepare itself better for the First World War. The performance of the British Expeditionary Force in the early stages of the war surpassed the expectations of friend and foe alike as their professionalism and skill helped prevent France from being defeated in 1914. Without the Boer War and the reforms that it engendered, it is unlikely that the British military would have been so successful.
Just before the outbreak of World War One, a seaplane base was developed at Mountbatten for the fledgeling Royal Naval Air Service. The Navy was interested in developing air power but was unsure as how to go about the process. It was recognised that planes would greatly aid reconnaissance for the fleets, but it was unsure how best to incorporate them with the existing ship technology. It was also hoped that torpedoes could be adapted and carried by the planes so that they might be used in an offensive capacity. It just so happened that the Royal Naval Torpedo School was nearby to help facilitate experimentation. The first seaplanes at RNAS Cattewater (as it was called) were Short Type 184 planes.
Another interesting RNAS base was RNAS Laira. It was actually located opposite Laira at the Saltram House Racecourse at Chelson Meadow. Unlike RNAS Cattewater, this base was concerned with experimenting and developing airship technology. The base was home to two Sea Scout Zero airships, which were painted in a camouflage khaki; brown and black. It was linked to the main RNAS airship base at Mullion on the Lizard Peninsular. The base was in operation throughout World War One but seems to have come to an end after an airship flying from RNAS Mullion to RNAS Laira crashed upon landing and got stuck in the silt and mud of the River Plym. No one was killed, but questions were raised about the placement of the base. After this event, the base was relocated outside of the city.
That did not mark the end of airships in the city. In 1930, R100, one of the largest airships in the world at the time, passed over Plymouth twice. It could carry 100 passengers in addition to its crew. Many Plymothians came out to watch it fly overhead.
After World War One, the RNAS merged with the RFC to become the RAF. At this point the base changed its name to RAF Cattewater and achieved fame in 1919 by becoming the final stop for the first ever transatlantic flight from Rockaway, New York to Plymouth via Newfoundland, the Azores and Lisbon. Three US Navy Curtiss C-4 planes had set out, but only one made it the full distance. Aerial technology had come on in leaps and bounds during World War One and for a while, it seemed that seaplanes with their greater versatility in landing sites, would provide the model for future long distance aviation.
Plymouth was in the process of a massive reorganisation of its local government as war approached in 1914. It had previously been a collection of three separate boroughs of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport. However, it had been clear that all three boroughs were now bumping into one another. Matters were not helped by the fact that they were condensed further by the major rivers and the Plymouth Sound. Being hemmed in on three sides, the only direction that they could expand was northwards and this would require coordination by the three boroughs. Stonehouse and Devonport were far more reluctant than Plymouth to merge but the paperwork to join the three into a combined borough was passed through Parliament on 15th July, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War One and a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. There is little doubt that the scale of the World War that would break out so soon would challenge the local government and force it to marshall its resources in hitherto unforeseen ways.
Plymouth's military role would mean that it became a major player in the First World War. Foremost a port, the Royal Navy used Devonport as a major hub to patrol the English Channel, search for submarines and later to escort convoys to and from Britain. In fact, it was a Devonport ship, HMS Amphion, that became the first casualty of the naval war in August 1914 when she hit a mine in the North Sea. Devonport's ships would go on to play a vital role in ensuring that supplies rolled into Plymouth and that troops could go to and fro as required. It became a very busy port once more.
Plenty of Plymothians were swept up in the euphoria of patriotism that swept the country in 1914. Thousands upon thousands volunteered to fight. Those joining the army tended to head to the local Devon Regiment which had a depot in Plymouth. Many more were drawn to service in the Royal Marines or Royal Navy. Prisoners at the nearby Dartmoor Prison were given the option of joining up or remaining in prison. The vast majority joined up for service. The facilities of the prison were then set aside for the use of Conscientious Objectors who refused to fight or serve the armed forces in any way. These men were made to work on local farms or build walls much as prisoners of war had done in the previous century.
Plymouth became a massive transit camp for British troops going to and from France and for Imperial forces coming from all over the Empire to help the mother country. The Canadians were the first to land in force in November 1914 when the 1st Canadian Division landed in Plymouth. Some 32,000 troops and their equipment came ashore. Amongst their number was John McCrae the Canadian poet who would later go on to write the poem that made poppies synonymous with the First World War. The Canadians would later be followed by Newfoundlanders, New Zealanders, Australians, Indians and many other colonials troops. Another significant group to pass through the port were labourers and pioneers from India, the Caribbean and West Africa who were used to help dig trenches and gun emplacements in France.
Later, Americans would also disembark in Plymouth. The barracks and forts provided the bulk of accommodation for these forces who were usually in the City only for a short period before being shipped over to France itself. Plymouth became an incredibly cosmopolitan place as the Empire and Allies rallied to the crisis in Europe.
