top of page
  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Plymouth Stonehouse 1

This is a short walk around an area overflowing with history. Naval derring do, shipwrecks, heroes, wars in far off places, international travel and some of the greatest mysteries of the Victorian age abound. You could even say that finding all of that here in this corner of Plymouth, if you know your onions, is just plain elementary.

This is a walk around the Stonehouse area of Plymouth back in August 2023. I started off in Cremyll Street walked past the entrance to Royal William Yard to Firestone Bay, along the seafront of Plymouth Sound to Mill Bay, and then because that is a dead end, I double backed to Devil's Point down into Royal William Yard and carried on through to Durnsford Street, the Stonehouse Barracks area and then back to Cremyll Street.

This is Cremyll Street where a lot of the older properties have been restored. This is a particularly good example.

Cremyll Street has benefited from considerable environmental enhancement in recent

years so that areas of modern residential development along the waterfront and modern environmental improvements such as at the entrance to the Royal William Yard now sit alongside fine historic buildings such as the Mansion House.

We are headed in the direction of Royal William Yard. 17 Cremyll Street, two doors up, is a small cottage and in 1886 you could rent the cottage for £10 and 16 shillings per year. Harbour House is currently valued at over £600,000.

This is Stonehouse Creek and here is a small inlet with Telegraph Wharf on the right and Freeman's Wharf on the left. In the distance the large white building is Ocean Court apartments. A one bed will set you back a quarter of a million pounds. You do get a living room too with a kitchen in it and a shower room. 446 square feet. Handy if your feet are square.

In August 1876 letters were being sent to the local newspaper complaining about the stench right here, but plans were by then well underway to stop Stonehouse Creek being used as an open sewer.

Thomas Leah, the Medical Officer of Health informed the public on August 14th 1876 that.........

"Plans have been prepared, and are now at the office of Mr. J. L. Hodge, our surveyor, where they can be inspected. Devonport has returned the plans suggesting additions, and it is quite possible that other bodies may do the same. And after these have been decided on comes the question, perhaps the most difficult one to settle, of the portion of expense to be borne by each party. It will be seen that all this requires time, and the matter is one that should be taken in hand thoroughly and done well, and will be a very costly one, this Board is not likely to spend any money in tinkering, if it can get the whole scheme carried out in its entirety. From a sanitary point of view the work should be done at once, but however much one may wish this, it is evident that it cannot be, and we must content to wait and hope."

To put this in context the sewer system of London itself had only just been completed.

This is a mural on the side wall of the V.O.T. or The Victualling Office Tavern.

"Reflections" celebrates the history and extraordinary beauty of this area weaving the VOT's link with the 19th century architecture, iron work and Victualling trades within the Royal William Yard, and the meeting of historic Stonehouse seafront with the ocean and surrounding hills. Designed and painted by Camilla Rose, June 2023.

This tavern dates from 1832 and has only recently been fully restored.

Since the 13th century, Plymouth has been involved in victualling. With increased activity in the middle of the 17th century, a new major dockyard was constructed. This addition assisted with the demand of the warships that were positioned to defend the south coast from France.

In the 1820s, a new victualling yard (The Royal William Victualling Yard) commenced construction at Cremyll Point. Completed in the mid-1830s, the yard was then able to supply greater volumes of provisions due to the well-located, accessible and excellent manufacturing facilities. The VOT

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Monday 21 April 1834

ROYAL WILLIAM VICTUALLING ESTABLISHMENT. On Monday last, compliance with order of the Lords of the Admiralty, Mr. Rennie, the engineer, accompanied by Mr. Taylor, the civil architect of the Navy Board, who was on an official visit to Plymouth, attended the Victualling-yard, for the purpose of setting to work the magnificent corn mills recently erected at the above establishment. From a personal inspection, I feel justified in stating that these mills, (not even excepting those at Deptford) are undoubtedly the largest and most perfect that have yet been constructed, there being less than twenty-four pair of stones, which are driven by two steam engines of forty-five horse power each, manufactured by Messrs. Boulton, Walt, and Co............. the following day, all the millwrights and engineers dined together at Mr. Couch’s Victualling Office Tavern; the dinner being ordered by Mr. Rennie, in return for the attention paid to the work by the officers and men in their employ. Mr. Turnbull, foreman of the engineers, presided on the occasion. The dinner was of a very excellent description,and the party greatly enjoyed themselves.

