My Plymouth History

Today’s featured post comes from Lloyd Hunt, who sent us this wonderful guide to Plymouth from 1956. Lloyd particularly likes the advertisements!

Or do you have an object or photograph that shows a bit of your own Plymouth History? Send it to the Festival Producer or share it with us on Twitter or Facebook with a brief description and the hashtag #MyPlymouthHistory.

Sir Francis Chichester

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Perhaps the largest crowd ever to gather on Plymouth Hoe – a quarter of a million people – saw the 65 year-old Francis Chichester sail home to finish the first west-east solo circumnavigation of the world on 28 May 1967.

Crowds on Plymouth Hoe to watch Sir Francis Chichester's return in 1967
Crowds wait on the Hoe. Image courtesy of The Box © Mirrorpics

Hundreds of small ships scattered across the Sound let off their hooters and sirens, fireboats sprayed red, white and blue water and the navy gave a ten-gun salute in an extraordinary celebration over land and sea.

The event was shown on TV, and the heroic yachtsman with his ketch Gipsy Moth IV became internationally famous for his heroic feat of skill and endurance.

The accolades poured in immediately. He was knighted by the queen just two months later with the same sword Elizabeth I used to knight another Sir Francis for the first global circumnavigation by an Englishman.

Sir Francis Chichester. Image courtesy of The Box © Mirrorpics

Such a stack of historical parallels even drove the Royal Mail to break a tradition that had never permitted: the depiction of a living person (baring members of the royal family) on a postage stamp. That same year the new one shilling and nine pence stamp bore a picture of Chichester aboard his record-breaking vessel.

Having won the first solo transatlantic yacht race in 1960 and beating his own record two years later, Chichester set the yardstick for round the world solo yacht racing. Over the following years his time of 119 days decreased. The current record is 42 days.

Chichester came to yachting late in life. Born in 1901, he began his career as an airman. As soon as he gained his pilot’s licence he attempted to break the record for solo flight to Australia.

Too slow to succeed due to mechanical problems, he nevertheless proved the utility for air travel of off course navigation, an ancient method in which you deliberately sail the wrong way in order to get to the right place faster. It gave greater accuracy as well, and allowed him make the first ever aerial landings on two tiny Pacific islands: Norfolk and Lord Howe, where the islanders helped him rebuild his damaged plane.

Too old to engage in active service during the Second World War, he joined the reserves and used his expertise to write the manual instructing pilots on solo missions over Europe.

It was his passion for navigation that compelled him to undertake these huge journeys rather than any enjoyment of their solitary deprivations. On returning to Plymouth in 1967, he is quoted as saying: ‘What I would like after four months of my own cooking is the best dinner from the best chef in the best surroundings and in the best company.’ Let’s hope he found it close by.

Sir Francis Chichester television graphic © The Box, Plymouth

Written by Rosemary Babichev

James Rich Steers

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Only the fishes see a shipbuilder’s finest ideas once his vessel has slipped into the sea. It’s the precise shape of the hull and the swell and curve of the timbers that give the ideal compromise between stability and speed.

The secrets of ship design were known only to their makers two centuries ago. The mystery made the names of the fastest ships into legends and a huge source of national pride. One such vessel was the racing schooner America – the first winner of the oldest trophy in international sport and the biggest prize in sailing, the America’s Cup in 1851.

Affectionately known as the ‘Auld Mug’, the America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in international sport. The 36th battle for it is currently due to take place in New Zealand in spring 2021.

But did you know that the America, the yacht that started it all, was designed by a New York company co-owned by a man from Devonport?

Portrait_of_J._Rich_Steers 1896 New York Herald Tribune Obituary
Portrait of James Rich Steers from his 1896 obituary in the New York Herald Tribune

James Rich Steers (1808-1896), born in 1808, was the son of a naval engineer called Henry who was employed in the construction department of the Royal Naval dockyard. The family emigrated to the USA in 1817 where they continued to work in the shipping business.