Given its distance from the fighting, Plymouth was regarded as a relatively 'safe' port and base. This did not mean that it was not menaced at all. Submarines in the First World War had far shorter ranges than in the Second and so were far more frequently spotted in the English Channel. Notwithstanding this threat, Plymouth was assigned the role of receiving casualties from the fighting in France or at sea. It already had impressive military hospital facilities, but the sheer volume of casualties meant that far more beds were required. Many of the schools in Plymouth were taken over by the military and turned into makeshift hospitals and wards. For example, Hyde Park School was used by Australians evacuated from the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915. This role for the city was regarded as so important that King George V himself toured the hospitals of the city awarding medals and encouraging the staff and patients in September 1915.
Plymouth also played its part in the manufacture of munitions and recruited heavily from women given the number of men who had volunteered or later were conscripted to fight. This would help presage a profound societal change as the role that women could play in society was re-evaluated by many thanks to their economic contribution during this war.
There was to be a significant local tragedy involving New Zealand troops in September 1917 as they were being moved out of Plymouth. Nine New Zealand soldiers were killed at Bere Ferrers station as they got out of the wrong side of the train and were killed instantly by a train travelling in the opposite direction. They were all buried in Plymouth at Efford Cememtery. This tragic accident shines a light on the movements of imperial troops in and out of Plymouth and gives a hint at the full extent of the imperial commitment to the war.
1917 saw the American Navy take control of Victoria Wharf as they set up a base to help clear the Channel of submarines and so allow their troops to cross the Atlantic in safety. The base was quickly filled with over 60 destroyers and submarine-chasers and 3,000 naval personnel. They set up their headquarters on Elliot Terrace overlooking the Sound. Their naval uniforms were distinctively different from those serving in the Royal and Empire Navies.
One of the lesser known roles of Plymouth during World War One was the creation and equipping of Q-Ships. These were highly secretive designs where merchant ships were fitted with guns, torpedoes and weapons to counter the u-boat threat. In the early stages of the war, German U-boats had preferred to surface and use their gun to sink ships rather than use one of their precious torpedoes. U-boats could only carry so many torpedoes and once these had been expended they had to take the dangerous journey back to Germany and re-arm. Recognising this tactic, Royal Navy hit on the idea of having merchant ships armed with secret weapons so that when a U-boat surfaced to sink the ship it would be surprised to find that the predator had become the prey. The Royal Navy was keen to keep these tactics as secret as possible and went to considerable lengths to ensure that as few people as possible knew of the existence of these Q-boats.
The extent of suffering by all the services required memorials on a hitherto unknown scale. The tradition at the time was to bury the war dead near to where they died and huge new graveyards were established in France, Belgium, Turkey or wherever in the Empire the fighting took place. However, the Royal Navy had no similar way of honouring its dead as so many were lost at sea or had been buried at sea. It was therefore agreed to establish Naval Memorials in the three Naval Bases of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham. These not only listed the names of sailors from the Royal Navy but also from the colonial navies, for example it listed those who died in the service of the Royal South African Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy amongst others. The architecture of the three memorials is remarkably similar and immediately form a powerful bond between the three principal naval bases.
Post Great War
Plymouth had been a safe but vital port in the First World War. With its end, came the process of repatriating troops back to the Empire and to Britain. Plymouth played a key role in this trans-shipment operation but with tragic consequences in the light of the influenza epidemic that broke out in 1918/9. The movement of so many troops in such cramped conditions was ideal in spreading the worst outbreak of flu in history. Troops carried the pathogens back to Plymouth and then on to ships to the most remote parts of the empire. Plymouth itself was very badly affected, but nearly all the colonies were exposed even the most remote Caribbean and Pacific Islands did not escape the ravages of the disease.
Peace was not good news for the economy of Plymouth. Disarmament became a necessity as the government struggled to balance its budget in the aftermath of war and after inflation had escalated the costs of everyday items. Plymouth was particularly devastated by the Washington Naval Conferences of the 1920s which sought to limit the size of the Royal Navy and detach Britain from its alliance with Japan. Limits were put on the size and tonnage of warships and Britain was not supposed to have any more tonnage than the United States - which effectively meant that it had to stop building new ships until the Americans had caught up. The economic problems of the inter-war years actually came to Plymouth before most other parts of the world. This had the consequence of local government starting massive house building schemes in order to kick start the local economy. New housing estates were built at Hartley, Compton and St. Budeaux. The new borough also built a new shopping and commercial city centre which attracted businesses and made Plymouth into the largest settlement in England west of Bristol. By these means, Plymouth probably pulled itself out of the depression before most of the rest of the country as well. Its economy was ultimately helped by rearmament in the late 1930s when it was clear that Germany was once more posing a strategic threat to the United Kingdom and its Empire. Of course, the Washington Naval Conferences detachment of Japan from its alliance with Britain would mean that its Empire would be threatened in Asia whilst Britain was embroiled in war back in Europe.
