A brief history of Plymouth
Evidence of settlements around the Plymouth area can be traced back to Saxon times, the first record of a settlement is in the Doomsday back which records a Sudtone, or South farm, at the mouth of the River Plym in 1086.The first recorded use of the name Plymouth is 1383, prior to that Plymouth was simply known as Sutton, where Sutton simply means South Town, describing its position in the south west of Devon. Sutton had two parts to it; the town of Sutton Prior and a hamlet called Sutton Valletort. A petition to parliament dated 1411 still refers to “Sutton, otherwise known as Plymouth”, but in 1439 the Sutton settlements became amalgamated into the borough of Plymouth.
The first market was established in 1253. At that time it was being described as “a mene thing as an inhabitation for fischars”. In the 14th century the French made several attempts at invading the area around ‘Sutton’ and frequently had its neighbouring farms plundered and houses burned down. Eventually in the 1440s the town’s petition to parliament was accepted and the townsfolk were able to fortify the town with walls and towers. By this time Plymouth with a low water depth in Plymouth Sound of 25m along its 6km length, was establishing a reputation as being a great port and harbour for the even the largest of vessels.
By the 16th century Plymouth had become one of the most important ports to England in terms of trade routes as well as the military. It was the gateway to the newly opening transatlantic crossings and held a strategic position at the mouth of the English Channel. Plymouth will, of course, always be associated with Sir Francis Drake, who in 1588 famously, and allegedly, delayed setting off to engage with the Spanish Armada until he’d finished his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. It was also from Plymouth that in 1577 the then plain Francis Drake set sail in the Golden Hind, on an expedition to discover a route westward to the Spice Islands of the East Indies. His famous voyage ended up being the first circumnavigation of the earth and took him three years to complete. Unfortunately, Plymouth also has its ‘darker’ past as a port. It was from here in 1562 that Sir John Hawkins set sail for West Africa and took England into the slave trade with the Spanish American colonies. In the 17th century, to escape religious persecution, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America in the Mayflower from Plymouth in 1620. The 17th century was also the time of the English Civil War when, despite being blockaded and laid to siege by the Royalists, Plymouth was always in the hands of the Parliamentarians, even when the whole of the rest of western England belonged to the Royalists. At the end of the civil war with the monarchy restored, the Royal Citadel was built. Just to remind the people of Plymouth, should they think of rising against the monarchy again, canon were trained into the city as well as out to sea! In the 1690s, the Royal Dockyard was built, sealing Plymouth’s importance to the nation’s naval defences.
Other historical comings and goings at the port include; Catherine of Aragon, who arrived at the port in 1501 to marry Henry VIII, which eventually led to the Reformation. Pocahontas arrived in 1616; the native American Christian convert arrived on the ‘Treasurer’ with her husband tobacco planter John Rolfe. Captain James Cook, who set sail on his voyages of discovery from Plymouth in his ships HMS Endeavour (1769) and HMS Resolution (1772). In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was in Plymouth for two weeks prior to his exile in St Helena. In 1831, the HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin on board left Plymouth on its five year voyage of discovery. In 1946, aboard a converted HMS Victorious, 655 Australian war brides arrived from ‘down-under’, having married British servicemen during the war. Finally, in more modern times Sir Francis Chichester chose Plymouth to set sail from to become the first solo person to circumnavigate the earth.
Throughout the 19th century the population of Plymouth increased as did that of many other towns in the country. By 1914 the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse were united into the borough of Plymouth. Later, in 1928, Plymouth was given city status by Royal Charter. During the First World War the strategic importance of Plymouth again made it the focus of naval activity. During the Second World War the port retained that strategic importance. However, this time it was subjected to heavy aerial bombardment suffering vast damage and casualties. This resulted in much of ‘old’ Plymouth being destroyed. Hence, when you visit it today, there are so few old buildings to be seen.
Plymouth has several famous people in its history including: Jimmy Peters, he played Rugby union for Plymouth Albion between 1902 and 1913. Unremarkable in itself but, what makes it remarkable is that he was the first black player in the country. He was so good that in 1906, he became the first black player to be selected to tour with the England team and, famously, caused the Springboks to ‘leave the field’ after refusing to play against a black player. Michael Foot was born in Plymouth in 1913. He went on to lead the labour party through some of its darkest days whilst Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Nancy Astor, the first woman MP in Britain is an honouree Plymothian. Originally born in the USA she defeated Michael Foots’ father, Isaac Foot, to win the Plymouth Sutton seat for the Tories. Possibly the best known ‘son of Plymouth’ is Captain Robert Falcon Scott, more commonly known as ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. He was born here in 1868 and famously died in the Antarctic in 1912, having failed to reach the South Pole.