St Ives, Penzance, Plymouth, Lyme Regis–these are names of four places on a map of England. They are also some of the places on the south coast of England, which we had dreamt of exploring. Even though England is tiny and one can easily cross several counties in one day, all those places would have to remain in our dreams. We had a set date when we had to be back in London. In fact, after leaving Shaftesbury we had no more than two days travel-time left to get back.
It would have taken days for us go around by the south coast and explore, there are hundreds of miles of travel involved. But because we both would have dearly loved to have experienced the beautiful scenery, and the rich maritime and political and national history of the area (as far as we could in a rushed visit), we did toss up whether we should at least attempt Plymouth. Common-sense prevailed. We simply could not afford to risk the time. It was out of the question.
If I couldn’t actually get to visit Plymouth in person, I could have a bit of fun exploring it in other ways–mainly by chatting to people who had been there or who had come from there, or to historians, and also by researching and taking a look at some of its history:
Plymouth first began life as a Bronze Age settlement at Mount Batten, on a peninsular in Plymouth Sound on the English Channel. Mount Batten was one of the main ports of trade in Prehistoric Britain. Importantly, archaeologists have found extensive Upper Palaeolithic deposits containing evidence of the earliest human remains (some of the earliest such evidence in England, including those of Homo Sapiens,) around the Plymouth Sound area. From the time of this first settlement, and right through into the Iron Age and then the Early Mediaeval period, and up until the more wealthy Saxon settlement of Sutton became established and took over the area, the place that is now called Plymouth was firstly a fishing community, and secondly, a tin and copper trading port. Along with this evidence of early human remains, archaeologists discovered a great deal else–such as copper ingots and scrap dating from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, for instance–that attests to this earliest settlement and its inhabitants, the Dumnonii.
In approximately 50 A.D. the area became a part of Roman Britain as a peripheral trading post for the Roman Empire, and even though the Dumnonii tin-trading had declined a little after the Iron Age, the port continued to trade tin along with cattle and hides, even though the settlement remained mainly a fishing community. The port area was eventually eclipsed by the rise of Sutton (South Town), the fishing village opposite. Nevertheless, because of its importance in tin-mining activities, the Brythonic kingdom of Dumnonia held a degree of autonomy from Rome, as well as from the later Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. There is archaeological evidence to support the theory that the area of Plymouth was culturally distinct from other areas surrounding, well into the Middle Ages and beyond, and that all during this time it was still, in the main, a fishing community.
1914: The more modern-day Plymouth city was formed by the amalgamation of the three main towns in the area–Plymouth, Devonport, and Stonehouse. These three towns once traded in mineral ores (tin, copper, arsenic, lime) from rural back lands, via mining-port towns such as Plympton for example.
The town of Plympton itself, and other like places, such as Plympton’s one-time trading-partner town, Plymstock, still exist as towns within themselves, but are now also outlying suburbs of the present-day city of Plymouth. Both suburbs, which together officially became a part of the city of Plymouth in 1967, are in themselves towns made up of many smaller places. For instance, Plympton still has its own town centre, and is an amalgamation of a number of villages such as St Maurice, St Mary’s, Newham, Colebrook, Langage, Woodford, Chaddlewood. While Plymstock, on the east bank of the River Plym, is an amalgamation of villages such as Elburton, Turnchapel, Billacombe, Mountbatten, Hooe, Goosewell, Staddistombe, Pomphlett, Oreston, and Plymstock proper. Plymstock proper is the centrally located village, a residential town, that gives its name to the civil parish as a whole, and also to the area as a suburb of the city of Plymouth.
900 A.D.: The town that is now called Plympton, and which is now a commuter suburb to the city of Plymouth, was called Plymentun. Originally, Plymentun was a trade settlement that used the River Plym to trade with its like settlement, Plymstock. Plymentun was also one of the old stannery towns. The principal role of a stannary town was the collection of tin coinage, the proceeds of which were passed to the Crown. By 1234, Plymentun had become known as Pylmmue, and then Plimmuth by 1234, and then Plyme by 1238.