James helped his father salvage cargo from a sunken British cruiser in New York Harbour, then worked on a steamer before becoming a shipbuilder. He and his younger brother George (1819-1856) became famous for building the fastest pilot boats: light but seaworthy craft that raced out from the harbour in all weathers to reach the big ships and offer their services to bring them safely into port.

James Rich Steers' younger brother and business partner George Steers
James Rich Steers’ younger brother and business partner George Steers

In 1850 they set up their own firm George and James R. Steers Inc. and had their own shipyard.

Confident their revolutionary hull design (a concave clipper-bow with the beam at midships) was second to none in the new world the Steers’ decided to try it in the old, taking the America across the Atlantic to Great Britain’s ‘World’s Fair’.

When the boat appeared in the Solent in July for the Royal Regatta it had already gained such a reputation there was some difficulty finding competitors. After an informal race when the winner was disputed, the America did not have another chance to compete until the final day when she joined the Royal Yacht Squadron’s £100 Cup for the first boat to sail round the Isle of Wight.

The America Schooner Yacht. Oswald W. Brierly, published by Ackermann & Co. / Public domain

Fifteen yachts waited at the start at ten o’clock on the morning of 22 August 1851. Initially handicapped by trouble with the anchor, the America quickly reached the leading pack, making fifth place after half an hour. When the race was nearly over, her pilot decided to risk sailing landward of a lightship on some shoals named the Nab Rocks, shortening the distance and winning her first place – 18 minutes ahead of her nearest rival. When Queen Victoria asked who came second, she was told, ‘There is no second, your Majesty.’

The next America’s Cup took place in 1870 and the USA retained its title. Indeed, it would continue to do so for the next 132 years, defending it twenty four times until 1983 when it was taken by Australia II. Since then the USA has won the Cup in 1987, 1988, 1992, 2010 and 2013. New Zealand won it in 1995, 2000 and 2017. Switzerland were victorious in 2003 and 2007.

Steers retired in 1857, the year after his brother George died unexpectedly just as he was about to secure a major contract to design a boat for the Tsar of Russia. He became involved in local politics and remained so until his death. He was a rich man and he passed his business to his son Henry who continued the family tradition, building a number of boats for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

Based on an original article by Rosemary Babichev and Jo Clarke

The Wreck of the Dutton

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This painting is by a man called Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821), a Bristol-born artist who was known during his lifetime for the detailed paintings he produced of naval scenes. His skills were originally honed during a spell as in the merchant navy, when he spent some of his time at sea making sketches and ships of coastal scenes for his log books.

The event shown in the painting is one of Plymouth’s most famous shipwrecks. It’s inspired numerous other paintings and engravings, many created by Pocock and his younger contemporary, Thomas Luny.

The ‘Dutton’ was built on the Thames in 1781 and chartered by the East India Company. It was bound for the West Indies with troops on board when it was wrecked in Plymouth Sound during a gale on 26 January 1796. 

This is an atmospheric painting that gives the impression of drama. You can see dark clouds, heavy waves and people calling out to the boat from the shore. The Plymouth coastline and other boats are shown through the driving rain. Mount Batten tower in the background and the Citadel to the left are recognisable landmarks.

The Dutton is shown close to the shore with waves crashing against it. Its masts are gone but a series of rescue lines are being held by people on the beach. In the bottom left hand corner, a small group are helping what looks like an exhausted survivor. Other figures are still in the water, holding on to bits of wreckage as they make their way towards land and safety. 

The rescue operation from the wreck is one of the things that made it so famous.

It was led by a man called Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth. He was a British naval officer with Cornish roots who fought during the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. 

Pellew was stationed at Falmouth commanding a squadron of frigates, but on 26 January happened to be in Plymouth. He was a powerful man and so he swam out to the grounded boat with a line. This enabled the rescue lines that you can see in the painting, otherwise known as ’breeches buoys’, to be rigged.

Thanks to Pellew and the efforts of those on the shore all but four of the estimated 600 people on board were saved from the wreck. It’s believed he is the officer in the blue uniform coat that you can just about see standing on the poop deck.

