History of Plymouth a step back in time

With Chris Robinson

chris robinson local historian plymouth

Chris Robinson’s takes a look at “Old Plymouth” follow this trail to see parts of Plymouth’s old historic past…

Please note photos from each area being added soon…


Somewhat disappointingly more Tudor and Jacobean buildings were lost in old Plymouth in the ten years or so after the war, than were actually destroyed by enemy bombs and incendiaries during the war. Strangely enough, however the buildings that lined this section of Notte Street, while they looked to be centuries old, were in fact late-Victorian rebuilds that were created as Artisan’s Dwellings in the 1880s.

One of the oldest thoroughfares in Plymouth, it was referred to in the 1439 Act of Incorporation as Note Street and it would have then stood very much on the southern edge of the town ‘in all likelihood looking across a little stream running down to Sutton Harbour, with hazel bushes on the far bank’ (Crispin Gill).

Tradition suggests that Sir Walter Raleigh once lived in one of the grand houses here, but there is no real evidence. William Cookworthy, on the other hand, undoubtedly lived just across the road from here. In a grand, stone-fronted property the great English porcelain pioneer entertained Captain James Cook, before he set off for the South Pacific, and the man who, in the 1750s, built the first enduring light on the Eddystone Reef – John Smeaton (the light was re-erected on the Hoe in 1882).

Pix: 1 The old house in Notte Street and the Hoe Gate brewery.
2 Artisan’s dwelling Notte Street 1950s.
3 Cookworthy’s residence (the front wall of this property is now the back wall of the Mexican restaurant, Arribas).


St Andrew’s Churchyard is said to have been enclosed in 1596 when it was known to have occupied a considerable area, over the years it was encroached upon by building a row of shambles and other houses and on the west side by the building of the Hospital of the Poors Portion (later the Workhouse), where the vicar once had a house. In 1813 some of these ‘obstacles’ were removed when the streets were widened and a tablet, formerly in the churchyard wall and now laid flat in front of the church, commemorates these improvements.

Fifty years later there was yet more clearing work undertaken as the local authorities removed properties across several acres to make way for the new Guildhall and Municipal Buildings complex. Among the casualties were the 1615 Hospital of Orphans Aid, just up from the Hospital of the Poor’s Portion at the top of what was then Catherine Lane. The word hospital in both these cases had a meaning a little different from that with which we are now familiar – these were not places for the sick and wounded but rather for the needy, infirm and aged and were invariably charitable institutions. Part of the stonework above the doorway – bearing the legend ‘by God’s helpe throvghe Christ’ is now to be found in the Elizabethan Gardens in New Street.

Pix 1 An early engraving c1780 of St Andrew’s Church
2 The old approach to the tower from Bedford Street 1860s.
3 Inside the Workhouse looking across to St Andrew’s Tower.


Prior to the Second World War, Old Town Street was one of the busiest traffic routes in the city, however, in order to accommodate the construction of the early seventies Drake Circus complex, the traffic was re-routed down the newly constructed Charles Street to the major new roundabout circling the church. Previously a densely built up area of a largely domestic nature, the complexion of the surroundings is very different today and promises to change again in the not-too-distant future as various proposals are being mooted for Breton Side bus station.

Constructed on a piece of land then known as Green Street, the building of Charles Church began in 1641, the year Charles I gave his assent to the project … ‘to be known as the Church of Plymouth, called Charles Church’. With work interrupted due to the Civil War, the unfinished shell being used as a shelter during that time, the church was eventually completed in 1658. It was, however, to be another fifty years before the tower was added and until 1757 its spire was a wooden affair covered in lead. In 1797 the Household of Faith Sunday School, one of the oldest in the country, moved into a neighbouring street, but like so much of the surrounding Blitz survivors, was removed in the redevelopment of the late-1950s.

Pix: 1 Mapping out Charles Street, the only building still to be seen is the one that now houses the Roundabout pub, top right.
2 Charles Church pre-war.
3 1958, the newly-completed Breton Side bus station.


Built in the first half of the nineteenth century, the street is named after the much-respected Earl Fortescue – Viscount or Lord Ebrington. One of a handful of zealous noble political reformers, Ebrington first won a Devon seat for Reform in 1818. Although he lost his seat in 1820, he later sat for Tavistock and gradually the Reform movement gained momentum. When Ebrington won a Devon seat in 1830 he was met on the town’s eastern extremity and his carriage was triumphantly carried along this new road to the Royal Hotel where there was a victory dinner.

Widened, lengthened, bombed and shortened (it used to run right through to Old Town Street), Ebrington Street has had somewhat of chequered history over the last 175 years. What remains gives us some insight into the appearance of pre-war commercial Plymouth, an eclectic mix that includes very recent developments on the one hand and early gems like the delightful Georgian Ebrington House and the striking period piece, the Trafalgar pub. Standing on the site of the earlier Lord Ebrington inn, it was, like its neighbours to the left, built at the end of the nineteenth century. Also of some considerable interest are the two adjacent Nissen Huts on the north side of the street at the junction with Gasking Street. Both have been given ‘squared’ frontages, and are thought to be the only local surviving examples of these celebrated ‘temporary’ structures being pressed into commercial service. North Street, which leads us back down to the heart of old Plymouth, is, as the name suggests, the ancient, but much redeveloped route north out of town.

Pix: 1 Ebrington Street map c.1920.
2 The Wesley Church in Ebrington Street, destroyed by fire, two years before the war.
3 The original west end of Ebrington Street – at Drake Circus


‘Dust, rust and dry rot had claimed Looe Street for its own and How Street was none other than a scattered and monstrous rookery. When the existence of these plague spots was revealed, meetings were convened by the Mayor, an Artisan’s Dwellings Company was formed, and their blocks of model dwellings were supplemented by others raised by Sir Edward Bates and Mr John Pethick. The reconstructed area was opened in the Mayoralty of Alderman Pethick in 1898,’ so wrote Henry Whitfeld in 1899. How Street was completely transformed, and Looe Street became, quite literally, a street of two halves: ‘Looe Street is now almost a thing of the past; one side has been entirely demolished, and many of the old houses which in former days made the narrow thoroughfare so picturesque have been modernized and there is little or nothing now to attract visitors, save and except two or three quaint relics of Tudor architecture,’ WHK Wright, the City Librarian, writing in 1901.

A hundred years on Looe Street is today one of the more quaint and interesting streets left in old Plymouth, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of the Plymouth Barbican Association, a charitable organisation founded in 1957, that now owns and maintains some twenty properties here and in other parts of the Barbican.

An interesting footnote from history; in 1897 as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebrations in Plymouth a massive bonfire was made on the Hoe with timber from the condemned houses. Local dignitaries had the front seats but when the flames bit in to the ancient timbers all their insect population flew for shelter to the complete discomfort of the assembled worthies.

1 c1890 Looe Street, looking east.
2 c1890 Looe Street, looking west.
3 The Hoe bonfire before the fleas took flight.

* Please Note: All content and images on this page are copyrighted to Chris Robinson – www.chrisrobinson.co.uk