Now, in the present day, the town of Plympton itself is a heavily populated suburb that is known by a variety of names–Plympton, Plympton Maurice, Plympton St Maurice, Plympton St Mary, Plympton Erle. Much the same can be said of the town that has come to be called Plymstock. Plymstock is now a highly populated residential area outside Plymouth, but acts as a dormitory area for the city of Plymouth. Like Plympton, Plymstock forms a mostly home-owning suburb of the city.
1086: The earliest surviving documentary reference to Plymstock, is as Plemestocha in the Domesday Book of 1086. Some authorities have it that the name of the town is derived from the Old English word for an “outlying-farm belonging to Plymentun or Plympton.” Others suggest the name was a derivation from the Celtic Pen-lyn-dun (“fort at the head of a creek”). Alternatively, Cornish derivations also give ploumenn and plo(b)m meaning ‘lead’ — as possibly related to Latin plombum album ( ‘British lead’) or tin.
1086: Sutona. At the time of the Domesday Book, (1086) the manor of Sutton was held by King William I (also called William the Conqueror, and William the Bastard for some reason) , but his fourth son, Henry I, granted it to the Valletort family of nearby Trematon Castle which overlooks Plymouth Sound. In turn, The Valletorts granted parts of the manor grounds to the Augustinian Priory at Plympton, a larger and older settlement, at the head of the River Plym. The part of the town that was owned by Plympton Priory was granted a market charter in 1254. Then in 1439, the whole town and its surrounding area was given municipal independence, and became the first town to be incorporated by an Act of Parliament.
During the mid-late part of the 13th-century, the river that had been called the River Plyme in 1238, was being called the River Plym as a back-formation (which, roughly speaking, is the formation of a combination new name) from the names Plympton and Plymstock.
1201: Suttona (meaning South town) is based near Sutton Harbour. This old village became the oldest quarters of the modern city. As the higher reaches of the Plym estuary silted up, trading ships used the Cattewater moorings and the then tidal harbour at the River Plym’s mouth instead of Plympton. Cattewater, a stretch of water where the mouth of the river Plym merges with Plymouth Sound, is immediately, and only just, to the east of Sutton Pool. It is around this Pool that the Manor of Sutton started, and which grew to form Sutton town: and the name of the town Sutton slowly became Plymouth. But the name Sutton still exists in the name of its old harbour and as a parliamentary division.
Plymouth was often subject to attack by England’s enemies across the English Channel, and this was especially so during the Hundred Years’ War.
1340: French attackers made surprise raids along the coast. The French successfully burnt some manor houses and had taken prisoners, but had actually failed to get into the towns. By the time they had reached Plymouth they had lost the element of surprise.
1403: Parts of Plymouth were briefly occupied and burnt by Breton raiders. The threat of continuing raids resulted in fortification of the area. In the late 15th-century a ‘castle-quadrate’ was constructed in the area now known as The Barbican. This castle fort, which had four round towers, one at each corner, and which now features on Plymouth’s coat-of-arms, served to protect Sutton Pool. Sutton Pool was where the Royal Naval fleet was based before the construction of the naval establishment at Plymouth Dock.
1512: Continuing raids by the enemy nations on the coastline posed a threat for Plymouth. In answer, an Act of Parliament was passed for the further fortification of Plymouth. A series of fortifications were then built, including defensive walls at the entrance to Sutton Pool. A chain could be, and was, extended across these defensive walls in time of danger. At the same time, fortifications were also made to St Nicholas Island which lies in Plymouth Sound, and which safe-guarded Plymouth.
During the 16th century Plymouth was the home port to a number of successful maritime traders.
1527: William Hawkins, English commander and administrator, merchant, navigator, shipbuilder, privateer, slave trader, a friend and confidante of King Henry VIII, sailed on a voyage of discovery (and which no doubt also involved a fair bit of plundering) to the Brave New World ( the Americas). By undertaking this voyage William Hawkins became one of one of England’s leading sea-captains. William Hawkins also made the first English Expeditions to West Africa.
