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A Brief History of Millbay in Plymouth


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Millbay is located to the west of Plymouth Hoe, it is a natural harbour and takes its name from the tidal mills that were found there from the 12th century.

In times gone by Millbay was much larger than the area that it now covers as it also included an area of tidal salt-marsh known as the Sourepool. The Sourepool was separated from the bay by a narrow neck of water and it was across this that the mills were built in the 12th century. Originally these mills were operated by the Priors of Plympton. By the mid 15th century ownership had passed to the Corporation of Plymouth and then in1573 to Francis Drake. In the early 1590's Drake built six new mills along Drake's Leat and it was around this time the old tidal mills closed and the Sourepool was drained.

During it's early history the bay was not considered as important as Sutton Pool, the main dock at Plymouth, as it was located further from the town, however it was clearly used by ships during this period as anchors have been discovered here. The bay first assumed strategic importance in the Siege of Plymouth during the English Civil War. Plymouth had declared for Parliament and was the subject of a long Royalist siege between 1642 and 1646. With the Royalist fort at Mount Batten preventing access to Sutton Pool, Millbay was the only harbour near Plymouth that was out of reach of Royalist artillery and it became the sole source of resupply for the town. After the civil war had ended, Millbay reverted to being a little used backwater.

During the mid-18th century Mr John Smeaton built a jetty and workyard in the south west corner of the harbour for unloading and working the stone for the third Eddystone Lighthouse. Smeaton's lighthouse was completed in 1759 and around this time the Long Room (an assembly room), bath house, bowling green and other amenities were built nearby. Of these, only the Long Room survives.

In 1840, Thomas Gill was granted authority to build a pier at the mouth of Millbay by an Act of Parliament, he was also permitted to deepen the creek. Gill had a quarry at the east side of the harbour, and here he constructed the150m long MillBay pier, which was completed in 1844. The following year the SS Great Britain berthed here during her maiden voyage to New York and was visited by 15,000 sightseers.

In 1846 the Great Western Dock Company was established to construct more extensive shipping facilities at Millbay; Gill sold his Pier to this company and became a director. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was engaged to design new docks and he built another pier, a floating iron pontoon, 90m long by 12m wide, for the Irish Steamship Company whose vessels were regularly using the harbour. Then, in 1857, he constructed the inner basin from limestone and granite, it had dock gates, a drydock to the west and was 400m long by 120m wide. Both Gill and Brunel were involved in the South Devon Railway and the first railway station in Plymouth was opened near Millbay in 1849. The next year a railway extension was built to the new docks and customs facilities were established.

For the next 100 years or so Millbay was a busy commercial dock, as it could accommodate much larger ships than the previously more important Sutton Pool. A significant amount of shipbuilding also took place here, vessels were built for the Royal Mail Steamship Company, Customs and Excise and others.

Today there are two large deep water docks at Millbay, one of which is part-owned by Brittany Ferries. The company has operated ferry services from the dock to Roscoff in Brittany, France, and also to Santander on the north coast of Spain since 1973. The dock was expanded in 2003 to accommodate Brittany Ferries’ new 40,000 ton flagship Pont-Aven. During February 2008, the Brittany Ferries fastcraft Normandie Express visited Millbay, the first time that a high speed craft had been used out of Millbay.

Millbay has been the home of the RNLI Plymouth lifeboat since 1862.

In early 2008 a landmark boxlike grey concrete grain silo was demolished and the Millbay area is being targeted as a key area for regeneration in Plymouth as a part of the multi-agency Plymouth redevelopment plan.

John Holloway

More on Millbay and properties in Plymouth and Plymouth houses .


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