Politically, Plymouth would make its mark by electing the very first female MP in British history. Nancy Astor was the wife of the fabulously wealthy Waldorf Astor and sitting Plymouth MP. Waldorf Astor resigned his seat in 1919 in order that he could take his father's title and sit in the House of Lords. His wife then contested his old seat as a Coalition Unionist (effectively Conservative) and won easily with a majority of over 5,000. The effort of women during the First World War had not gone unnoticed and the franchise to women over 30 was extended to them in 1918 and it was harmonised with men at over 21 in 1928.
RAF Mount Batten
RAF Cattewater was transformed into RAF Mount Batten in 1935. It was primarily a seaplane base although it also ran motor launches to help service the seaplanes and to help retrieve downed pilots. A variety of seaplanes were employed from the Supermarine Southamptons, Fairey IIIs, Blackburn Iris and Sunderland Flying boats.
One famous aircrew member was T. E. Shaw from 1929 to 1933. This was the legendary Lawrence of Arabia who was trying to remove himself from the limelight by becoming a regular member of the RAF. Apparently, he loved piloting the high speed launches and really enjoyed himself at RAF Mount Batten.
When WW2 broke out the station became very busy. They helped rescue crews from downed aircraft, crew from ships that had been sunk and also helped to search and destroy German U-boats. The RAF unit was transferred to North Africa in 1940 and was replaced by 10 Royal Australian Air Force unit for the remainder of the war. This became one of the most highly decorated Air Force units of the Second World War. They flew 4,553,860 nautical miles, undertook 3,177 operational flights, sunk 5 submarines, received 25 Distinguished Flying Crosses, one DFC with Bar, 9 Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM), 1 British Empire Medal (BEM) and 36 times were 'mentioned in despatches'. Before they left England they were awarded a Crest by His Majesty King George VI with the motto 'Strike First'. There was a brief period during the height of the Blitz, and after the refueling tanks at Turnchapel had been hit by bombs, that the base was abandoned to the relative safety of Pembroke. However, it returned to its normal berth in 1942 after the worst aspects of the Blitz had passed. The Royal Navy was desperate for help in guiding ships in and out of Devonport and wanted the RAAF's Squadron to help spot U-boats on the approaches to the Channel and around Plymouth itself. The squadron played a vital role in helping to ensure that German reconnaissance planes, ships or U-Boats did not get close enough to Plymouth to see the build up of ships for the D-Day operation in 1944.
RAF Mountbatten also played a vital transportation role in moving VIPs, Officers and politicians to the far flung parts of the Empire or to the various fronts of the war. Seaplane was the main form of long distance transport still. For example, on January 17th 1942 Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook and the Air Chief Marshall, Sir Charles Portal landed at Plymouth. They had flown from Norfolk, Virginia to Plymouth via Bermuda in a Boeing 314A named "Berwick" operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). It covered 3,287 miles and arrived twelve minutes ahead of schedule. Churchill had even taken over the controls from senior pilot Commander Kelly Rogers for part of the journey. The flight from Bermuda to Plymouth took 17 hours 55 minutes.
After the war, RAF Mount Batten continued to fly seaplanes until 1960 but then converted to helicopters for air-sea rescue. The RAF motor launches continued as a training station and to support the helicopters in their rescue missions. The base also became an important weather station. It finally closed in 1992. I should also say that it was the first place from where the author of this article flew - in a Westland Wessex helicopter!
The period between the two World Wars proved to be a traumatic one for democracies in general and the battles of the extremist ideologies of the left and right were also felt in Plymouth itself. The height of antagonism and extremist politics seems to have been between the General Strike of 1926 and 1934. During this time the Wall Street Crash had occurred and the Great Depression had got underway. To the extreme left, these heralded the death throes of capitalism and seemed to promise that the revolution might come to Britain soon. On the international scene, Hitler had come to power in January of 1933 and Mussolini was firmly ensconced offering fascism as an alternative to the seemingly staid traditional democratic parties of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties. These were tumultuous times politically and that tumult came to Plymouth.
The 1926 general strike radicalised supporters on the left who felt that the levers of power were being unfairly wielded by the ruling classes against the working men. Nationally, it was spearheaded by the miners. Of course there was no mining anywhere near Plymouth but the strike soon brought in sympathetic support from other unions with a presence in Plymouth. Plymouth played a peculiar role in that it had a large working class but one that was largely employed in the service of the military and so was often torn in its affinities between workers and state. However, in the civilian docks at Millbay it was a different matter. Here the dockers went on strike in sympathy with the plight of the miners. They were savagely attacked by the local press and the 'Western Morning News' owned by Lord Rothermere in particular. Battles between strike breakers and picketers were common place. These battles radicalised some workers and union members who felt that the Communist party was offering a consistent line in opposing the hard hand of the authorities and business owners. Running battles involving thousands of men occurred on the picket lines between the police and strikers. There was a much publicised football match at Plymouth Home Park on Saturday 8 May between strikers and the police (the strikers won 2-1), which seemed to show a level of moderation in the violence levels in Plymouth, but at the same time some 4,000 strikers were battling the police with sticks and rocks to prevent trams moving from Drake Circus in the town centre. The failure of the General Strike at a national level did not mean that the tensions and passions aroused in Plymouth died down any time soon.
