The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  18 December 2011 


The need for somewhere on the western approaches to repair and replenish naval warships became apparent during the Dutch Wars of 1652-74.  Sir Walter Raleigh had first suggested the Plymouth area many years before.  In 1677 King Charles II inspected several local sites but it was not until May 1689, after King William III had come to the Throne, that the Admiralty asked its Naval Agent at Plymouth, John Addison, to draw up plans for a dock at Point Froward.  (This was the name of the headland just west of Mutton Cove).

On December 30th 1690 the contract was let to Robert Walters of Portsmouth for the first stone dock.  It was to cost 11,000 but by the time it was completed in 1698 it had been enlarged to cover some 24 acres and had cost 70,000.

Royal Dockyards were managed by the Navy Board, which was separate from the Admiralty.  Until the Board was abolished in 1832, the management of Plymouth Dockyard was headed by the Commissioner, who was appointed by the Navy Board.  Under him were the Clerk of the Cheque and the Storekeeper.   They had their own "Inferior Officers" or clerks running the financial and administrative work of the Dockyard.

Ship building and repair was under the charge of the Master Shipwright, along with his colleagues the Master Sail maker, Master Anchor smith, Master Rigger, Master Boat builder, and Master Rope maker.  The Master Attendant and the Boatswain supervised the movement of ships and the Dockyard craft.

After the reorganisation of 1832 the chief officer was a serving Royal Navy officer who became known as the Admiral-Superintendent of the Dockyard.  The Master Attendant post was split between the Captain of the Guardship (i.e. the flagship moored off Cremyll) and the Captain of the Ordinary (i.e. the ships in reserve).

The Yard was still known as Plymouth Dockyard until September 1843 when authority was given for it to take the name of Devonport Dockyard.

Read more about the South Yard of Devonport Royal Dockyard..........


While the South Yard was run by the Admiralty, the second part of the present Royal Dockyard was quite separate and in fact opened by the Ordnance Department.   This was the Gun Wharf.  Like that at Portsmouth, its purpose was to enable ships' guns tested by the Army's Board of Ordnance to be fitted to warships built or maintained within the Royal Dockyard and to supply them with munitions and equipment.

The Gun Wharf was transferred to the Admiralty in 1937 and but did not become a part of the Royal Dockyard until 1941.

Read more about the Morice Yard of Devonport Royal Dockyard..........


By the end of the 1830s a quarter of the Navy's ships were powered by steam and it became necessary to build a new yard where they could receive satisfactory attention.  There was much discussion about where the new facility should be situated, with one suggestion being within St John's Lake on the Cornish side of the Hamoaze.  However, it was considered that it should be on the same side of the river as the Dockyard and thus excavations started in 1844 for the Keyham Steam Yard.  

The Steam Yard was joined to the old Dockyard, now known as South Yard, by means of a tunnel about three-quarters of a mile in length.   Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1854, the tunnel was commenced in April 1855 and completed the following year.

With the introduction of the Steam Yard came two new officers under the command of the Admiral-Superintendent: the Inspector of Steam Machinery and the Captain of the Steam Reserve.  Both these were replaced in later years by the Chief Constructor.

Read more about the North Yard of Devonport Royal Dockyard..........


The final phase of the Royal Dockyard, the North Yard Extension, was begun without ceremony in February 1896 under the authority of the Naval Works Act 1895.  It covered 114 acres, of which 35 acres was above the high water mark chiefly on reclaimed land, and 78 acres were foreshore.  The cost to the nation was some 6 million.

Read more about the North Yard Extension of Devonport Royal Dockyard..........


During the 1950s an area of Keyham Barton previously the site of Goschen and Hamilton Streets, and Spencer Avenue, was taken over for the Main Electrical Factory.   The first part was opened in 1957, the second in 1963, when the name Goschen Yard was selected for it.

Read more about the Goschen Yard of Devonport Royal Dockyard..........


In November 1946 the Admiralty took over 182 acres of Devonport.   They soon revised the figure downwards to 154 acres and by 1950 it was down to 78.  Within the next two years they gave up a further 27 acres, by which time the final area had been surrounded by a high stone wall.

A century-old contract between the Admiralty and Messrs John Hitchins & Company Ltd, forage merchants of Hursley, Bickleigh Down, came to an end on Friday July 26th 1957 when eight of the horses used by the Naval Store Department in the Dockyard were retired.  Few people watched them leave through the Albert Road Gate compared to the hundreds of children who used to gather there at the end of the day to watch them trot off to their stables in Saint Mary Street at East Stonehouse.  A few horses supplied by Messrs Reynolds of Torpoint remained in service.  [2]

In 1963 Morice Yard and South Yard were linked by means of a fly-over.  Work was started by Messrs Howard Farrow Ltd, of London, in May 1962 and the almost 300 feet long reinforced concrete bridge would span Cornwall Beach.  The carriageway was 23 feet wide and the pavement 5 feet 6 inches.  [3]

A similar structure was used to link Morice Yard and North Yard the following year.

The use of the flyovers by road traffic having displaced the use of the Dockyard Railway tunnel, passengers were last carried on the on Monday May 16th 1966 and a bus service was introduced.

The fine old Dockyard gate at the bottom of Albert Road was closed for the last time at midnight on September 4th 1966.  The entrance was then re-sited around the corner in Albert Road itself. The Dockyard Clock was moved from its original tower to the one nearest the road and fitted with a new electrical movement.

In 1968 the Dockyard Fire Brigade was disbanded and the responsibility for attending fires passed to the City of Plymouth Fire Brigade.  The old fire station just outside Albert Road Gate was taken over as the third Dockyard Museum.  As the previous two had both been destroyed by fire perhaps someone thought that locating it in the old fire station was a safety precaution!  Mr Basil Greenhill, Director of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, opened the Museum on Monday April 28th 1969.  Also present at the opening were the Dockyard Secretary, Mr Norman Chaff; the Curator of the City Museum, Mr A A Cumming; and the City Librarian, Mr W Best Harris.  [4]

It did not stay in the old fire station for long, however, and did not settle in its current location within the old Cashier's Office in South Yard until the late 1970s.

The Apprentices Training Centre in Goschen Yard was opened in January 1970.

In 1970, as part of a modernisation plan, it was announced that three old docks were to be covered over and turned into a Type 2 Frigate Repair Complex.   Although accidentally flooded on August 1st 1974, it was first officially flooded on June 2nd 1976.  The first ship to use the Complex was HMS Galatea in March 1977.   The Complex was officially opened on September 23rd 1977 by Dr David Owen MP, when HMS Galatea again entered the Complex, this time to the accompaniment of the Royal Marines Band.

A new Submarine Refit Complex was officially opened on May 23rd 1980 by HRH the Prince of Wales.

Rail goods traffic between North and South Yard ceased on November 10th 1982, when the last goods train passed through the tunnel from South Yard to North Yard and the driver, Mr Dave Rogers, gave up the single line token for the last time.

Principal Source:

Burns, Lieutenant-Commander K V, DSM RN, "The Devonport Dockyard Story", Maritime Books, Liskeard, 1984.

Other Sources:

[2]  "Dockyard Horses Being Ousted by Motors: Century-old Contract With City Firm Now Ended", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, July 27th 1957.

[3]  "Fly-overs to Make Dockyard One Unit", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, May 12th 1962.

[4]  "New Museum Tells Dockyard Story", Western Morning News, Plymouth, April 29th 1969.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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