Sir John Hawkins, William’s second son, was born in Plymouth. He followed in his father’s footsteps. Sometime during the mid part of the 1500s, John Hawkins led England’s foray into the slave trade from Africa.
John Hawkins was a second cousin to Sir Francis Drake. Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, on the Crowndale estate of Lord Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. Drake’s father, Edmund Drake was the son of one of Lord Russell’s tenant farmers. A wanted man, Edmund Drake fled England in 1548 to save his skin. But long before this time, Drake was already living with and being brought up in Plymouth by his relatives, the Hawkins family.
At about 18 years of age Drake enlisted in the Hawkins family fleet, in seizing and pirating ships off the French coast. The Hawkins family had an increasing interest in the African trade. By 1560 Drake has graduated to the African trade. A few years later he took command of his own ship, and took part in the Hawkins venture of illicit slave-trading in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean. Even though the history books do not mention it, these slave-traders also captured thousands of the proud, independent, intelligent, and cultured Madeirans, and forced them into slavery. When Bob and I were in Madeira last June, the people told us that the fact of their slave history is something that the peoples of the beautiful island of Madeira have never forgotten.
When Drake was 23 years old he made his first voyage to the Americas with John Hawkins, in a fleet of ships that mainly belonged to the Hawkins family, but which also included ships owned by Elizabeth I. In 1568 Francis Drake was once again with the Hawkins fleet when it was trapped by the Spaniards in the Mexican port of Juan de U San Juan de Ulúa. Drake escaped along with John Hawkins.
1885: Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! was published. Kingsley’s Victorian novel was inspired by the diary written by Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins diary, Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins was John Hawkins’ son.
1580: The English privateer, navigator, and, later, Vice Admiral of the British Royal Navy, Sir Francis Drake, was and still is, the most renowned seaman of the Elizabethan Age. From the first, Drake had made Plymouth his Home port. To this day, his name remains as Plymouth’s most famous resident. On 26 September, 1850, Drake sailed his flag-ship, the Golden Hinde (formerly called the Pelican), into Plymouth Harbour after his successful circumnavigation voyage of the globe. Drake returned to England both rich, and famous. His ship, the Golden Hinde, was fully-laden with treasure–mainly gold, silver, emeralds, pearls, diamonds, rubies and other rare and costly gems, as well as spices and silks, and much more besides–that Drake had plundered from the Spanish ships he had pirated along the French coast. Drake’s fortune was permanently made.
Unfortunately, even though Elizabeth I had commissioned Drake’s voyage and had privately supported his venture against her enemies, the Spanish, Drake’s return to England coincided with a moment in time when she and King Philip II of Spain had reached a temporary truce. So even though Elizabeth herself had interests in piracy and pirated goods and investments in trade-slaving, and even though she was delighted with Drake’s success in plundering the ships of her great enemy, for obvious political reasons she could not officially and openly acknowledge his piracy as such. Despite the Spanish protests about Drake’s piratical conduct while in their imperial waters, Queen Elizabeth I herself went aboard his flag-ship the Golden Hinde, which was by then lying at anchor at Deptford in the Thames estuary, and personally bestowed knighthood on him for having successfully completed a full circumnavigation the globe.
By all accounts, Drake understood the situation. He sat at anchor behind St Nicholas Island (originally this island had been called St Michael’s Island after a church built there, but was later renamed St. Nicholas Island, and which was also known as Drake’s Island) until he received word from Queen Elizabeth I that the treasures he had pirated from captured Spanish ships, were to be taken from his ship, the Golden Hinde, to Trematon Castle to be put into storage. Later, these treasures were moved to the Tower of London for permanent safe-keeping.
1581: Drake was made mayor of Plymouth. He fulfilled the office with the same thoroughness that he had shown in all other matters. He is at least partly responsible for developing the Tudor fortifications around Sutton Harbour. As well, he has been accredited with building an aqueduct, known as Drake’s Leat, to bring fresh water from Dartmoor to help the flourishing Plymouth town. The water-supply he organized for Plymouth served the city for 300 years.