1936 apparently saw militant left wing activity in the heart of Devonport Dockyard, or at least that was the view of MI5. The submarine L-54 had had its engines sabotaged and they were severely damaged on starting up. This was in a period that was hostile to the idea of Britain re-arming to fight in possibly another war. MI5 was called in to investigate the incident and they arrested 5 dockyard workers with 'left-wing' political sympathies. They were dismissed from their posts and security was tightened up throughout the base.
1933 saw an unusual yacht sail in to Plymouth Sound; the Deutschland. It was said that it was crewed by storm troopers but with propaganda films available to advertise the new Aryan State to any who would hear. Hitler's ascendency to power in January of 1933 had inspired Oswald Mosley and his fascists to increase their political activity to force something similar in this country. With financial backing from Mussolini's Fascist Italy, an expansion of his British Union of Fascists was planned and Plymouth was earmarked as a suitable location to create a new hub. The reason that they chose Plymouth is probably due to its service background. With many veterans from the Great War living in the city and with harsh economic realities beginning to hit home, Plymouth was viewed as a useful recruiting ground. It also helped that it was in the heart of the West Country where farmers in particular were being ravaged by weak commodity prices. It was believed that Plymouth would make an ideal base to reach out to the wider Devon and Cornwall farming communities - much as Hitler had managed to make inroads in the agricultural sector in Germany in the run up to his seizure of power.
Richard Plathen arrived from the BUF headquarters in London in the summer of 1933 to establish a new regional centre. Initially, he set up an office at the Empire Services Club on Millbay Road but then found a more suitable premises at 6, Windsor Villas on Lockyer Street. This was to be their base of operations for the year of their most active political period in Plymouth. At this address they set up some impressive facilities including accommodation for 50 members, a gymnasium, an educational and propaganda room, a canteen for meals, a licensed bar and a lounge. There was a quartermaster's department holding uniforms and equipment in the basement. There was a sentry who manned the entrance and gave the BUF salute to anyone who entered. It was clearly emulating the social activist policies of the Nazis that had helped Hitler's party gain credibility and support in Germany.
The new group published its own newspaper and began to hold public meetings and recruitment drives, mostly in the Market or at the Octagon on Union Street. These meetings started small but soon began to attract several hundred to them. Some of the crowd were invariably hostile to the fascists and communists in particular tried to disrupt the meetings by shouting down the speakers or singing songs such as the 'Red Flag'. The fascists attended the meetings in their new, black uniforms and a line of blackshirts stood in front of the speaker to protect him from abuse or to launch attacks at those hurling the abuse. The police were frequently on standby to break up the brawls that invariably resulted from the meetings. The Plymouth branch also had their own truck kitted in BUF colours to take them to meetings further afield or out into the countryside.
The party was encouraged by its initial successes and recruitment. It claimed it had a membership of a 1,000 members by 1934 with up to 150 of these being uniformed paramilitary. They were further encouraged by positive press coverage from Lord Rothermere's stable of newspapers, in particular the Evening Herald and the Western Morning News. Lord Rothermere was vehemently anti-Communist and for a while saw Oswald Mosley as providing a suitable bulwark against its expansion.
Oswald Mosley twice came to Plymouth to speak and to help his organisation establish itself. In December 1933, he spoke at the Plymouth Guildhall. He swept into the hall from the back flanked by blackshirts who accompanied him to the podium and then stood in front of him as he spoke. He himself was dressed all in black. He spoke without notes for 90 minutes about the parlous state of the economy and the fear of communism. There were hecklers but many applauded when he maintained that fascism would come to the aid of the country with force if the Communists ever attempted a coup. Otherwise, this meeting was fairly uneventful.
That was not the case when he returned in October of the following year. By that time, his party was already on the back foot and people were more suspicious of his association with Hitler's Nazi regime after the Night of the Long Knives and the start of concentration camps. Mosley flew into Plymouth, emulating Hitler's electoral tactics, but was not allowed to return to the Guildhall as the council had banned any political meetings from its properties. Alternative arrangements were made for Mosley to speak at the Drill Hall on West Hoe. Estimates were that 3,500 to 4,000 people attended. This time 50 black uniformed guards protected their leader from what was a far more raucous affair than the year before. When the heckling and singing of the 'Red Flag' threatened to drown him out, he turned his amplifier up to maximum. Unfortunately, this seemed to blow out the electrics in the room and the hall was plunged into temporary darkness. Fights broke out as his bodyguard sought to instill some order to the proceedings. When the photographer from the Western Morning News tried to photograph the brawl, the flash infuriated some of the blackshirts who turned on him and his accompanying reporter. The police rushed in as the meeting descended into chaos. The brush with the photographer and reporter was fatal to the favourable coverage from the local press. The Western Morning News turned on the BUF and became very hostile to its aims and its means of operating. Mosley was unapologetic at the treatment of the press and claimed that all the British press was hostile to the BUF. The bully boy tactics of the BUF were confirmed a week later when they tried to take muscle in on a large crowd of 10,000 listening to a Trade Union talker at the Octagon. This also descended into fights and many of the blackshirts were rounded up and arrested.
