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Local and Naval Studies Library
Plymouth Central Library
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Drake Circus
Plymouth
PL4 8AL
Plymouth City Council
Plymouth PL1 2AA
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01752 305902
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library@plymouth.gov.uk

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Brief history of Plymouth

Plymouth stands between moorland to the north and the English Channel to the south, and is flanked by the river Plym to the east and the river Tamar to the west. The Tamar also forms a natural border between the city in the county of Devonshire, and the county of Cornwall.

The origins of Plymouth can be traced back to Saxon times, more than a thousand years ago, and its history very much reflects its maritime location. Farmland on a small peninsula at the mouth of the river Plym, referred to in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Sudtone, meaning South Farm, developed into Sutton Harbour, the hub of medieval Plymouth. The earliest record of cargo leaving Plymouth dates from 1211, and for the next two centuries trade through Plymouth flourished, particularly during the 100 Years War with France.

Plymouth's importance both as a community and a port accelerated during this period. In 1254 its town status was recognised by Royal Charter, and in 1439 Plymouth was the first town in England to be granted a Charter by Parliament. Trade with other English regions, the Baltics and Northern Europe expanded, whilst fortifications were built up to repel repeated French incursions.

During the next three centuries Plymouth established its reputation both as a centre for voyage and discovery, and for its military importance. Transatlantic trade originated with William Hawkins in 1528. His son John laid the foundations of an organised naval force. In 1572 Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to sail into the Pacific, and in 1577 he embarked on the first ever circumnavigation of the globe. Back in Plymouth, Drake masterminded the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. According to popular legend, he played bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Armada sailed up the Channel. Drake was responsible also for the establishment of England's first colony, at Roanoke in Virginia, an act that may be regarded as the origins of the British Empire.

Perhaps the most celebrated expedition to leave Plymouth was that of the Pilgrims. Persecuted for their puritan beliefs in eastern England, they set sail for the New World on board the Mayflower in 1620. After spending a few weeks in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, they eventually landed in Plymouth Harbor and helped to establish a new Plymouth community.

Further explorations that left from Plymouth included three voyages to the southern ocean and the Pacific made by James Cook, the first in 1768. He was the first explorer to set foot on what are now the Hawaiian Islands, where he died in 1779. In 1831 Charles Darwin left Plymouth for the Galapagos Islands, where he formulated his revolutionary theories of natural selection and the Origins of Species. More recently, in 1967 Sir Francis Chichester started and finished at Plymouth the first ever solo circumnavigation of the globe on board his yacht Gypsy Moth IV.

Plymouth's military expansion began in earnest in 1670 when a citadel was built on the highest point above the town, the Hoe, meaning high ground. In 1690 the first Royal Dockyard opened on the banks of the Tamar west of Plymouth. Further docks were built in 1727, 1762 and 1793, and a huge naval complex was later established, including the communities of Plymouth Dock and Stonehouse. The Navy's role during war against Napoleon's France was pivotal, and in 1812 a mile-long breakwater was laid to protect the fleet.

Throughout the nineteenth century the population and physical size of the towns increased dramatically. In 1824 Plymouth Dock was renamed Devonport, and in 1914 the three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse were united as the Borough of Plymouth. In 1928 Plymouth was granted City status, and the first Lord Mayor was appointed in 1935.

Plymouth was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Plymouth's and Devonport's centres were destroyed. Re-built in the 1950s, Plymouth's commercial heart was the first in England to incorporate pedestrian-only shopping avenues. Since the war the city has expanded, with new housing and commercial developments and absorption of what once were neighbouring communities.

In 1967 Plymouth absorbed the towns of Plympton and Plymstock. Plympton pre-dates any development in the Sutton/Plymouth area on the coast. Plympton stands two miles inland on the river Plym, and its origins, which, like that of Sutton, date from the Saxon age, were founded on tin mining and trading. For as long as trading vessels could reach Plympton, the community flourished. However, in the early years of the last millennium the river silted with mining residue, and it was from that time that Sutton / Plymouth grew to pre-eminence. The name Plympton means plum-tree village in Saxon English, and it was from this that the river and later the city of Plymouth itself derived their names.

Today Plymouth has strong links with several European cities, with ferry links to France and Spain. Plymouth is twinned with Gdynia in Poland, San Sebastian in Spain, Novorossiysk in Russia, Brest in France and, since 2001, with Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The whole region is a popular tourist destination, and the city itself attracts large numbers of visitors, particularly Americans, who are drawn to the Old Barbican district where they can stroll through streets that date from the sixteenth century and take tea in Elizabethan tearooms. At the Barbican, too, is the Mayflower Steps monument, built in 1934 and a permanent reminder of the Pilgrims' voyage to America. Plymouth's motto is Turris fortissima est nomen Jehovah - "the name of Jehovah is the strongest tower", taken from the Proverbs of Solomon.