This is the view of the yard today from Cremyll Street

This is the contemporary view from Cremyll, the other side of the river.

I am not getting into too much detail in this post about Royal William Yard because the walk will be coming through there later when I will expound and explain some of the great history. As I am walking past the entrance though I will just mention that at this point.

Because it was a secure military base when built, it was heavily fortified and this was the only land entrance apart from the gateway to the right which led straight into the slaughterhouse facility. You don't want cattle messing up your grand arch. This was meant to impress as were all the buildings within, and they still do even today.

Originally commissioned under George IV, it was completed under William IV, so there was some good timing involved in naming it Royal William Yard and not Royal George Yard, had George lived longer. The sculptor also got enough notice that he was able to produce a more than life size statue of the correct King. In fact timing was everything in this case, because had it taken two more years to complete we'd be looking at Royal Victoria Yard.

The whole was designed by the architect Sir John Rennie covering 14 acres (57,000 m2), and this grand classical style ensemble was built from Plymouth limestone and Dartmoor granite. If you visit, everything you see is Grade 1 listed by English Heritage. The Yard is one of the most remarkable and complete early C19 industrial complexes in the country, and a unique English example of Neo-Classical planning of a state manufacturing site.

Described in the official listing as: EXTERIOR: a massive archway in channelled granite, with deep pilasters flanking a round arch, plain frieze with fine carved ox heads over the pilasters, cornice and plinth to a large statue of William IV in Roman garb; lower entrances either side have clasping pilasters, string and parapet, with flat-headed doorways with incised voussoirs under a round panel with fouled crossed anchors, the victualling yard symbol; the S door leads to the Porter's lodge, the N to the Yard. The reverse elevation is similar, with engaged columns to the side doors. The arch has good studded oak double doors ramped up to the sides each of 10 fielded panels with iron cresting, and there are matching doors to the sides; these replaced the originals in 1886. The inside of the arch has doorways in antis. An area of granite paving extends through the arch to the front.

In fact the odds of England getting a King William for the fourth time were pretty slim. He was the third son of George III which immediately made it unlikely. Third sons rarely become King. George III was the famous "mad King George" who we now understand better than we used to thanks to the film about his illness. His profligate eldest son, also George, now famous from the Blackadder comedy series became George IV, but only reigned for ten years before his death. Frederick who was next in line, yes we nearly had a King Frederick, died before him, George IV's only child Caroline had also died, in childbirth, which left William next in line.

Victoria was an even less likely candidate for monarch, as William had 15 children, all of whom would have been in the line of accession ahead of her. Fortunately for an entire generation of statue makers all over the world, all of his children were illegitimate leaving Victoria as the only legal heir to the throne. She was the daughter of George III's fourth son, Edward, William's younger brother. Are you keeping up?

Carry on past the entrance to Royal William Yard and you come to Firestone Bay. Why Firestone? I cannot find any information about the name but if you wanted to light a beacon to guide ships safely into the harbour this would be the perfect spot. So for what it is worth, that's my theory.

Western Morning News - Thursday 14 August 1924

STONEHOUSE SEA FESTIVAL. SAILING & ROWING IN FIRESTONE BAY. Stonehouse regatta, held yesterday in Firestone Bay, was a great success. During the afternoon the Mayor (Mr. Solomon Stephens) visited the committee boat and was received by Mr. E. Crews and afterwards by the chairman (Lieut. -Com. W. A. Herlihy).

There was an exciting incident during the sailing races. As the result of a collision between Westward and Suzanne, Westward capsized. Fortunately there were no personal injuries though the crew had a ducking as Westward filled twice.

Western Morning News - Thursday 23 May 1935

At the meeting of the Parks and Recreations Committee a report was made by the Town Clerk ......... An offer by the Admiralty to sell to the Corporation a piece of the foreshore comprising 570 square feet at Firestone Bay, Devil's Point, Stonehouse for the nominal sum of £5 and costs to facilitate the construction of a paddling- pool, was accepted.

This is the earliest map of the area I could find which has some interesting things to note. Stonehouse is confined to a small village north of the Devil's Point peninsula. Cremyll is spelled Crumble and the estate of Mount Edgcumbe the other side of the Tamar is clearly laid out. What we know as Drake's Island today is called St Nicholas island, it seems that both names have been used interchangeably for quite some time.