Several of those involved in the fights of the previous week were charged with public order disturbances and some were sentenced to six weeks hard labour when it was found that they had been wearing metal armour and had taped up their hands in anticipation of fights breaking out. The negative publicity from this event compounded with a rapid deterioration in the finances of the BUF as a whole helped fatally undermine the local organisation.
This is not to say that further attempts to revive Fascist fortunes in Plymouth did not continue. On August 13th, 1935 William Joyce, (later known as Lord Haw Haw) came to Plymouth on a speaking tour on behalf of Mosley's Fascists. He was driven to a series of public engagements in the BUF's publicity car known as 'The Black Prince.' This car had been funded by private donations from fascist sympathisers throughout the West Country. He spoke at the Assembly Rooms in Devonport and concentrated his fire on the twin enemies of Fascism which he identified as being Communism and International Jewish Finance. He seems to have remained in the city for five weeks and apparently stayed and coordinated with Plymouth Fascists which proves that the movement was still functioning if not nearly as high profile as before. The British government had made things more difficult for the extremists by taking measures such as the banning of wearing paramilitary uniforms in public, restricting street meetings and not allowing minders to stand in front of speakers in an intimidating manner.
The BUF recovered some more support from 1936 as Mosley played the pacifist card and stated that Britain should stay out of any likely wars that might break out on the Continent. There were many in the country who were drawn to avoiding a further cataclysmic war, but many were suspicious of Mosley's increasing connections with Nazi Germany. Unfortunately for the BUF, this pacifist revival did not help the fascists much in the military port city of Plymouth where going to war was seen as a necessary evil and a duty by many. Besides, military rearmament and servicing the Royal Navy was providing a livelihood for many in the city. Additionally, the Western Morning News continued its news boycott of the activities of fascists in the city. The BUF thrived on publicity, adverse or otherwise. To lose the oxygen of publicity was fatal to the movement. Due to these reasons the BUF did not make any substantial recovery in fortunes in the city. The party had to give up its Lockyer Street headquarters due to the dwindling of financial support from London and membership locally. It relocated to 10a Union Street but to far more restrained and understated facilities.
During the Second World War, Plymouth continued to provide a critical role for the Royal Navy especially in helping coordinate the fight against the U-Boat threat and to provide a base for the all-important escort ships of the convoys. It was also to provide a limited capability in helping deter an invasion force of Britain - although the main home fleet was kept safely out of range of German bombers at Scapa Flow. The port was still a busy military facility with ships needing refuelling, repairing and victualling. The quicker this could be done, the less danger they were in from enemy bombers. Palmerston's follies came to provide valuable platforms for anti-aircraft guns with their deep magazine facilities and convenient ringing of the city as a whole.
The role of Plymouth as a receiving port for support from Empire and Commonwealth countries continued as it had in the First World War, at least in the early stages of the war. In 1939, the King himself came to Plymouth to greet Canadian soldiers disembarking to help in the war effort. On Boxing day of that year, the first squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force arrived in Plymouth. These arrivals would begin to thin out as Plymouth found itself more and more vulnerable to attack from the air. Increasingly, troop ships would head to the safer ports of Belfast, Glasgow or Liverpool in order to attempt to steer clear of enemy planes.
The first year had been quite quiet for Plymouth as the phoney war and Battle for France played themselves out. The one naval action of note, the Battle of the River Plate, had played itself out in the South Atlantic but involved ships from Devonport. Much was made of this first naval victory of the war and the crews of the ships were given a grand civic reception at the Guildhall upon their return to Devonport for much needed repairs. There was also the request for small boats to help with the evacuation at Dunkirk, to which many local boats responded, but Plymouth was too far away to help with the land campaigns determining the fate of continental Europe. However, as France began to capitulate, some forces were evacuated directly to Plymouth as well as many smaller fishing boats of Frenchmen wishing to continue the fight or refugees attempting to avoid the clutches of the Nazis.
