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DRAKE'S ISLAND

Updated:  11 January 2011 

Drake's Island lies in Plymouth Sound, just south of Millbay Docks.  The National Grid reference is SX 469 529.  It is 6 acres in extent and is 96 feet above sea level at its highest point.

There was a chapel on the Island that was originally dedicated to Saint Michael and it was as St Michael’s Island that it first appears in the records, when, in 1135, it was transferred from the Valletort family to the Priory at Plympton.

At some point the chapel was re-dedicated, this time to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors.

In 1549 an indenture was made between King Edward VI and the Mayor of Plymouth for the upkeep of a fort on the Island.  The chapel was demolished and the first bulwark was constructed at the highest point.  Two years later the Privy Council in London paid 79 1s 8d to Plymouth for the wages of four gunners, one at 8d per day and the others at 6d, who had garrisoned the fort for two years.  Part of the cost of maintenance was met from customs dues and over the years many arguments took place as to who was responsible for them.

A petition was raised in 1583 for Sir Francis Drake to be made Governor of the Island.  At the same time, Plymouth passed over ownership of the Island to the state.

In due course the Governorship of the Hoe fort and the island passed to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and in 1599 he was instructed to construct barricades on the foreshore and a barracks to accommodate a garrison of 300 men in preparation of an expected action by the Spaniards in retaliation for the defeat of their Armada in 1588.  Sir Ferdinando retired as Governor in 1627.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Sir Jacob Astley was Governor of the Island.  Plymouth declared for Parliament.  When he quit, the Mayor and Corporation put Sir Alexander Carew in his place, which was slightly unfortunate because he was suspected of treason, arrested and later beheaded On Tower Hill, London.  Apparently he had refused to come to the mainland to even collect his pay.  If he had allowed the Royalists to land on the Island, Plymouth might never have been able to withstand the Royalist siege.

A respected Parliamentarian soldier by the name of Henry Hatsell was next placed in charge of the Island and he strengthened the garrison and fortifications.

After the War, Drake’s Island was used for the next 25 years as a state prison and for a time it held some important opponents of the Parliamentarian cause, including Major-General Lambert, who was confined to the Island from 1670 until his death in 1684.

When another prominent prisoner, Colonel Robert Lilburn was sent to the Island in 1661 as a life sentence, it is interesting to note that the warrant still referred to it as St Nicholas Island.  It was inevitable that some local people involved in the siege would also have been sent to the Island as prisoners and these included the Reverend George Hughes, vicar of St Andrew's Church, and Abraham Cheare, a Baptist minister.  He died on the Island.

In 1691 the role of the Island changed considerably as the Royal Naval dockyard was moved from the Cattewater into the Hamoaze.  The Island's position at the mouth of the Tamar became more significant and the it became an important defence, covering as it did the main channel that all ships had to follow to gain access to the Hamoaze.  Many proposals were made for improving the military status of the Island but little seems to have been done as in 1717 a Colonel Lilley reported that the defences on the Island were in a ruinous state and not cable of holding off an attack for any length of time.  It would cost 7,000 to put matters right.

As late as 1763 the Island was still being referred to as St Nicholas Island, when it was reported as having twenty-three 32 pound guns, six 18 pounders and two 13 inch brass mortars. 

Until 1771 the Island was manned by a semi-military corps of gunners, which was adequate in peace time but not very satisfactory in the threat of invasion.  But in that year the Royal Regiment of Artillery took over the manning of coastal defences, including the Island, and continued to do so until after the Second World War.  This was just as well as war with France broke out in 1793, just after the Revolution.  Luckily, this had no effect on Plymouth and in 1802 the garrison was reduced again to such an extent that from 1816 to 1846 there was only one Royal Artillery company stationed in the Plymouth area.  This included two Master Gunners, of whom one (George Mahon) was stationed on the Island along with a detachment of troops comprising two officers and 72 men.  A company (three officers and 96 men) from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry served here in 1825.   Eight Privates slept in one room while the Sergeants had a room each.