Letters Reporting the Mutiny of the Plymouth Squadron, 1797

Lee-Jane Giles

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Lee-Jane Giles is a PhD candidate at University of Plymouth. Her research focuses on the admiralty general court martial records in the 18th century, specifically 1755-1779, and considers how the charges related within them can shed light on how members of the marine corps constructed masculine values and validations. Lee-Jane is also a writer, researcher and online editor for the magazine format of the popular podcast, live show, and book series, Histories of the Unexpected.

This post presents letters reporting the outbreak of mutiny in the Plymouth squadron in April 1797. The letters were written by captains of ships at anchor, sent to the commander-in-chief of the Plymouth squadron, who forwarded them to the Admiralty. They are now held in the National Archives in Kew.

The year 1797 has become synonymous with growing unrest within the Royal Navy which culminated in several mutinies. The most well-known mutinies occurred at Spithead, the Nore, and the North Sea squadron at Yarmouth, but there was also a mutiny at Plymouth.[1]

The unrest at Spithead began as a dispute about pay but when the Admiralty miscalculated the strength of feeling amongst the men it became a protest against the living and working conditions of the sailors. [2] The blockade of the Thames by the sailors at the Nore paralysed trade, and with the country at war with revolutionary France, the mutinous ships jeopardised the nation’s security, attracted the attention of the national press and intrigued the public.

The unrest at Plymouth was inspired by the same concerns as the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. It lasted from April until June and drew in over twenty ships and their crews anchored in Plymouth Sound and Cawsand Bay, and culminated in the trial and execution of several of the seamen involved.[3]

The following letters shine a light on the start of the Plymouth mutiny by detailing events as they unfolded. They were sent from captains of the ships involved in the mutiny to Sir John Orde, commander of the Plymouth squadron, who then sent them with a covering letter to the Admiralty. They are held in The National Archives as part of ADM 1/811, Letters from Commanders-in-Chief, Plymouth, April 1797.

The accounts highlight the unity and commitment of the sailors in different squadrons of the Channel Fleet; the speed with which news of the Spithead mutiny reached the crews anchored in and around Plymouth Sound; and just how briskly and effectively they reacted to the ongoing events at Spithead. The quick response of the crews demonstrates the effectiveness of the propaganda campaign led by the delegates at Spithead in order to gain popular support. The letters also show that the Admiralty was caught unawares with the speed of the mutiny at Plymouth and demonstrate that the unrest at Spithead was not an isolated act but a rallying call to all of the sailors in the Royal Navy as a chance to improve sailors’ living and working conditions .

It is well documented that the mutiny at Plymouth started on 26 April after the arrival of the Porcupine carrying news from Spithead and specifically the Admiralty’s delay in agreeing to the petitions delivered by the Spithead delegates.[4] These letters show that the Atlas was the first of the ships anchored in Plymouth Sound to receive news of the Admiralty’s delay in agreeing terms with the delegates at Spithead. When this news reached the crew of the Atlas a collective response was drawn up in the form of their own articles which was then taken by, amongst others, a petty-officer, round to the rest of the ships at some point after 10 a.m. This occurred after a call had gone up from the crew in the form of a cheer, which the other crews then responded to in kind, allowing the crew of the Atlas to see which ships would be responsive to the mutiny.

Comparison can be drawn here with the Spithead mutiny which was also directed by a group of petty-officers and leading seamen, men already used to leading the sailors of the lower decks.[5]

Letter 1

Written by J. MacDougall, captain of HMS Edgar at anchor in Cawsand Bay, it is likely that this was the first official news of trouble within the squadron at Plymouth.

Edgar Cawsand Bay 26th April 97
 
Sir,
 
I beg leave to state to you the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that a Boat from H. Maj. Ship the Atlas came on board this ship from the Sound this morning with a person having the appearance of a petty officer, he immediately ran down betwixt Decks, & in a few minutes the whole Ships company came after and requested that he might be allowed to read a paper (a copy of which I enclose) on my endeavoring to appease them a number of men run on the poop and took possession of the Armed Chests, while others were placed as Centinels over the Magazines; I found it in vain to resist the Torrent, and dreading the evil consequences which might not only result to this Ship, but the service in general I judged it prudent to yield, and take the earliest opportunity of making this communication thro you to their Lordships.
 