On the capitulation of the French forces, Churchill put out the order to seize all French Naval vessels in British ports. He was concerned that the newly installed 'Vichy Government' would make French forces available to the Nazis. He wished that any French resources be put at the disposal of De Gaulle who had vowed to continue fighting as the 'Free French'. The difficulties in defining allegience for the French were played out with tragic consequences in Devonport Dockyard. On the 3rd of July, 1940 the French submarine Surcouf, which had sought sanctuary in Plymouth from Brest, was boarded by Royal Naval and Royal Marines to impound the boat. Unexpectedly, the French resisted the boarding action and fighting broke out. One French sailor and three English sailors were killed before the French captain capitulated. The seizure by the British and the resistance by the French created bad blood between what had been two close allies. The sinking of a substantial part of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on the same date confirmed this rift. Only 16 of the men serving on the Surcouf agreed to stay on and fight with the Free French. The rest were repatriated to Vichy France.
The first of many bombing raids on Plymouth by the Luftwaffe started on July 6th, 1940. The last raid was not until May 1944 just weeks before the D-Day invasion force set sail. Plymouth was actually a relatively easy target for the German crews. Flying over the sea, there was no preparatory flak to slow them down or force them higher. Once over the city, the Rivers Plym and Tamar made for perfect bombing aids as crews could used them to mark their precise location and the location of the Dockyards and City Centre. The fact that it had strategically vital port facilities made it even more likely as a target. In actual fact, proportionately to its population, Plymouth was the most heavily bombed British city of the war, suffering even more than Coventry and London. It was during 1941 that it suffered its very worse damage as the Germans switched to a strategic bombing regimen designed to neutralise Britain before Germany turned its attention to the invasion of Russia. Coupled with the Atlantic War, it was hoped that the destruction of the port facilities in Plymouth would hamper escorts and Royal Naval anti-submarine efforts. For a while, Plymouth was no longer a friendly port to the Royal Navy.
Ships entered the Hamoaze to rearm and refuel and then left just as soon as possible to avoid being bombed by the Luftwaffe. Fortunately, the majority of the bombing was done at night time which gave the ships of the Royal Navy the hours of daylight to complete their vital tasks before escaping back out onto the high seas. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr Robert Gordon Menzies, was caught in one of the very worst attacks on the city in March 1941 and conveyed the extent of damage caused but also the fortitude of the inhabitants to the Australian public and urged them to continue to support the Imperial war effort as a consequence. During the attacks the main shopping centre and nearly every civic building was destroyed. Additionally 26 schools, eight cinemas and 41 churches were gutted. In total, 3,754 houses were destroyed and a further 18,398 seriously damaged. The bombing had ripped the heart out of Devonport and Central Plymouth.
A bizarre tale of intrigue and duplicity played itself out at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Plymouth. It was run by the Welsh family. Mr Welsh was of Hungarian descent whilst Mrs Welsh was of German descent. They seemed to hold pro-Nazi sympathies. Mr Welsh was personally known to von Ribbentrop whilst living and working in London and before moving to Plymouth in 1939. Their son and his wifealso seemed to harbour pro-Nazi views and appeared to be gathering information on troop movements and military installations in the area. It seems as if the wife, called Bebe Welsh, invited American naval personnel to rooms in the hotel with a view of 'extracting information' from them. It appears that she was invited on to various American ships and submarines as a result of these liaisons. The entire family was kept under surveillance by MI5 which gathered information and evidence against their activities. However, as D-Day approached the authorities were becoming more and more nervous and eventually rounded them up just two weeks before the invasion set off from Plymouth.
Canadian volunteer firefighters made the journey across the Atlantic in order to aid the city and help fight the destruction and damage being wrought by the Luftwaffe. In 1942, they established a firestation, which they built themselves, in Hartley close to the entrance to Torr Home for the blind. From here, they augmented the firefighting provisions of the city until 1944 by which time the threat from the Luftwaffe had fully abated.
When it came to deciding the organisation of invading France, Plymouth found itself firmly in the American sector. This meant that from 1943 onwards, American soldiers and military equipment was increasingly seen in and around the City. The primary American unit in the area was the 4th Infantry Division although there were many other ancillary and supporting units to be found as well. Barracks, Palmerston's Follies and country houses like Saltram House were all made available to the ever increasing number of American units as they prepared for the invasion of Europe. Additional jetties and pontoons were set up along the banks of all the major rivers around Plymouth; Tamar, Plym, Lynher and even the Tavy were set up to handle the huge volumes of landing craft and shipping required to move across the Channel.
It is believed that 36,000 American soldiers left Plymouth on June 5th heading towards Utah Beach in Normandy.
From World War to Cold War
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War the priority was the rebuilding of the shattered infrastructure of the city. An ambitious plan devised by Patrick Abercrombie saw a new grid system harmonize the haphazard roads that had grown up as the three towns had collided into one another. A focussed City Centre took shape with wide boulevards and sweeping vistas. Some old buildings that had survived the Luftwaffe did not survive the bulldozers as a race to modernise the city saw priceless parts of the city's heritage sacrificed in the name of progress. Elsewhere, the city expanded yet further northwards into Whitleigh, Honicknowle and King's Tamerton as homes had to be built to replace those destryoyed by bombing.
