The Register Office
Plymouth City Council
Plymouth PL1 2AA
- The Register Office
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- Monday 8.30am to 5pm
- Tuesday 8.30am to 7pm
- Wednesday 8.30am to 7pm
- Thursday 8.30am to 8pm
- Friday 8.30am to 5pm
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The early history of Plymouth
The history of Plymouth has very much been determined by its surrounding physical geography. The drowned valley of the River Tamar and its tributaries together with the River Plym dominates the area.
The valleys were deeply cut by their rivers and subsequently drowned or inundated by the sea at the end of the last ice age. As a result the coastline reaches inland along these deep river valleys producing excellent deep-water anchorages but also cutting the coastline into many small peninsulas, which impede communications by land. Originally these creeks stretched far inland and could only be crossed by fords or bridges high upstream of the muddy inlets. The silting up or deliberate in filling of many of these creeks in later years has hidden the impact that the physical geography exerted on the early settlement in this area.
Many of the names associated with the old civil registration districts owe their names to early settlements that grew up as isolated communities in this region now known as Plymouth. Names such as Plympton, Stonehouse, Stoke Damerel and Devonport.
The peninsula of land known as Stonehouse may have been the site of a Roman villa, for as Crispin Gill suggests in his book, 'Plymouth: A New History', why would the first Saxon settlers call this place Stonehouse unless they found a house or its ruins there? These remains must have been substantial enough to give their name to the area. Although it is conjecture who, but the Romans or a Romanised Briton of wealth, could have built a stone house? In 1882, an ancient burial place was found at Newport Street, just below Stonehouse bridge, and though everything has been destroyed, reports suggest that it may have been a Roman crematorium.
In its very early history the settlement of Plympton was more important than Plymouth, for here it was easy to cross the river which was also deep enough at that time to receive ships. The site of a castle and the old market charter bears witness to the towns early importance. The River Plym however soon became silted up and ships could no longer easily make their way upstream. It is at this time that mariners and merchants turned their attention to the mouth of the River Plym.
Devon was made a county before AD800 and divided into hundreds, our original form of local government. Sutton was the south town or 'ton' - the Saxon word for farm - at the southern extremity of Walkhampton hundred. It is not difficult to see how and why the original settlement of Sutton grew up at the mouth of the River Plym. Sutton Pool gave a sheltered anchorage and the first settlers decided to set their farm a little way up the north bank of the pool near a stream, which provided them with fresh water. They would have been sheltered from the westerly winds while at the same time have gentle south facing slopes for their fields. The original farm eventually became known as the old town and this site can be easily identified by the street name Old Town Street which led up to it. This was the settlement that was to be known eventually as Plymouth. During the Middle Ages Plymouth continued to grow as a port and the town was fortified with a wall in 1404 and shortly afterwards a castle was built. Further defences were added in the 1500s and perhaps one of its best known residents, Sir Francis Drake, mayor and MP, further added to the city's defences in 1590s. The settlement was primarily however a commercial port. The emphasis on Plymouth and its naval tradition did not come about until much later.
The area known as Plymouth Dock and since then as Devonport was not in Plymouth but in the neighbouring parish of Stoke Damerel. The first dockyard was built on the banks of the Hamoaze - the lower reaches of the River Tamar - in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Workers for the dockyard came from neighbouring towns and villages for originally there were no houses for the workers. Eventually houses were built parallel with the north dockyard wall at a place called North Corner and then Cornwall Street. By 1712 there were 318 men employed and by 1733 Plymouth Dock, as the new town was called, had 3000 people. Plymouth Dock was a working-class town. Within fifty years it grew from nothing to having nearly half as many people as its older neighbour. The parish church, Stoke Damerel, was three-quarters of a mile from the town surrounded by fields.
The major expansion of the dockyard came in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a direct result of war with France. Other notable buildings were erected throughout the area. At Stonehouse Creek a Naval hospital was built with landing steps down to the water's edge so that the sick and wounded seaman could be landed directly from boats. Later a Military hospital was built on the opposite shore of the creek. New barracks were built for the Royal Marines at Stonehouse. Government House, but since 1934 known as Admiralty House, was built at Mount Wise.
The importance of Plymouth as a naval base was confirmed when in 1812 construction began of the breakwater in Plymouth Sound. This provided the safe haven for ships sheltering from southerly storms. During this time the real source of wealth and the major employer in the region became the dockyard. Plymouth Dock had outgrown its confines sandwiched between the dockyard walls and development began at a place called Morice Town behind the Torpoint Ferry landing area on the Devon bank. New villages were also developing higher up the hill at Lower Stoke and Higher Stoke.
The three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport had all grown under the impetus of the dockyard and now effectively formed one urban area. It was not until 1914 however that the three towns were eventually amalgamated and formed the City of Plymouth.