All of the land you can see below was once owned by the Earl of Mt Edgcumbe. His family estate was the peninsula in the distance which back in 1823 was in the county of Devon, but which today is in the county of Cornwall. The border was moved in 1844 to use the river Tamar at this point as the natural divide between the two counties. The twin adjoining villages of Cawsand and Kingsand on that peninsula, once had a county border between them. It explains why Kingsand on the Devon side has a pub called the Devonport Inn even though it is now in Cornwall.

The land in the foreground is the seaward wall of the Royal William Yard.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Wednesday 08 October 1823

We are informed that Government has concluded an agreement with the Earl of Mount Edgecumbe for the purchase of the fee the land at Stonehouse, from the Battery Hill to Firestone Bay and round the Devil’s Point to the Slaughter-house, in order, if found necessary, to erect on the site a new Naval Brewery and Victualling Office.

On the right is the unusual sight of a stone sea wall, listed Grade 2 by English Heritage. After the sale of the land this became part of the William Yard project and was designed by Sir John Rennie himself

The official listing describes it thus........ Long sea wall protecting SE side of the Yard, with a torus moulding beneath a shouldered coping to the parapet. HISTORY: the wall was built partly to absorb surplus material from the Yard excavation, and to provide an alternative sea entrance. With its Cyclopean masonry, the wall forms an impressive southern perimeter to one of the finest and most complete early C19 industrial complexes in the country.

These terms were new to me so on checking, a Torus Moulding is the line of bulbous stone between the vertical and the curved parts of the wall just below the top. Cyclopean masonry is a type of stonework found in Mycenaean architecture, built with massive limestone boulders, roughly fitted together with minimal clearance between adjacent stones and with clay mortar or no use of mortar. The boulders typically seem unworked, but some may have been worked roughly with a hammer and the gaps between boulders filled in with smaller chunks of limestone. Wikipedia

Lloyd's List - Friday 15 October 1824

Plymouth, 11th Oct. The Louisa, Davis, from Liverpool to Exeter, sprung a leak off the Lizard, & became nearly waterlogged, and this morning drove upon the rocks in Firestone Bay; the greater part of the cargo was immediately put into lighters, and the vessel hauled, off into Stonehouse Poole, entirely dismasted.

Below is the building known as The Artillery Tower and it looks vaguely Victorian, maybe it was built as part of our defences against Napoleon?

Wrong. It is much older than that as what you can see was remodelled in the 19th century. This coastal defence tower was actually built in 1537 by Henry VIII probably just before or after one of his weddings.

As a matter of fact he had just executed Anne Boleyn and married Jane Seymour the year before, so I wasn't far out. Jane Seymour only lasted a year and it took two years to build this, but he had three years off before marrying Anne of Cleves.

Western Morning News - Tuesday 15 October 1935


Plymouth Buildings That May Be Preserved

According to Mr. A. S. Parker, secretary the Old Plymouth Society, Blackfriars, Mount Batten Castle, the Henry VIII. Tower at Firestone Bay, and the Manor Wall, Stonehouse, are likely to be scheduled by the Office of Works as ancient monuments and thus preserved as relics of old Plymouth. Firestone Bay Tower, Stonehouse, was built in 1537-39, probably as the result of VIII.'s orders for fortification of "frontiers of the realm." Corporation property, it is a seven sided tower with embrasures, loops, and an old doorway.

Back to architectural terms again. Embrasures are the angled walls to an opening to allow a gun emplacement to fire and loops are what we commonly call arrow slits.

No invaders were around on the day I visited.

As well as the open air pool, this sea front is lined with steps down to the water where many people come to swim and paddle.

Perusing the chip section of this menu is very much on my to do list at the next visit. The Devil was trying very hard to tempt me though. It's quite a multicultural menu with the chip butty of northern England next to the midlands option of chips with curry sauce.

This fenced off area is either connected with the port facility at Mill Bay or the Marine Barracks on the opposite side of the path.

By 1830 Stonehouse has grown and the Royal William Yard is under construction and shown as Government Works. Drake Island is still St Nicholas island at this point. Just to the right of the Government Works next to Mill Bay is a natural rocky mound shown here.

Here is that rocky outcrop, Battery Hill, which was to become the Royal Marine barracks. In the foreground is an exercise field.

