Devonport (Dock) 1730 to 1830

(I was sent a newspaper cutting of an article published 1911 in the Western Morning News. It was written by Karl Cherry, in two parts, and headed ‘Devonport a Century ago’. The following is my transcription of that article. For words too faint to read two question marks have been inserted in their place. A small section of the article appears to be missing - but sufficient remained that it was worth transcribing.)

Devonport a Century Ago

By Karl Cherry. 1911


The writer recently contributed to these columns an article on “Plymouth: A Century Ago,” based upon a scarce work, called “The Picture of Plymouth, &c” which was published anonymously in the year 1812. The little book was written in a style of fearless and ?? criticism, that is at once instructive and entertaining, and the account of Devonport is also well worth preserving. In the following article the observations of the old author have been supplemented by additional notes from other out-of-the-way sources, and so our picture of Devonport will be something of a composite mosaic, to which several forgotten writers will contribute their quota.

Writing of Plymouth Dock in the year 1818, Warner remarks: “The town of Dock is an infant of yesterday compared with Plymouth. A century back, it was a desolated common, without hoses or inhabitants.” From 1768 (or 3?) to the time when Warner was writing the population of the town was quadrupled, the value of property increased one thousand per cent., and in 1812 “Dock” had reached the interesting stage in its development described in the following passages from “The Picture of Plymouth, &c.”

“The town has been erected on an extensive plain, in a very desirable situation, both as respects the free circulation of air, and the delightful prospects that may be seen from it is every direction, of which, however, no advantage has been made in the laying out the streets. It was naturally deficient in that necessary article of life, water, and for some time the inhabitants suffered much inconvenience from an inadequate supply of it, being obliged to purchase it of persons who carried it about in barrels on horses and asses: but in the year 1792 an application was made to Parliament to establish a company, who are called “The Plymouth Dock Company,” with power to bring a stream from the borders of Dartmoor to the town, a distance, from the circuitous route, of nearly thirty miles;. This was an object of such vast importance to the inhabitants that it is surprising they could manage to do without it, and one would have thought that all persons should have combined in endeavouring to obtain it; but unhappily a foolish jealousy, which had long existed between Plymouth and Dock, operated so powerfully upon the minds of the Corporation of the former as to induce them to oppose the progress of the bill in Parliament; fortunately, however, without effect. This spirit of rivalry seems now to be gradually wearing off. The enlightened part of the inhabitants of both towns begin to perceive that their interest are the same, and that whatever promotes the prosperity of Plymouth Dock will essentially affect Plymouth and the neighbourhood. What, indeed, is the foundation of the prosperity of the whole neighbourhood but the establishment of the naval arsenal, which has given rise to all the numerous departments of Government that at present abound here.

(there are four or five unreadable lines at this point, and continues with ...)

... general well built, though some excellent houses, with handsome brick fronts, have been of late years added; they intersect each other nearly at right angles: their general width is from 30 to 50 feet, and they are well paved. It is true of this town, as well as of Plymouth, that the footpaths are paved with marble, and they receive such a polish from the friction occasioned by the feet of passengers and the action of the water as to give them a very beautiful appearance when washed by a shower. The streets are kept much cleaner, and are in general more level, as well as wider, more convenient and pleasant than those of Plymouth. It is, however, most extraordinary that they are neither lighted nor watched; a few lamps are scattered here and there, which have the effect of reminding passengers that there are such things as public-houses, and inviting them in to take a glass. It is said that these lamps were put up by order of the magistrates, but we are well assured it is a misstatement, for they well know they have no power to offer anything of the sort to be done, nor can we imagine they would have recommended it, since they must have been aware that such a small number of lights would only make darkness more viable, and hold out a lure to the thoughtless and irresolute.

Near the head of the North New Dock ?? place for old copper that has been removed from ships bottoms at the time of repairing them; it is then covered with verdigrass, weeds, muscles [sic], all of which must be cleaned away before the metal can be applied to any other purpose. To effect this it is laid on iron bars raised about a foot from the ground, and covered with chips and shavings, which are afterwards set fire to; the smoke is excessively nauseous and deleterious in the extreme, and when the wind blows from the west, which is mostly the case here, the town is filled with it. After a certain time the copper is taken out of the fire and beaten with mallets to remove the dirt, &c. This refuse was formerly thrown away as useless, but it having been discovered lately that it contains a large quantity of metallic particles it is now sold at £90 per ton.

“Every person belonging to the Dockyard is under the command of the Commissioner, from whom all orders are received, and who has it in his power to discharge any workman for neglect of duty, and even the officer of the military guard receives the watch-word from him. His salary is £1,000 per annum. The artificers frequently work ‘two for one,’ that is, they execute the work of two days in the number of hours allowed for one: to do this they have tasks measured out by their different officers. In war-time they generally work ‘three for one.’ The chips which arise from converting timber to the requisite shapes were formerly carried out of the yard, as a perquisite by the workmen, in bundles; to form which, not only a large quantity of good timber was frequently destroyed, but articles of more value were accreted in them. This occasioned an order that no more should be taken from the yard, and Government allows each man sixpence a day in lieu of them. The chips are now sold by auction once every fortnight.