1588: Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada. At Plymouth Hoe (in old English, Hoe means “high place”), at an old area that sits outside the town walls of the historic Plymouth town, there remains a wide grass meadow which sits on top of the cliffs overlooking the natural harbour of Plymouth Sound. In England, as the story goes, it is here that Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls while he waited for the tide and wind to change in his favour, and enable him to defeat the Spanish Armada.
1589: In 1589, during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604, and the Eighty Years’ War, the English Armada was assembled, moored in Plymouth Harbour, then sent to Iberia by Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Armada, a fleet of about 146 warships, which was also known as the Counter Armada, and also the Drake-Norris Expedition, was under the command of Admiral Sir Francis Drake, and General Sir John Norris. Elizabeth’s main intentions were to capitalise on Spain’s weakness at sea after Drake’s successful repulsion of the Spanish fleet the previous year, in order to compel Philip II of Spain, who was also Philip I of Portugal, to sue for peace. The expedition leaders were in cahoots with Elizabeth I. The aims of the expedition were threefold; to burn and totally destroy the Spanish-Atlantic fleet for good, to make a landing at Lisbon and incite a revolt against Philip II of Spain, to make a permanent base for England and the fleet in the Azores. Lastly, though by no means least, the Drake-Norris expedition aimed to seize and plunder the Spanish treasure fleet as it returned from the Americas to Cadiz, in Spain.
The English Armada expedition failed to follow up the advantage that England had gained against the Spaniards the previous year (1588) when Drake had successfully scattered the Spanish ships and defeated the Spanish Armada. Poor planning on the part of the English, together with a lack of both artillery and cavalry in addition to the English troops aboard the ships, brought failure, and saw the entire English operation defeated. This led to a withdrawal with heavy losses of lives and ships on both sides, not to mention wounded pride on the part of the English. For the Spanish though, this also spelled victory, and this in turn led to a marked revival of the Spaniards’ faith in King Philip II’s naval powers, a faith that carried through to the following decade.
1596: As a result of the continuing threat of raids on Plymouth, more fortifications were built on St Nicholas Island. A string of six artillery blockhouses (including one on Fishers Nose at the south-eastern corner of the Hoe) was built on the island , and the area’s defences were further strengthened by the building of a fort (later known as Drake’s Fort), and which itself went on to provide the site for the new Citadel which was built in the 1660s, and is still in use by the military today.
1606: James I of England issued the Plymouth Company with a royal charter for the purpose of establishing settlements on the coast of North America. With the establishment of British Naval dominance and with the first attempts at colonisation of the New World (America), Plymouth became a wealthy area of national importance.
1620: The Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth to America in their ship the Mayflower, to establish a second colony in the Brave New World. On sighting land, they christened their first point of contact on the western Atlantic shore “Plymouth Rock” in gratitude for the hospitality they had received whilst wintering in Plymouth, and they called their settlement in America “Plymouth”, most probably for the same reason.
1643: On 3 December 1643, Plymouth forces routed the Royalist Cavalry that positioned themselves along Lipson Ridge. Another skirmish between the Plymouth Parliamentarians and the English Royalists, which was called the Battle of Budeaux, took place at St Budeaux, an area and ward in the north-west of Plymouth, in the county of Devon. During the English Civil War, Plymouth and its surrounding villages and areas, including St Budeaux, had many valid reasons for swearing an oath to die, if necessary, for the Parliamentarian cause. Plymouth was besieged by the Royalist Cornwall just across the water. The Royalists took control of St Budeaux, and used the church as a garrison. Plymouth fought these Royalists and won, they took back the area and town and the church, even though the church was virtually destroyed. It was not restored until 1655.
Like other major port towns, Plymouth sided with the Parliamentarians. Plymouth’s strict Parliamentarian stance caused it be isolated from the surrounding areas in Devon and Cornwall, and which were strongly held by the Royalists and their sympathisers. From December 1642 to January 1646 , the town of Plymouth was almost continuously under attack from these Royalists. Plymouth successfully resisted these attacks. In the main, Plymouth’s success was probably due to the navy’s adherence to Parliament, and which allowed the regular arrival of supply ships to Plymouth, and enabled parties of seamen to be rushed ashore to help reinforce Plymouth’s defences. Extensive new works were undertaken to defend the town. A line of stockaded earthworks were built on high ground north of the town, and from Lipson to the east of Plymouth, to Eldad in the west. Included in these defence constructions were several isolated works at various places around Plymouth Harbour and the River Plym (such as Cattedown, Prince Rock, Stonehouse,) and that were of utmost importance to Plymouth town. Nevertheless, these defences did not prevent various confrontations and skirmishes from breaking out.
