The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  10 September 2011 

The Mill Bay took its name from the grist mills owned by Sir Francis Drake that used to exist in the north-east corner, where the present Millbay Road and West Hoe Road meet.  The water of the Plymouth Leat used to work the mill and where it flowed from the western end of Frankfort Street across Union Street, used to be marshland.  In Drake's time it was known as the 'sourepool' and in 1592 the northern part was 'made drie for a meadow', which reduced the area of the creek to around 45 acres.  Even in modern times the land on which Derry's Cross Roundabout is built has flooded badly in heavy rain.

The Bay was not considered as important as Sutton Pool, it being far from the Town, but it was clearly used by ships as anchors have been dug up there.  It probably first assumed any strategic importance at all during the Siege of Plymouth in the Civil War.  With the enemy fort at Mount Batten covering access to the Sutton Pool, the only place for ships carrying supplies was to Mill Bay.  The mill itself was converted into a prison in 1695.

Then in 1756 Mr John Smeaton appeared on the scene, preparing to construct the third lighthouse to stand on the notorious Eddystone Reef.   He chose the western side of the Bay as a location for his stonemason's yard and a jetty was built to enable ships from Falmouth and Portland to unload their cargoes of stones.  A timber railway was also built to carry the stones and on Sunday June 12th 1756 the foundation stone left Millbay for the reef.

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that an actual dock appeared.  Called, appropriately, the Union Dock, it was owned by Messrs B and D Derry and Mr J Meadows Rendel.

The eastern side of the Bay was also full of activity.   Mr Thomas Gill, who owned the West Hoe Estate, was busy blasting away at the cliff outside the ownership of the Corporation.  He had already built some small quays on the shore to carry away his stone but in 1840 an Act of Parliament gave him authority to erect a pier and deepen the bed of the Bay to accommodate larger vessels.  The result was the 500 foot long Millbay Pier, completed in 1844.  Soon warehouses were being built near the Pier and ships were regularly calling with passengers and cattle.  One of the first was the SS Great Britain while on her way to Liverpool in June 1845.

By authority of the Plymouth Great Western Dock Act 1846 a company was established to take over Gill's Millbay Pier and to develop the docks.  Mr Gill became a director of the new company.   He also happened to be the chairman of the South Devon Railway which was under construction and was destined to terminate at a station within walking distance of the Docks.  This meant there was an opportunity for a rail connection which in turn would help his exporting of stone blocks and lime from his kilns under the Hoe.  But just in case it all went wrong, he excavated a small dock of his own, within his quarry, the entrance to which passed beneath a wooden footbridge in what later became Radford Road.   When that was completed, he sold Millbay Pier to the new Dock Company.

In the meantime, that Company had secured the services of none other than Mr Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design the Docks.  As engineer of the South Devon Railway, the Cornwall Railway and the Great Western Railway, he was not surprisingly keen to ensure that when the railway finally reached Millbay in 1849, it was linked to the Docks as quickly as possible.  In 1850 the track was laid as far as the Millbay Pier, even bridging Thomas Gill's dock entrance, while at the same time the Pier Hotel, passenger waiting rooms and an octagonal Customs House designed by Messrs Wightwick and Damant were also built.

In that same year the first Royal Mail was embarked aboard a ship owned by the Screw Steam Navigation Company, whose directors entertained the Mayor and Corporation of Plymouth to a banquet.

It was not long before the Docks became a port of call for the Irish Steamship Company and at their request Brunel provided another pier in the form of an iron floating pontoon 300 feet long and 40 feet wide.  This held 4,000 tons of coal for bunkering purposes.  By 1857 Millbay had become one of the principal coaling stations in the English Channel.

The position of the West Hoe Dock built by Thomas Gill and the canal can be gleaned from this map of around 1858.

The location of West Hoe Dock and the canal, built by Thomas Gill,
can be gleaned in relation to the quarry and lime kilns from this
map of around1858.

Unfortunately the regular berthing of steamers at the pontoon inhibited the free passage of Gill's boats so he built the West Hoe Basin facing out into the Sound and linked it to his quarry by a light railway.  This passed through a tunnel beneath the Baths and Reading Rooms.  By 1860 the old dock had been filled in.

After suffering the usual delays due to lack of finance, Brunel quickly got to work.  An earthen dam was constructed across the head of the bay, about 200 yards beyond the Millbay Pier, creating an area of 13 acres of water at a depth of 22 feet.  Behind this dam limestone and granite was used to build the walls of the inner basin.  Presumably the limestone came from Mr Gill's own quarry.  In the course of this work the old Union Dock was filled in.  The entrance to the inner basin was 80 feet wide and this was fitted with dock gates so that the inner basin was not affected by the tides.  This work alone was said to have created over 15 acres of wharf space.

Within the basin, on the western side, was a graving dock measuring 367 feet by 92 feet.  This was provided with especially large gates so that paddle vessels could gain access.  To the south of the graving dock stood the pump house.

On the eastern side was the Trinity Pier, which was formed out of part of the earthen dam.  Behind the Trinity and Pontoon Piers were massive warehouses.

The Inner Basin was opened informally in February 1857 when a vessel of 1,100 tons was taken inside for repairs.

Inevitably, over the years some alterations were made to the original plan.  A temporary lifeboat house and launching slip were built in 1862 in the south-west corner.  It was not replaced by the permanent structure until 1897.   In 1878 Trinity Pier was enlarged and the West Wharf deepwater berth constructed.   In 1902 the entrance to the Inner Basin was repositioned further west, and new lock gates, hydraulic equipment and a swing bridge were provided.  The following year Millbay Pier was lengthened and Trinity Pier was widened.

The Great Western Docks was ready for years of great prosperity.




  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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