St. John’s Chapel and School was built by subscription, and was finished in the year 1799. The internal part, consisting of three aisles and an elliptical gallery, is remarkably neat, and contains a good organ: but the appearance of the exterior is in everything the reverse of elegance, especially a miserable square tower, with a vile cupola on the top. The presentation is vested in the rector of the parish, but the subscribers had the first appointment. The stipulated salary of the curate is only £60 per annum, but this is increased by the voluntary subscriptions of the proprietors to £?00, if the person appointed by the rector meets with their approval.

Close adjoining to this chapel is a school-house built at the expense of a set of subscribers, for the purpose of educating the youth of their congregation; it contains on the ground floor a schoolroom for boys who are arranged and instructed after Mr. Lancaster’s system. Unfortunately it has been built on a scale too small, as it will contain but 100 boys, whereas if the gentlemen who have instituted this school could carry their benevolent designs into execution, that of instructing all the children in the town who are not provided with education by their parents, it ought to be capable of receiving at least 500, however, limited as it is, we hail it as an auspicious omen of the disposition of the inhabitants. In the upper story is a schoolroom for girls, where about 30 are educated, and apartments for the ladies who superintend this charity and the mistress who directs it. These children are instructed in reading and plain work so as to fit them for good servants. We cannot avoid earnestly to recommend the subscribers to watch the progress of this institution, and if they are satisfied with the improvement of the children in religious instruction, in moral habits, and in such useful knowledge as their future situations in life may require, to exert every nerve to extend these benefits to those numerous children in the town who will remain totally destitute of all religious education, and will be suffered to grow up to manhood in scenes of vice and debauchery without having any friend to caution them to avoid such haunts.

In the year 1812, those concluding words, as applied to Devonport, were no mere rhetorical embellishment, for the town was simply honeycombed with the haunts of vice and debauchery, and had earned for itself an unenviable reputation throughout the whole kingdom for the most daring and flagrant lawlessness. The files of the local newspapers throw considerable light upon the state of anarchy that was rife in the town. In Chapel Street gardens, palings were torn down, scrapers wrenched up, and several doors were actually smashed in by midnight marauders. “W. May, No 4, Chapel Street (we read in a newspaper advertisement), promises a reward of 100 pounds if these pests of society are prosecuted to conviction. W. May, with all due respect, would ask the gentlemen of Dock whether it would not be desirable to appoint a night watch, as we have so many strangers and foreigners about.” A number of Spaniards were escorting a number of women to their ships, a little attention that was resented by a group of English bluejackets. The latter attacked the foreigners, of whom several were severely wounded, and the fracas ended in the Englishmen carrying off the ladies in triumph. Sacrilegious plundering of poor-boxes was committed with impunity the lanes were infested by footpads and wandering wastrels; gentry of higher position also haunted these spots, and, among them, officers who were known to bribe open the magistrates themselves. One night several young army officer were detected, red-handed, in an abominable midnight outrage in Fore-street. The magistrates professed themselves satisfied with their alibis, and, as a sop to the indignant civilian inhabitants, offered a reward for the discovery of the actual offenders. Outlying farmhouses were broken into at night, and produce, cattle, sheep, horses, and women were carried bodily away. One Sunday night on a St. Budeaux farm, a body of armed servants had mounted guard in an outhouse, when they were attacked by a notorious gang from Dock, but succeeded in shooting dead one of their assailants. No wonder then, that the author of the “Picture of Plymouth, &c,” waxed warm on the subject.

“At dock the establishment of a Police Board appears to be essentially necessary to the preservation of order and the administration of justice.

Our ancestors seem to have considered it necessary in the smallest communities; every tything had its presiding officer; but it remained for the present age to show that one magistrate could effectually preside over 30,000 people. When the late application was made to Plymouth, we understand the borough of Plymouth opposed it, because the bill interfered with their privileges. But surely an Act might be framed which would answer the purpose fully without injuring the Corporation of Plymouth. Indeed, it has been said that the miscarriage of the bill was owing to its unfortunately having originated in that Corporation; and we are the more ready to believe that, because we know how rarely measures flow from corporate bodies with clean hands, and the bickerings that arose as to who should be the members of the Board was the great cause of its failure.”