I have also to add that they have declared their firm determination to abide by the contents of the enclosed.I am Sir,your most obedientVery humble ServantJ M.Dougall

Captain MacDougall included a copy of the articles which he referred to in his letter. It is written on behalf of the crew of the Atlas, is addressed to the crew of the Edgar and was read to that crew on her deck.

 Articles as set down by the crew of the Atlas

We the Ships Company of H. Mj Ship Atlas have unanimously resolved to stand to the following Articles Viz1st.
 
That every person onboard pay due respect to his Officers as before, and discharge the Duty of the Ship as formerly in every respect except in going to Sea before going to Spithead, unless proofs appear of the Enemy’s Fleet being at Sea. –2nd.
 
That no Person belonging to the Ship be admitted to go on Shore excepting Officers and Boats Crews on Duty. –3rd.
 
That no Liquor be admitted on board and any Person or Persons being intoxicated and behaving in a contemptible Manner shall be liable to such punishment as the Ship’s Company shall find meet –4th
 
That as we being unacquainted with the requests of the Fleet at Spithead we are willing to comply with the Terms, which may be accepted of by them5th.
 
Any Person or Persons deviating from these Articles shall be punished as the Majority of the Ship’s Company shall find meet.
 
To the Ship’s Company of H M Ship EdgarSignals to be observedFor getting under weigh to go to Spithead – A Blue flag at Main Top Gallant Mast Head
 
For a Boat every Morning – A Blue Flag at the Mizzen Peak

Letter 2

The second letter highlights events as they occurred on the Atlas later that evening and was written by the ship’s captain, M. Squire, whilst at anchor in Plymouth Sound, again addressed to Sir John Orde.

Atlas Plymouth sound 26 April 97
 
In consequence of your Order I endeavour’d to get on Board which I effected (from the wind blowing very hard) at 7 O’Clock this evening, on getting on Board I found by the Lieutenants report that the Ships Company had Cheer’d the other Ships which was return’d by them; I herewith send you the Articles they have agreed to – I have harangued the Ships Company since I have been on Board & find they have had letters from Portsmouth & from the Edgar, Informing them that if they do not act as the Ships have done at Portsmouth they will treat them very Ill when they join.
 
They have promised me that they will be Obedient and respectful to every Officer on Board the Ship & execute the Order of every Officer with alertness – this is the state I am present in, & think it my duty to give you this early informationI am with respect your most honourable Servant.
 
M al Squire

Letter 3

The ‘Cheer’ that Squire mentioned in his letter is echoed within the next document contained within the dispatch and was written by Captain George Blagdon Westcott of HMS Majestic, again written whilst the ship lay at anchor in Plymouth Sound on 26 April 1797.[6] It makes clear the collaborative nature of the response of the Plymouth crews.

Majestic Plymouth Sound 26th April 1797
 
Sir,
 
I have to acknowledge the receipt of yours of this day which gives me particular pleasure – at the same time I have to inform you that at Eight o clock this Morning the Atlas’s Ships Company gave three Cheers which was followed by the Saturn & this Ship – that about 11 o Clock a Boat came from the Atlas with a Paper for the Ships Company – that this Paper was soon after presented to me on the Quarter Deck by the Ships Company, for my inspection – the Contents were mearly this –
 
‘To obey the Officers in every thing except Weighing the Anchor, unless to go to Spithead, or to Sea if the Enemy should be there – that no Boats were to go on shore unless on Duty or with an Officer – that Drunkenness was to be seuerely Punished. And with two Signals – a Blue Flag at the Fore Topmast Lead – To Go to Portsmouth. – And another Signal for a Boat every Morning, which I do not recollect
 
–I have the honor to be Sir
 
your most Obedient Humble Servant
 
GBWestcott

Letter 4

These letters from the captains were sent to Sir John Orde who then sent the following covering letter to the Admiralty on 26 April. This letter clearly shows that those in command at Plymouth were aware that there was unrest within the crews before the mutiny occurred, but that they were convinced that the men were unlikely to cause any disruption, being of ‘good disposition’. Unfortunately for Orde he was wrong, and he blamed the change on threats made to the men by mutineers at Spithead, rather, it would seem, than face the unhappy truth that the men were joint conspirators in the mutiny and shared the grievances against the Admiralty and the government with the mutineers at Portsmouth.