1660: The Civil War ended in 1660 when the monarchy was restored by King Charles II of England. After the Restoration, Charles II had many of the Plymouth Parliamentarian heroes imprisoned on St Nicholas Island (also called Drake’s Island).
1664-67: The Dutch Wars of 1664-67. King Charles II firmly believed that the Navy was ‘vital to safety, honour and welfare of the realm’. Because of the Dutch Wars Charles saw that it was necessary to recognise the importance of Plymouth as a channel port, and protect Plymouth’s military and commercial harbour. Originally, Charles planned to build a self-contained fort to the west of Drake’s Fort, but revised his plan to take in the earlier fort.
1665: Work began on the construction of the Royal Citadel. It was built at the eastern end of Plymouth Hoe, overlooking Plymouth Sound, and encompassed the site of the earlier fort that had been built in the time of Sir Francis Drake. Elements from the earlier fort, Drake’s Fort, were incorporated into the work–Fisher’s Noise Blockhouse which was intended to defend Cattewater in times of trouble, and which is located from on the Citadel’s south-east corner, dates from 1490-1540.
1666: On 18 July 1666, the new Citadel was finished. This Citadel was the most important English defence for over 100 years. It had 70 foot high walls, was regularly strengthened, and was armed with canons facing both out to sea, and into the town. The canons could fire on the town if it was deemed necessary, and this is said to have been done as a reminder to Plymouth and those who might harbour Parliamentarian sympathies not to oppose the Crown. Possibly Charles saw this last as being in his own best interest.
In the 1750s, with the Spanish Wars of 1715-1750, and with the Anglo-French War, the Citadel in Plymouth was again strengthened. The threat of invasion by France and other enemy countries of England sitting more or less just across the English Channel, led to the rearming of existing coastal fortifications. Amongst other precautions taken, a series of redoubts where built at Maker Heights overlooking Plymouth Sound, and a new coastal battery was constructed on St Anthony Head to bolster the defences of Falmouth, and the Citadel was armed with 113 guns. Plymouth has played a key role in England’s naval history. The Citadel remains as one of England’s finest coastal fortifications. It has been in continuous use since the time it was built, and it is still in use today–the Royal Citadel is still occupied by the military.
After the Restoration, a dockyard was established at Devonport. Later, the two ports, Devonport and Plymouth, were amalgamated. Then, from the beginning of the time of the Industrial Revolution and on, Devonport and Plymouth grew in tandem with each other–Plymouth increasingly grew as a major mercantile shipping industry, offering cruise ship services and exports and imports from other counties, and Devonport increasingly grew as a ship construction city and a naval base. Devonport built battleships and other craft for the Royal Navy. Later, during WWII, these facilities and a good part of the city of Devonport, including the city centre, were bombed and partially destroyed in series of enemy air-raids which were referred to as the Plymouth Blitz. These areas and facilities were rebuilt after the war, but to a new plan.
1689: William of Orange became King William III of England and almost immediately required a new dockyard to be built west of Portsmouth. Two estimates for sites were sent to William; one for Plymouth, Cattewater, and one for the nearby parish of Stoke Damerel on the Tamar River. William plunked for Stoke Damerel to support the Royal Navy in the western approaches.
1690: On 30 December 1690, a contract was let for a dockyard to be built: the start of Plymouth Royal Dockyard. The settlement that developed as a result was called “Dock” or “Plymouth Dock”, and which was later renamed Devonport Royal Dockyard, and a new, separate town grew up. By 1712 these “new” dockyards employed 318 men, and by 1733 the population of the area had grown steadily to more than 3,000 people. From then on, the thriving commercial port which had existed in the 17th century diminished as the activities of the press gang made it less attractive to merchant shipping, and Plymouth became steadily more dependent on the Navy. At Devonport additional docks were built in 1727, 1762 and 1793.