Closely connected with the matter of the police were the Workhouse and the gaol, which latter was part and parcel of the Workhouse building. A writer in the “Gentleman’s Magazine” at this period informs us that the gaoler, Hugh Trogman, received no salary, lived at a considerable distance, and kept a public-house. The prisoners were allowed a pound of bread, with milk porridge or broth. The prison itself was under a room where the Petty Sessions were held, and adjoined the poorhouse. It had four cells on the ground floor; two were equipped with bedsteads and straw, and the others had, for sleeping purposes, only straw laid on the floor. There were no windows, the only means of light and ventilation being afforded by a tiny wicket, nine inches by seven, inserted in each door. There was no yard for exercise, and consequently prisoners never received exercise. There was no sewer, and no water was accessible. “Great complaints are made of the inefficacy of this police, though we cannot state any glaring instances of omission or neglect in the magistrates acting in this district unless we were to travel back to the days of riot and confusion of 1800, which we would rather bury in oblivion, when there was an apparent want of energy and co-operation in the magistracy.” This refers to a serious disturbance that was greatly aggravated by the high price of provisions at the time mentioned. The yardsmen, having forcibly gained possession of the market and the provision shops, fixed the rate at which the various goods should be sold. This action on the part of the yardsmen was accompanied by considerable violence, and guns were drawn up at the head of Fore-street and trained on the rioters, while a regiment of infantry were also formed up in readiness to fire upon them. Slaughter was averted by the magistrate releasing a number of men and women who had been taken into custody, and whose arrest was mainly responsible for the threatening state of affairs. The only magistrate resident in the town was the Rev. Jonathan Williams.

It is more agreeable to turn from these scenes of violence to those of public entertainment in bygone Devonport. In the “Picture of Plymouth &c,” we read:-

“The Theatre is situated at the entrance into the town from Stonehouse; there is nothing to recommend it in its outward appearance; it is neatly fitted up in the interior, and sufficiently spacious for the inhabitants, who are not very constant in their attendance; it derives is support chiefly from the navy and army. It is generally open during the winter, and has a tolerable set of comedians from the Exeter and Weymouth stages. The prices are: Boxes, 3s.: pit, 2s.: gallery, 1s. An attempt was recently made, and apparently with good reason, to ?? them, but a ??


From another guide-book, published in the same year, and entitled “A View of Plymouth Dock,” we have the following additional information regarding the postal arrangements of a century ago:-

“The Post-office is in Ker-street, at the end of George-street and Duke-street. The mail coach sets out every day; but no mail is made up for London on Fridays, or received thence on Tuesdays, according to the Act for the observance of the Sabbath in London. Letters must be put in before half-past four o’clock in the afternoon, or an additional twopence for every letter will be required at the office. A postman goes through the town between three and four in the afternoon to collect letters, and gives notice of his errand by ringing a bell.”

The Government itself was far better served by the system of semaphore signals, by which communication was made between Plymouth Dock and the Admiralty in London; on a clear day a message could be despatched in 25 minutes. In Devon the semaphores, the original “telegraph,” were erected at the following stations:- Plymouth Dock, Saltram, Lee, Marley, Knighton, Haldon, Rockbere, St. Cyres. At Dock the instrument stood on the Parade.

Dock was apparently lacking in literary or artistic associations. A hundred years ago, according to our anonymous author, it did “not appear to have given birth to any character of literary celebrity; but, indeed, this is not to be wondered at; what excites our surprise the most is that it has not given birth to any gallant seaman, whose name has been transmitted to us, except, indeed, in one instance – the gallant defender of Anholt, Captain Richard Morice, who is a native of this town, and of whom the inhabitants may indeed be proud. It is equally surprising that it has not produced, at least so far as we know, any individual eminently distinguished for his skill in mechanics and in the construction of ships of war. It might reasonably have been expected that such an establishment as the Dockyard would have excited and fostered some men of the first-rate talents in this branch of science but we cannot learn that there are or have been any such.”

There was however, living in Dock in that very year a little boy who was destined to remove in some measure that reproach from the town.

John Towson was born at Plymouth Dock in the year 1804, and as he grew up he followed his father’s trade of watchmaker. Then came the early days of photography. Towson discovered the process of photographing on to glass, and proved that the luminous and chemical rays came to their focus at different distances from the object. He turned his attention to navigation, and his suggestions, which were adopted by the Admiralty, revolutionized transatlantic travelling. He turned his attention to the deviation of the compass, and the Board of Trade commissioned him to prepare a manual on the subject, and appointed him official inspector of compasses for the port of Liverpool. He earned the enthusiastic gratitude even of Liverpool ship owners, and they presented him with a dock-bond for £1,000 and a gratuity of more than £100. He was born at Devonport, and there is no memorial to this benefactor of “all who go down to the sea in ships.”

“Literature and the arts,” wrote our author, “meet with no encouragement.” There is, however, a Book Club established amongst some of the principal inhabitants, which will probably give rise to others. Here are, as usual, circulating libraries, but, as in most other towns, they are filled with trash.

