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History of Plymouth – Origins

It is believed that the earliest origins of Plymouth can be traced back more than 3,000 years ago to a small Iron Age settlement at Mountbatten. There is some evidence to suggest that people in the area were trading tin with Pheonicians before the arrival of the Romans, and in Saxon times it was known as a fishing village. Farmland on the mouth of the River Plym became Sutton Harbour, the heart of medieval Plymouth. The earliest record of cargo leaving Plymouth is 1211.

Plymouth Tinside Pool

City Status

Plymouth became more important as a community and as a port during this period. In 1254 its town status was recognized by Royal Charter. In 1439 Plymouth was the first town in England to be granted a Charter by Parliament.


During the Hundred Years War, Plymouth began to trade increasingly with the rest of England, the Baltics and Northern Europe, whilst fortifications were built up to protect the town from French invasion. Over the succeeding centuries, Plymouth became known as a centre for voyage and discovery. At the same time, its military importance increased. Plymouth’s maritime and military significance has been a major factor in the development of the city’s character. Clues to this are to be found in abundance in the city’s architecture and layout.

Exploration and Discovery

Transatlantic trade from Plymouth is believed to have started in 1528 with Sir William Hawkins. His son, Sir John Hawkins, has the dubious honour of being remembered largely as the first major English slave trader.

This remains a matter of warm debate to this day and it is sobering to remember that his business partner was his cousin, Sir Francis Drake, Devon’s most famous son.

Plymouth, Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada

In 1577, the first ever circumnavigation of the globe, was undertaken by Sir Francis Drake. He received his knighthood aboard the ‘Golden Hind’ in 1581. Drake however remains one of this country’s truly famous heroes because of his defeat of the Spanish Armada in Plymouth Sound in 1588.

It is still possible to visit the bowling green where Sir Francis Drake played his famous game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before sailing out to defeat the Spanish Armada.

The Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower

The Pilgrims Fathers, persecuted here for their religious beliefs, sailed in the Mayflower from Plymouth to the New World in 1620. The point where they landed was named Plymouth Rock. A new Plymouth was born.

The colony eventually grew into the modern day city of Plymouth, Massachusetts which is now twinned with our own Plymouth.

Captain Cook

James Cook made three famous voyages to the southern ocean and the Pacific from Plymouth. On 13 August, 1768 Cook left Plymouth on the first of his 3 most famous voyages.

During his illustrious career he mapped and surveyed Newfoundland and Labrador, claimed eastern Australia for England, surveyed New Zealand and was the first European to discover Hawaii and Christmas Island.

Charles Darwin

In 1831, Charles Darwin sailed for the Galapagos Islands, where his observations led to the development of his revolutionary theories of natural selection.
It is worth remembering that if he had never left Plymouth on the Beagle, we would not have the great insights in his groundbreaking Origin of the Species and be without his concept of development through evolution – one of the most important scientific concepts in the history of the human race.

Scott of the Antarctic

Robert Falcon Scott is probably the most famous Plymothian of the 20th Century. Born in 1868, he is most famous for his expeditions to the South Pole. He has become so closely associated with the race to reach it, that he is now most commonly known as ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. He reached the pole on 12th January 1912, only to discover that his team had been beaten by that of Raold Amundsen . Unfortunately they perished on the way back, a mere 11 miles short of a food depot. The bravery of the men was recorded in his notes which were recovered eight months later. Their story is one that has immortalised his memory.

Sir Francis Chichester

In 1967 Sir Francis Chichester achieved the first ever solo circumnavigation of the globe on his yacht, starting and finishing in Plymouth.

Plymouth – From Civil War to World War

English Civil War

During the English Civil War, Plymouth favoured the Parliamentarian side against Charles I.
Plymouth was under siege from the Royalists for a great part of the English Civil War and it was due to the remarkable tenacity and resolve of the Plymothians that it successfully resisted defeat for almost three years.
When the monarchy was eventually restored, Charles II ordered the construction of the Royal Citadel in 1665. As a warning aginst future uprisings, not all of the cannons were pointed at the sea, some were pointed at Plymouth itself!