In 1945, the Royal Navy had the largest number of ships that it would ever have. Quite simply, it was huge. With the advent of peace, the vast majority of these ships were surplus to requirements. Britain had been fundamentally financially weakened by six years of World War. Lend Lease from America was abruptly cancelled with the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan. Indeed, American ships were literally turned around in the Atlantic and forced to sail back to American ports rather than continue supplying its war time allies. There was a desperate need for the British government to balance its books and savage cuts to the military appeared to be the logical answer. It should be noted that the end of World War Two did not bring about the ending of rationing. Shortages of food and the money to buy it meant that ration books were issued as late as 1954!
The newly elected Labour government also accelerated the decolonisation process with abrupt announcements on the independence of India and pulling out of the Palestine Mandate. They had started the colonial dominoes falling in earnest. Plymouth's economic vitality was tied up to the military in general and the Royal Navy in particular. As Britain's empire shrank, it required fewer and fewer ships to guard the imperial trade routes. Besides, air travel was becoming a viable new form of mass communication and movement and so the old passenger liners were no longer as important as they had been. Additionally, the newly emerged Superpower of the USA and its own Navy was taking over much of the the historical role of the Royal Navy. A string of United States Navy bases, often in British colonies like Ascension Island and Diego Garcia, guarded over the shipping lanes of the twentieth century. An unofficial baton had been passed and the Royal Navy no longer needed to be as large as it had been historically.
After 1945, just six ships were constructed at Devonport. There was no way that she could maintain her shipbuilding skills and workforce. 1968 saw the last ship HMS Scylla constructed at Devonport. After this date, Devonport continued with maintenance and refits only. These did not require the huge amounts of workers that ship building had needed.
The Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 revealed just how far Britain's military role had declined in the post-war World. Despite a creditable landing, the geo-politics of the post-war World revealed that the era of colonies and empire was ending. It did not help that Britain's supposed ally, the USA, was leading the calls for Britain to withdraw from the Canal Zone. Britain's military sheepishly withdrew and the government collapsed. The disaster only accelerated the falling dominoes of decolonisation. Without a Suez Canal or a British Raj, it was hard to justify British naval bases in Asia. Britain closed down its dockyards and bases in Singapore, Hong Kong and Aden. One interesting connection to the base in Hong Kong is still maintained near to Plymouth. The main base in Hong Kong had been called HMS Tamar. They had a social club for the sailors there called the China Fleet Club. When HMS Tamar was closed down in Hong Kong the social club relocated to Britain with its assets and decided to reopen on the River Tamar. It therefore opened up a new facility appropriately called the China Fleet Club in Saltash just over the Tamar Bridge from Plymouth.
Fortunately, for Plymouth and its Naval base, a new lease of life was found through the Cold War. Plymouth was once again identified as a base important in patrolling the Atlantic against Soviet submarines and warships. In the event of war breaking out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, it was supposed to help keep the sea lanes open to allow American forces to move across the Atlantic and to hunt down Soviet submarines before they could launch any missiles. It became an important submarine base for NATO. Interestingly, ships from Britain's old foes became regular visitors to Plymouth Sound, as ships from France, Spain and Germany joined other NATO countries in patrolling the approaches to the English Channel and the Atlantic. Plymouth became a presumed target of Soviet military planners and their own nuclear warheads. It remained Britain's largest dockyard complex. In fact, it was the largest naval base in Western Europe. It even had new facilities constructed within such as a massive in door dry dock that could work on three ships at a time 365 days a year.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Cold War was the extent of espionage and spying that took place. It has recently been revealed that the Soviet Union gathered information about all the military facilities in the UK and mapped them accordingly. A combination of KGB operatives and local sympathisers must have helped to compile these maps. Devonport Dockyard would have been very high up the list.
One of the most notorious spies in the Cold War came from Plymouth and was the son of a Devonport naval family. Guy Burgess became one of the most senior MI6 personnel to defect to the Soviet Union. As was the case with many defectors, he had been drawn to Communism in the 1930s when it appeared to be the most forthright opponent of Fascism and when Capitalism appeared stuck in the mire of world wide depression. It is particularly poignant that he came from Devonport as Soviet nuclear missiles were trained for much of the Cold War on his former home there.
The Cold War came to an abrupt end in 1990 and with it saw yet more planned reductions in the size and scale of the Royal Navy and its facilities. 1992 saw the closure of the Royal William Yard as civilian contractors took over the requisitioning and supplying of naval stores. Plymouth lost out to Portsmouth for control of the surface fleet and to Rosyth in some but not all of the Submarine work. It began to take on more civilian contracts and hired out its facilities to yacht manufacturers and luxury boat makers.