“A newspaper has for some time been established here, called ‘The Plymouth and Dock Telegraph’; it is tolerably well conducted for a provincial paper, and is published every Saturday by Mr. L. Congdon, printer, Fore-street; and enabled occasionally by the arrival of ships here or at Falmouth, to give early intelligence of events in the south of Europe; but as accounts gained from this source are too frequently not to be depended on, the editors of the two local papers are often deceived themselves, and by this means their papers obtain a bad reputation.”

In conclusion, a few words may be devoted to a general account of the old guide-books to Devonport and the vicinity, for they contain information which will be sought in vain elsewhere, and one and all have now become exceedingly scarce.

The ?? of those publications appeared in this port as the town appeared, not a century, but one hundred and twenty years ago. Its value, however, lies in the fact that it contains a detailed account, which I have failed to find in any other book, of the state of Devonport in the year 1731, and the stages, with their dates, through which the street-extension of the town passed during the subsequent 60 years, by which times the public were ready for this old Guide of 1791. It is a duodecimo volume of some 80 pages, bound by boards, and heralded by a portentously lengthy title, fragment of which will perhaps suffice for identification by collectors: “The Plymouth Dock Guide, or an Authentic Account of the Rise and Progress of that Town, with the Dockyard and Whatever is Worthy of Notice in the Town and Villages surrounding it, &c, &c.” It was printed at Plymouth Dock, “by and for K. Hoxland, bookseller and stationer, next door to the Fountain Inn, Fore-street, 1791.” The publisher drew attention in the book to the various “side-lines” in which he dealt, including patent medicines, perfumery, “stationary,” musical instruments, umbrellas (a very early reference to these articles), parasols, tooth brushes, and “scented and plain hair powder,” after which we come to that important and unique account of the growth of the town, to which reference has just been made:–

“About 80 years ago (i.e. exactly two centuries from the present date of 1911), the buildings had assumed the form of a respectable town, and was deemed to be of sufficient moment to take plan of its condition at that time. The editor remembers to have seen such a plan about 22 years ago; he has since procured one and is happy to inform his readers that he has also been favoured with a sight of a M.S. plan, the draft of which was taken in the year 1731. From thence he has been able to collect the following information as to the state of Dock at that time:-

“It appears that Fore-street was then built nearly in its present (1791) form, but that Cherry Garden-street, and every part of the town to the southward, had not an existence, as there was only a narrow back lane where that street is now formed. Northcorner and its contiguous streets were then built, and Princes-street, with King-street and Queen-street, were also nearly in the state which they at present exhibit; but not more than half of Gandy[1]-street, from King-street and Queen-street was built, and no part of Marlborough-street, nor of the lanes and alleys contiguous to it, and connected at this time (1791) with the east part of Gandy-street, can be found in it. Only two or three houses appeared on the spot which now forms the east side of the town square; but of the north side, including the whole buildings on that side to the Gunwharf gate, no trace can be discovered.”

So much, then, for old MS. Plan; but the writer had mentioned an engraved map, and this seems to have served as a connecting link between the Devonport of 1731 and the town as it appeared in 1791.

“Though no date is given (he wrote) to the engraved plan, it could not be earlier than the year 1750 when the new ?? was added to the parish church, nor later than 1754 when the north side of the Square was in course of building. No part of James-street was then built; the back lane south of Fore-street, now called Cherry Garden-street, is therein called Back-street, the buildings of which were then nearly completed on the south side as far east as the present entrance into St. Aubyn-street. Catharine-street, with Stafford-hill, and Dock Wall, with the cross lanes, were built as at present; so was Duke-street from the corner of the Ponds (therein described), where the market is now held.

A superannuated person, of some property, who has also an annuity from the Dockyard, informs me that he came hither in the year 1739, that but a few houses on the square were beginning to be built; that the place where Marlborough-street and those to the eastward now stand was a pasture or meadow.” This statement was in strict accordance with the engraved plan, “wherein the north side of the present street (i.e. Marlborough-street), from the new Gunwharf, was but just sketched out, and did not contain above two or three houses. This part was not completed until some time after the year 1750. On the other hand, but a small part of St, Aubyn-street was built until towards the year 1770. The like may be observed of Chapel-street, and the other streets in that quarter down to the present market. The part called Liberty-street (now Pembroke-street), with the other streets in that part, are of still later origin, for, about the year 1775, Liberty Field (as that part was then called) was used as a rope-walk.

“Not long after, George-street was begun to be built, and the rage for extending the buildings, or the speculations of mechanics, being at that time very prevalent, Liberty-street, Clowance-street, with Mount-street and the cross streets which connected them, and Windmill-street, trod so fast upon the heels of each other that they quickly occupied the full limits of the town. The ... (the remainder of the article cannot be read - unless you have a cleaner copy you could send in?)

[1] This mistake was in the original article - it should read Granby-street.

(Page added 7th May 2011)