1696: The first Eddystone Lighthouse was erected by Henry Winstanley in an attempt to protect the increasing volume of shipping passing the treacherous reefs on the approach to Rame Head.
1756-9: Smeaton’s Tower, the third Eddystone Lighthouse, was assembled from granite at Millbay, and marked a major leap forward in the development of lighthouse design – the upper portion remains the most iconic landmark of the modern city.
1762: As had happened because of the “new” dockyards at Stoke Damerel, similar growth took place in the two neighbouring towns of Stonehouse and Devonport (Plymouth-Dock). The Royal Marine Barracks and the Royal Naval Hospital were built at Stonehouse.
Devonport in Plymouth became the departure point of many historic sea voyages.
1768: Under the command of Captain James Cook–who was an accomplished navigator, surveyor, and astronomer–the HMS Endeavour set sail for Tahiti and Australia from Plymouth Harbour.
1791: the first ferry to Torpoint began operating in 1791.
1797: A Military Hospital was built in Devonport opposite the parish church.
Under renewed threat of invasion from across the Channel, Plymouth Sound and the dockyards at Devonport once again assumed a critical strategic significance in the defence of the nation. Even though the threat never materialised the Sound was heavily fortified, at the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, with early 19th-century gun emplacements installed at Mount Edgcumbe and St Nicholas Island (now Drake’s Island), and a construction of forts guarding the port on the headlands at the mouth of the harbour.
1831: Under the command of Captain Robert Fitz Roy, the HMS Beagle left Devonport in Plymouth Harbour on a voyage around the world. Fitz Roy’s primary aim was to survey the coast of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in South America. On board the HMS Beagle was the 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who had joined the ship as a naturalist.
From the 1870s until World War II, the port at was used for Transatlantic liner shipping.
1912: Most of the few surviving crew of the RMS Titanic disaster disembarked at Millbay docks in Plymouth Harbour on their return to England in 1912.
WWII: During WWII, with its strategic proximity to the northern coast of France and its naval pre-eminence, Plymouth Harbour, the dockyards, and the city of Plymouth were sitting ducks. Plymouth was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. The event became known as the Plymouth Blitz. Although the dockyards were the principal targets, the two main shopping centres, most of the civic buildings and over 3,700 houses were completely destroyed and more than 1,000 civilians lost their lives.
1944, June: Plymouth was one of the principal staging posts for the allies Normandy landings in WWII. Under the leadership of General Omar Bradley, the First Us Army, the oldest and longest established field army of the United States Army, embarked at Plymouth for the landings at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. After the initial bombardments some of the American battleships came back to the dockyard for repair.
1966: On 27 August, 1966, solo sailor 64 year old Sir Francis Chichester sailed his 54 foot (16 metres) ketch Gypsy Moth IV from Plymouth, and set out to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. He aimed to beat the times set by the great clipper ships of the 19th-century. It was a race against the clock. On 28 May 1976, after 226 days sailing (with one brief stop in Sydney), Francis Chichester returned to Plymouth in his ketch Gypsy Moth IV. He had successfully competed the first single-handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world, and was subsequently knighted for being the first person to make a true circumnavigation of the globe solo, from east to West via the Great Capes. Previous to Chichester, the first solo circumnavigation of the globe was achieved by Joshua Slocum in 1898: but it took Slocum three years with numerous stops. Like Slocum before him, Chichester, in his achievement, also took the difficult challenge of sailing east to west against the prevailing wind. On his return to Plymouth, Sir Francis Chichester was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators on the Hoe and every vantage point from Rame Head to Wembury.
Understandably, back in last May while we were in England, Bob and I, who are both sailors, and nuts about the sea and ships and just about anything that can float, were sorely disappointed that we would not get to see Plymouth. So we consoled ourselves by saying that we would go directly from Shaftesbury to Poole, another sea port we had desperately wanted to squeeze into our itinerary.