The developments in guns and warship construction of the mid-nineteenth century meant that the defence structures on the Island had to undergo a major overhaul.  They would not be much use against the iron-clad ships then being launched.  As a consequence in the 1860s a casemated battery for twenty-one 12 ton guns was built on a ground 38 feet 6 inches above high water.  This was built of granite but had iron shields.  A further five 23 ton guns were mounted even higher.  There was a large magazine to the rear of the casements, protected from fire and linked by subterranean tunnels.  The noise, should there have been an attack, would have been terrific!

One so far unrecorded event that took place on the Island on October 11th 1897, was the birth of a child, Alice Maud Lamb, to the wife of a gunner with the Royal Artillery.  She became more familiarly known to generations of Plymothians as Miss 'Geraldine' Lamb.

At the end of the 19th century Drake's Island was linked by a telegraph cable to Mount Batten.  On Tuesday March 28th 1899 the training brig, "Pilot", fouled the cable with her anchor and the local tug "Belle" was engaged to hold on to the brig while the anchor was got up and the cable cleared, after which the "Belle" towed the "Pilot" to a safer, more westerly anchorage.  The whole operation took some two hours. 

Two world wars dominated activities on the Drake's Island during the Twentieth Century.  For the first, in 1914, there were four officers, eleven sergeants, two trumpeters and 134 men stationed on the Island.  By the end of the War in 1918 this had been increased to 20 officers, 5 warrant officers, 4 sergeants 2 trumpeters, and 178 men.  The concrete gun emplacements on the top of the Island date from this period.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 a 40mm anti-aircraft gun was installed, the pier was constructed and the slipway strengthened.  An ammunition hoist was also installed and a tall gunnery control post was erected on the top of the Island.  Some concrete bunkers were built but the most interesting thing was the installation of a minefield control post, which, if there had been an invasion, would have detonated mines placed all over the Sound.  By April of 1941 there were 490 troops stationed on this important point.  Damage during the War was mainly from incendiaries but one person was injured and the canteen roof was damaged.

The War ended in 1945 and in 1956 the War Department announced that the Island was no longer needed for defence purposes.   In the December the Ministry of Supply's workmen moved in to remove the six 12 pounders still operational on the Island as well as the fittings.  They also demolished the gun emplacements.  The War Department finally vacated the Island in 1963 so that an adventure centre could be started.

Between the main land at Western King's and the Island, at a depth of 108 feet, was a 3,000 foot long deltathene water pipe.  It was laid by a cable-laying lighter on August 31st 1965, before which fresh water had to be taken across by boat and pumped ashore.  On Sunday January 30th 1966 it was discovered that no water was getting to the Island and it was thought that the pipe had been fractured.  [1]

Drake's Island was leased from the Crown by Plymouth City Council as a youth training centre.  A covenant prohibited any commercial development on the Island.  It was opened to the public in 1964, the year that mains water was finally laid on.  Ten years later, as the Drake's Island Adventure Centre, custody passed to the Mayflower Centre Trust which was responsible for running the Mayflower Sports Centre in Central Park.   In 1976 it was sold to the Council and later the remaining buildings became Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

A noteworthy event was the installation of a telephone, on May 1st 1987, using a cable attached to the mains water pipe.  The telephone number was Plymouth 63393.  The warden had previously used the Ministry of Defence system.  Shortly afterwards, on March 31st 1989, the Mayflower Trust surrendered their lease and sold off the boats and sports equipment.   Ownership reverted to the Crown.

In 1995 it was put up for sale through agents Messrs Knight, Frank and Rutley, and sold to Mr Dan McCauley, owner and Chairman of Plymouth Argyle Football Club, for a reported figure of 384,000.  Various plans have been put forward to develop Drake's Island as a tourist centre but so far none have come to fruition. 


Sources (incomplete):

[1]  "Pipeline to Drake's Island believed broken", Western Morning News, Plymouth, January 31st 1966.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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