Cambridge in Hamoaze April 26.
 
Sir,
 
Inclosed I send you for the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty two letters received from Capt. Westcott of the Majestic and Capt. McDougall of the Edgar, the latter enclosing a Paper entitled articles the Ships company of the Atlas have unanimously resolved to stand to,And it is with respect I must add that although I have not yet had any direct report from Capt. Squires of the Atlas and Capt. Douglas of the Saturn, that their crews have acted the same part with the Edgar and Majestic’s yet, unfortunately, I have every reason to be assured they act in conjunction with them.
 
From the demonstrations of satisfaction with the plan proposed for the better encouragement of the seamen and marines serving in the fleet evinced by the crews of the several ships here when I communicated to them on Sunday last, and from reports made to me since by the several captains of the good disposition still continuing amongst the menI had hoped that all the seamen of all the ships here would have remained in perfect obedience, notwithstanding the arts I feared were practised to seduce them; but unhappily it seems the latter joined to the threats and persuasions of the crews of H M Ships at Portsmouth (which the Lieut of the Edgar sent to me by Capt. McDoug says that Ships company acknowledge they have received and been influenced by) have prevailed, and led them to adopt a conduct, which having I apprehend induced the Commanders of all the line of Battle ships in the Sound and Cawsand Bay to surrender the command of them to their men, leaves nothing in my power to do, until I receive the Lordships commands, but by desperate means to endeavour to keep these deluded men within bounds if I should fail in recalling them to their duty, which I think an official recount of all being settled at Portsmouth would much contribute to effect.
 
Capt. Draper of H M Ship Porcupine who I have desired to carry this with all expedition will be able to give their Lordships every further information they may requireI am SirYour most Humble Servant

J Orde

To Evan Nepean Esq.

[1] Philip MacDougall, ‘’We went out with Admiral Duncan, we came back without him’: Mutiny and the North Sea Squadron’ in Anne Veronica Coats and Philip MacDougall (eds), The Naval Mutinies of 1797: Unity and Perserverance (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011), p. 243.

[2] In February 1797 seamen at Spithead sent eleven petitions seeking a pay increase, by April that year their demands now included, pension increases, raising of provisions, full pay for sick and injured sailors, and removal of certain officers, see Coats and MacDougall, The Naval Mutinies, pp. 22-27.

[3] See ADM 1/811 List of Delegate Ships involved which lists 16 ships, see also Anne Coats, ‘The Delegates: A Radical Tradition’ in Coats and MacDougall (eds) The Naval Mutinies of 1797 p. 45 which lists a further five ships. The mutiny at Plymouth finally ended on June 6 after the delegates were satisfied that those at Spithead had achieved their aims.

[4] Anne Veronica Coats, ‘Launched into Eternity’ Admiralty Retribution or the Restoration of Discipline?’ in Coats and MacDougall (eds) The Naval Mutinies of 1797, p. 216.

[5] G. E. Manwaring & Bonamy Dobree, The Floating Republic: An Account of the Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2004 (reprint), p. 262.

[6] Although it is believed that the Majestic was at Spithead during April and May 1797(see Westcott’s ODNB listing) this letter shows that the ship and Westcott were in Plymouth

Dame Agnes Weston and Dame Sophia Wintz

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Born in London in 1840, Aggie Weston spent more than two decades living and working among the sailors of the Royal Navy.

She co-founded two Royal Sailors’ Rests in Plymouth and one in Portsmouth with fellow philanthropist Sophia Wintz (1847-1929) and campaigned tirelessly to improve the lot of her beloved ‘bluejackets’.