In 1690 the first Royal Dockyard opened on the Tamar, west of Plymouth. Within 100 years of its construction, it had become the largest in England. A huge naval complex was later established including Plymouth Dock (later to become Devonport), and Stonehouse. Devonport dockyard currently boasts the largest crane in Europe.

The Three Towns

Throughout the 19th century, the three towns that made up Plymouth increased in size. Plymouth Dock was renamed Devonport in 1824 due to it’s enormous significance (and population – it was bigger than Exeter!) and the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse, were amalgamated as the Borough of Plymouth in 1914, after much heated debate. Plymouth was granted City status in 1928, and the first Lord Mayor was appointed in 1935.

Second World War Destruction

As one of Britain’s principal naval dockyards, Plymouth was bombed to devastating effect during the Second World War, especially during the five nights of the Plymouth Blitz in 1941. The centres of Plymouth and Devonport were destroyed

The first bomb fell in 1940, landing on Swilly (now North Prospect) and killing 3 people. The last was in1944. The devastation wreaked on the civilian population was terrible: the total number of civilians killed was 1,172 and a further 3,269 were injured. Huge amounts of housing stock was destroyed, many rebuilt houses were hit again. Nearly every civic building was destroyed, as well as the two main shopping centres. The face of Plymouth was forever changed.

Post-War Plymouth

A New Beginning – The Plan for Plymouth

In the 1950’s, Plymouth’s destroyed city centre was rebuilt amid a great spirit of optimism, to architect Patrick Abercrombie’s design. His concept for the new Plymouth layout was called the Plan for Plymouth. It is remarkable now to note that Plymouth became the first city in England to include pedestrianised shopping streets.

In 1967, the town of Plympton, and the villages of Plymstock and Tamerton Foliot, were absorbed into Plymouth.

Abercrombie’s design for Plymouth has shaped the architecture of the city since the 1950’s.

Plymouth Today

Modern Plymouth has a population of around 250,000 people and is consequently the third largest city in Southern England. It links to France and Spain by Brittany Ferries that leave regularly from Millbay Docks.

International Links

Plymouth is twinned with several other towns around the world, including Gdynia in Poland, San Sebastian in Spain, Novorossiysk in Russia, Brest in France, and Plymouth, Massachusetts (since 2001).


Since the extensive destruction of Plymouth during the Blitz (see Part 2), the city has suffered from an economic decline. This has not been helped by the contraction in national spending on Defence, following the end of the Cold War. As a result, the city has been percieved as being in the doldrums, relying on the Tourism industry to provide much of its income. But that is all set to change as Plymouth is widely recognised as being in the throes of a regeneration.

The regeneration of Plymouth is a new beginning and is a time of great optimism for Plymothians. This is a boom time for new construction. New business parks, hotels and apartment complexes are springing up across Plymouth. The University of Plymouth seems to be doubling in size every week and the media is full of discussion about growth.

Drake Circus

One of the most exciting recent developments in recent years has been the Drake Circus shopping mall which opened in October 2006. Since then, it has been extremely successful commercially, bringing shoppers in from as far afield as Bristol.

The Vision for Plymouth

The secret behind Plymouth’s revitalisation is largely attributed to the fact that the city has taken up the plan proposed by acclaimed architect David MacKay. MacKay’s inspiring ‘Vision for Plymouth’ has already started to become a reality. Drake Circus shopping centre is bringing shoppers into Plymouth from all over the South West and although not loved by all residents, is generally acknowledged as a welcome addition to Plymouth by businesses and shoppers alike.

The construction of the ‘outdoor events area’ has enabled a temporary outdoor ice rink, a Wimbledon big screen, a Bavarian Market, and many other attractions to be staged in the city centre.

The filling in of the subway has opened up the vista from Armada Way up to the Hoe, and has greatly improved the look and feel of the city centre (as well as decreasing your chances of getting mugged).

Tinside Lido, Smeaton’s Tower and much of the promenade around Plymouth Hoe have been renovated with great success, whilst many other exciting projects are in the planning stage, such as the redevelopment of Millbay.

There has never been a better time to live in Plymouth.

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