The last hurrah of Royal Navy in its imperial role was the decision to mobilise the British Fleet and send them to the South Atlantic to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentinians. An account of the war can be read here but for Plymouth it saw frenzied activity as the stores, equipment and troops were gathered together for the arduous journey 8,000 miles southwards. Crownhill Fort was pressed back into service for its final time as an assembly point, the Dockyards were crammed full of soldiers and sailors and the Royal William Yard worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week preparing and distributing stores and rations. By a quirk of fortune, many of the Royal Navy's warships were already at sea taking part in an exercise off Gibraltar. However, if they were to head south, they needed stores, personnel and supplies from Britain. Merchant and naval shipping were crammed full of stores and sent post-haste to Ascension Island where the logistics could be reorganised and divvied out as required. Merchant ships sailed up the Hamoaze to be equipped with machine guns, protective plates and basically fitted out for war. Some ships were not thought to be fully ready for the conditions anticipated in the South Atlantic and so took dockyard workers with them to maintain and update their equipment as they sailed.
Many of the original defenders of the Falkland Islands had their own connections with Plymouth through the Royal Marines. NP8901 was made up of volunteers from the various Royal Marine Commando units. These were the soldiers who had to deal with the full onslaught of the Argentine invasion. On being repatriated they were given the option of rejoining 42 Commando (based at Bickleigh just outside of Plymouth) as J Company and helped liberate the islands and were given the opportunity to raise the Union Jack above Government House once the islands had been recaptured.
Plymouth saw deliriously happy crowds meet the returning ships, sailors and soldiers after their victory so far away. Ships were escorted back into harbour by tugs throwing up triumphal arches of water as banners and adoring crowds greeted the soldiers and sailors as returning heroes. The entire operation showed how the resources of Britain could still marshall significant military resources to liberate one of the outposts of empire on the other side of the World. The Soviet Union was surprised at how this single member of NATO could project its power over such a vast distance and to such hostile conditions and win! In the context of the Cold War, it helped convince the Soviet Union that NATO was an even tougher nut to crack than they had anticipated. Domestically, the operation saved Margaret Thatcher's premiership which had been in the doldrums and catapulted her into a war leader who relished the sobriquet applied to her from the USSR as being the 'Iron Lady'.
For the dockyards the Falklands War was something of a false dawn. Despite the success of the operation, the Royal Navy had already been earmarked for drastic cuts in her surface fleet and military capabilities. The Royal Navy concentrated its surface fleet at Portsmouth reducing the far larger facilities of Devonport Dockyard to little more than a submarine base with a small NATO contingent. It was a far cry from its days of glory when Britannia really did rule the waves. The Decolonisation of the post-war period removed a primary rationale for the Royal Navy. Britain no longer needed a huge fleet to project power all over the globe. Battleships gave way to Aircraft Carriers which gave way to Submarines and to missile armed destroyers and frigates. These far smaller ships did not require the manpower needed in previous generations and were designed to higher specifications and so required less maintenance. Decommissioned warships and aircraft carriers became a common sight from the Tamar Bridge as the ships awaited removal to scrapyards and breaking up. HMS Eagle and HMS Ark Royal were the last big aircraft carriers owned by the Royal Navy and both were broken up in the 1970s. Ark Royal had had a long and emotional attachment to Plymouth. On being broken up, one of its anchors was presented to the City of Plymouth and is located on Armada Way.
Plymouth has at least maintained a strong connection to the Royal Marines and is currently developing a role for itself as a Commando Assault base. It is the home of the helicopter ship HMS Ocean and assault ships HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, the UK Landing Force Command Support Group is based at Stonehouse Barracks, an assault craft base has been built at Turnchapel and 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery is still housed in the imposing historical Citadel. In a post-colonial world, flexible response appears to be the order of the day. With unanticipated interventions in wars and conflicts in places like Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan it seems as if Britain still requires the ability to respond quickly into unexpected parts of the World. They may no longer be defending an empire, but they are giving Britain an ability to respond to threats and for humanitarian purposes wherever they may occur.
Unfortunately, these developments will not arrest the steady decline in the facilities for the Royal Navy. The present dockyards are a mere shadow of the hive of activity that it used to engender. The city of Plymouth has had to diversify and although it still has a soft spot for all things military it has had to deal with a post-imperial and post-global power role for Britain. Plymouth's history has mirrored the history of the Empire; as it rose in power so did the fortunes of Plymouth; when it was in danger, so was Plymouth; when the power declined so did the economic rationale of a large section of Plymouth's economy. Plymouth is now having to chart a post-imperial story for itself. But as it considers its future, it has a remarkable past to draw upon. It should cherish the good, commemorate the sacrifices and remember the bad. It has undergone a unique imperial story which has taken Plymothians all over the world and has brought so many people from around the world to Plymouth. It was a global city before anyone had even invented the term. It should draw on this heritage with pride.
Hidden Plymouth This site examines some of the lesser known nooks and crannies of Plymouth's local history. It has many fascinating photos and descriptions of all sorts of unusual places in and around the city environs.