The Royal Sailor’s Rest in Fore Street, Devonport in 1915 © Plymouth Library Services

Her other accomplishments included a monthly magazine called ‘Ashore and Afloat’, a book called ‘Life Among the Bluejackets’ which was published in 1909 and the establishment of a number of temperance societies on naval ships.

In 1918 her work for the Royal Navy was recognised when she was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE).

When she died later that year in Devonport she became the first woman to be granted full naval honours at her funeral. The city is currently in the process of creating a blue heritage plaque in her memory. You can find out more about her on the Wednesday’s Women website and the A Tale of One City website.

Dame Sophia Wintz (right) with Dame Agnes Weston
Dame Sophia Wintz (right) with Dame Agnes Weston

Dame Sophia Wintz (1847-1929) was born in Switzerland. As well as her work with her great friend Agnes Weston, she also helped establish the Royal Naval Temperance Society, journals such as Monthly Letters and Ashore and Afloat, and a library for sailors which distributed literature to ships all over the world.

Royal Naval Temperance Society Medal
Royal Naval Temperance Society Medal

Wintz became a Dame in 1920 and like Weston, was given a full naval funeral when she passed away. Apparently 400 Royal Naval officers and ratings attended.

Here’s a link to another Agnes Weston biography which also mentions Sophia Wintz on the National Museum of the Royal Navy website.

Restoring the ‘souls of ships’

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14 figureheads weighing a combined total of 20 tonnes will be on display in the main entrance of The Box when it opens to the public. Carved in the 1800s, and on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, they’re amazing examples of craftsmanship.

Figureheads have been mounted on the bows of ships from the earliest times. For centuries they provided an image of the fighting spirit of their crew and nation. They were also believed to provide guidance and comfort to mariners, many of whom were superstitious, and took on something of the ‘soul’ of the ship.

Although ship design eventually made them redundant around 200 Royal Naval figureheads still survive today. They’re mostly in museum collections and naval establishments in the UK with a handful more overseas.

Most of the figureheads in The Box travelled the world in the 1800s to places such as North America, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Hong Hong, India and West Africa. Some of the ships they were part of served the First Opium War (1839-42), the Second Burma War (1852-3), the Crimean War (1853-6) and the Second Opium War (1856-60).

Over the last couple of years they’ve been on another interesting journey that has sometimes taken them into unchartered waters – as part of a hugely ambitious restoration project.

Conservation teams in London, Devon and Cornwall have carried out analysis and conservation, removed internal decay, restored the figureheads’ structural integrity, re-designed their existing mounting systems so they can be suspended from the ceiling, and repainted them using a new heritage-inspired colour palette with gold leaf to highlight any details.

The teams pioneered a new technique to accurately assess the amount of deterioration inside each figurehead. Sonic tomography is a scanning technique that uses ultrasound. It’s normally used to measure decay inside living trees. Prior to the figureheads project, it had never been used to help conserve large-scale wooden sculptures.

This, along with a detailed analysis of their surface paint layers, enabled the conservators to develop the most appropriate treatment methods.

It’s an approach that not only saved the original carved surfaces and the figureheads themselves, it also uncovered previously obscured details that might have otherwise been lost.

Residents and visitors to Plymouth will sadly have to wait a little longer than planned to see these Greek Goddesses, Kings, Queens, warriors and mythological figures up close, but there are a number of videos documenting their restoration and recent arrival in Plymouth here.

The Royal Navy and the Dockyard

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Plymouth has been linked with the history of the Royal Navy for centuries and has the largest naval base in Western Europe.

The huge site in Devonport, which dates from the 1690s, covers four miles of waterfront and 650 acres. It has 15 dry docks, 25 tidal berths and five basins.

You can learn more about it on the Royal Navy website and the BBC’s website.

Although not open to the public, the Visit Plymouth website states that you can enjoy impressive views over the base from two high points in the city. One of these is at Park Avenue, Devonport and the other is from either the Savage or Poole Roads, Barne Barton.

We highlighted the work of the excellent Naval Base Heritage Centre earlier today.

