Plymouth, Devon

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There are 52 other Plymouths around the world but only one original (on hoarding in Millbay, August 2015)

Plymouth is a city on the southern coast of Devon in south-west England, with a population of about 260,000, making it the largest centre of population in Devon and Cornwall. Most of it lies between the estuaries of the rivers Tamar (which constitutes the boundary with Cornwall) and Plym. These meet in Plymouth Sound, which is a good natural harbour. There are several docks: the naval dockyard at Devonport on the Tamar; a ferryport and small commercial dock at Millbay; a fishing and yachting harbour at Sutton Harbour (by the original town); and a tanker terminal on the Plym. In addition there are various marinas.

(CC) Photo: Martin Wyatt
Plymouth, with Dartmoor in the background.


There are known to have been prehistoric and possibly Roman settlements in the area.

The name is obviously derived from the river Plym, which in turn is thought to be probably a back-formation from Plympton, "the estate/village of the plum tree", now a suburb of Plymouth. The original name of the settlement was Sutton, "south farm".[1] Plympton was indeed more important than Sutton up to the 13th century. It had a market in 1194 and became a borough in 1242 and a stannary town in 1328, but declined in importance as its harbour silted up because of mining works upstream.

The first recorded use of the name Plymouth was in 1211. It began to be prominent in Edward I's continental wars, and by the late 14th century trade was thriving. Following French raids, work started on fortifications early in the 15th century and proceeded slowly, funded by a combination of means. In 1439 the combined town and port of Sutton finally became a borough under the name of Plymouth. It was primarily a trading port, with some piracy. The prosperity from trading fluctuated, but eventually began to grow with the discovery of America. During the Reformation, Plymouth tended to side with the reformists. When the Cornish rose against the protestant changes being imposed in the reign of Edward VI, the town held out against them, but was eventually taken, with some destruction.[2] Under Elizabeth I, from 1562 the affairs of Plymouth and its leading traders became bound up with England's developing conflict with Spain and with the Huguenot rising and civil war in France.[3] In 1588 the port was the base for the English fleet in the conflict with the Spanish Armada. From 1590, St Nicholas Island in Plymouth Sound gradually became known as Drake's Island, after Sir Francis Drake who was at one stage responsible for the defences there. The town was at this time expanding, notably into what is now called the Barbican area. A new leat (water conduit) helped to provide the necessary water for both town and ships, and further fortifications were carried out.[4]

Sutton was not the only harbour on the Sound. There were landing stages on the Plym and Tamar, and a harbour at Millbay, all outside the town. The village of Stonehouse, abutting on Millbay, was also expanding at this time, and so was the village of Stoke Damerell to its north.

The protestant ethos which it acquired developed into a radical tradition and the town was an isolated parliamentary outpost in the English Civil War, holding out with difficulty. After the Restoration, when Charles II built a citadel at Plymouth, it was sited to dominate the town as well as the approaches to the harbour.

In 1692 William III established a naval dockyard on the Hamoaze (the lower part of the River Tamar, after its junction with the Tavy), and a town grew up around this, originally called Dock or Plymouth Dock, but in 1824 changing its name to Devonport. By then it was spreading towards and embracing Stoke Damerell. Until the arrival of the navy, Plymouth had been a thriving commercial port. The navy, with its practice of impressing experienced sailors, deterred sea traders from using the port, and the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse became more dependent on the military.

In 1811, Plymouth held a competition for the design of public buildings, and the winning of this brought the architect John Foulstone to the town, where he settled and continued to design neo-Grecian buildings, not only in Plymouth itself but in the neighbouring areas of Devonport and Stonehouse.[5]

The University of Plymouth traces its history back to the founding of the Plymouth School of Navigation in 1862, and has always specialised in maritime studies.

The borough of Plymouth was combined with the borough of Devonport and the urban district of East Stonehouse in 1914. It became a city in 1928.

In the Second World War heavy bombing of Plymouth destroyed much of the architectural heritage, and flattened most of the city centre.1 There were 59 air raids during the period 1939—1944; and planning for a radical redesign of the city centre and the creation of new housing estates had started well before the bombing had actually ended.[6]


The city is a unitary authority. Politically, it is marginal, with control swinging between Conservative and Labour.

All the tidal waters around Plymouth are under the jurisdiction of the Queen's Harbour Master for the Dockyard Port of Plymouth,[7] but the Cattewater Harbour Commissioners are the civil authority providing pilotage and other services.[8]


1. There used to be much historical information, though unreferenced, at, but the site has now been closed.


  1. Gover, J E B, Mawer, A, Stenton, F M. The Place-Names of Devon. Cambridge University Press. 1931. (English Place-Name Society, vols VIII & IX
  2. Gill, C. Plymouth: A New History: Ice Age to the Elizabethans. David & Charles. 1966
  3. Black, J B. The Reign of Elizabeth 1558 - 1603. Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 2nd ed 1959. pp123 - 146
  4. Gill
  5. Cherry, C and Pevsner, N. The Buildings of England: Devon. Yale University Press. 2004
  6. Documents in Plymouth and West Devon Record Office
  7. [1]
  8. [2]