You can also find an interesting article on the National Archives website, if you’re doing some family history research and you’re looking for records relating to Royal Naval dockyard staff.

In the meantime, here’s a new video clip produced especially for this year’s History Festival. It includes some great archive footage of the field gun crew, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Penelope’s return from the Falklands.

Group Profile: Devonport Naval Heritage Centre

Devonport Naval Heritage Centre

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The Devonport Naval Heritage Centre celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, and has existed in various locations. It originated ‘behind the wire’ of the dockyard and was established by a former naval person. The original intention was as a dockyard museum, appealing largely to past and present workers.

The Centre has shrunk in footprint but not in the stories it tells. It’s now on the other side of the wire, so accessible to far more people, and highlights stories from beyond the dockyard to include naval battles, naval history and its impact on the local area. It has since been transferred as a collection to the National Museum of the Royal Navy which is based in Portsmouth.

A new temporary exhibition programme began just over a year ago and has seen the Centre host visiting exhibitions, and create its own. These have included the stories of the Chinese Labour Corps during WWI, Women and the Royal Navy, and LGBT stories from before and after the ban on homosexuals serving was lifted in 2000. It has also loaned a large collection of ship’s figureheads to The Box in a fantastic collaboration of heritage. You can find out more about these in a separate post later today.

The Centre usually offers museum tours throughout the year and, when it’s not undergoing maintenance as it is at the moment, you can book onto a tour of a decommissioned nuclear submarine. The Centre also gets involved in local history days, family days and anniversaries from Armed Forces Day to Devonport Park Family Day. It also offers a monthly evening talk on the first Thursday of every month.

Anyone is welcome to join a tour when the Centre re-opens, although advance bookings through the booking office is essential. The Centre is always keen to welcome new volunteers too.

There are plans to develop, expand and open to visitors on a more regular basis with a larger programme of Open Days in the future. Watch this space!

Napoleon on the Bellerophon

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This popular painting dramatises an extraordinary moment in Plymouth’s history between July and August 1815, when one of the world’s infamous leaders was held captive in Plymouth Sound. 

Self-styled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had surrendered in June to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, following the Battle of Waterloo. When Maitland weighed anchor in Torbay – and word got out that ‘Boney’ was on board – crowds gathered. It was decided to move him to Plymouth for greater security while his fate was decided. 

French artist Jules Girardet’s imaginative reconstruction was painted in 1890, seventy-five years after these events. It reflects contemporary accounts in several respects, notably the sheer number of people afloat in the bay. 

As news spread, sightseers came not just from Plymouth but up country. The sea was calm, and apart from two rainy days, as many as 10,000 people took to the water every afternoon in 1,000 boats. 

Napoleon appeared on deck daily, doffing his bicorn hat, bowing, and generally playing to the gallery. The crowds responded in kind, shouting and cheering, raising hats and waving handkerchiefs. 

People really did dress in their finest clothes, as Girardet portrays, and Napoleon remarked it was impossible to distinguish which of the women were ladies. He did not just win the hearts of the crowd. Crew who sailed with him declared him to be ‘a devilish good fellow‘. Maitland even gave him his cabin. 

Such was the groundswell of sympathy for the fallen Emperor that the officials who had gathered nearby to decide his fate were thrown into confusion. Napoleon had hoped for asylum within the UK. These scenes may have helped scupper those hopes. 

An exclusion zone was enforced around the Bellerophon and warning shots fired above the crowd. A dockyard worker was drowned and his family cast into the water when their boat was capsized by a swift-moving naval cutter. Two women drowned when the Bellerophon returned to Torbay in early August, before Napoleon was transferred to HMS Northumberland, bound for exile on Saint Helena without trial. 

The Bellerophon was already near the end of her working life in 1815 and had almost been destroyed three times in battle against Napoleon. She went on to be converted into a prison ship and was renamed ‘Captivity’. She was finally broken up at Stonehouse Creek. Ship’s surgeon George Bellamy purchased some of the timbers to build his house, Burrow Lodge, which still stands in Plymstock. 

Based on an original article by Fiona Saint