British Army Despatch - Friday 26 October 1855

ROYAL MARINE BARRACKS, STONEHOUSE. We hear it is contemplated by the government to erect new barracks at Stonehouse, for the Plymouth division of the Royal Marines, in the fields lying south of the present building. The site is an admirable one, commanding a water frontage, and abounding in capital building stone. The site which is said to be selected for the new Marine Barracks belongs to government, and, on its outer portion a battery, mounted with guns of heavy calibre, called the Firestone Bay Battery, has but recently been erected. The existing Marine Barracks lie rather low, and are in too close a proximity with a considerable portion of the town of Stonehouse. The proposed change would be hailed by a majority of the inhabitants of Stonehouse as a great improvement to the town. We give the rumour, without in any way vouching for its truth, but with the conviction that it is not at all improbable.

This is Drake's island or St. Nicholas island, take your pick.

Western Morning News - Saturday 02 January 1943

NEW ARMAMENTS IN THE RAW - Drake's Island, or St. Nicholas Island, in Plymouth Sound, has been fortified for centuries. Half a century or more ago the old-time armament, consisting of muzzle-loaders, were discarded. They weighed 12 tons 8cwt. each and they were hopelessly out date and there was no value in them in those days for scrap iron, they were left to rust out on rocky shores of the island. There, to generations of Plymothians, as well as to visitors to the Hoe, they were a familiar sight at low tide.

NEVER FIRED IN ANGER - Now, with the metal shortage and the salvage "drive," the "old timers" have been raised and are to be put to a useful purpose. It is safe to assert that the old guns were never fired in anger, even if they were "loosed off" in formal salutes. Salvage operations occupied about a fortnight, and now the guns are being cut up preparatory to being shipped to a port where the scrap metal will be used for the war effort, perhaps to manufacture automatic guns for the use of the Royal Air Force.

Many people looking out to Drake's Island today and the water between it and the shore would be surprised to find out that here, on this spot nearly 250 years ago a bizarre and tragic event made maritime history, for here died the first person aboard a submarine. Millwright John Day met his maker while lowered in a converted wooden sloop called the Maria.

I have found an eyewitness account from someone anonymous who wrote a letter to the Leeds Intelligencer on the day it happened, in 1774, while the event was still playing out. A second letter was sent three days later. The account is fascinating as there is little more known today than is mentioned in this account. The whole scheme is described in this account as some sort of outlandish bet by some daredevil, but it is clear that the secrecy surrounding the event, where it took place, and the fact that a navy frigate was standing by means that this was almost certainly an officially sanctioned trial of an early submersible at a time when little was known either about water pressure at great depths or about human biology.

Leeds Intelligencer - Tuesday 12 July 1774

Extract of a letter from Plymouth, June 28, ten o’ clock at night.

"I have waited till the last moment before the post sets off, to give you an account of an affair perhaps as remarkable as the whole history of gaming can produce, viz. the sinking of a vessel in 17 fathom water by a man within it, without any assistance but such as himself alone could furnish. The wager was, that he was also to remain twelve hours beneath at that depth, then to raise the vessel to the surface again, and himself to be produced alive; such was this extraordinary bet..........

The people on board the hoy (a small single-masted coastal sailing vessel) say her going down was very swift, and that in about five minutes after, or less, the water seemed to rise and be much agitated.

It is now thought that this almost immediate "agitation" of the sea was the implosion of the wooden watertight cube which had been built into the vessel. The account has an uncanny resemblance to the more recent Titanic submersible tragedy.

The affair soon got wind; numbers flocked to the Hoe and the Point at the long Rooms, expecting his raising the vessel; however, night came without any appearance of her; several indeed, whose curiosity was very predominant, stayed all night, others went home, it having been suggested that he would stay to the end of the time fixed by the wager, i.e. twelve hours; It is almost impossible to describe to you the consternation Plymouth is in, among all ranks of people on account of the fate of this unhappy man.

In addition I have found a modern article here that describes him descending in a weighted air chamber carrying a candle, water, a watch and some biscuits. The ignorance and folly involved is quite pitying, looking at it today. However, how different was this folly to the recent visit to the Titanic? Even the rescue bid a month later still somehow hoped to find a survivor.

For those who are interested I have attached the full article at the end of this piece.

Meanwhile, fast approaching Drake's Island today is the flagship of Brittany Ferries the Pont Aven.

Pont-Aven is Brittany Ferries' flagship, taking her name from the Breton town synonymous with artists and her interior décor reflects that link. Carrying up to 2,400 passengers and 650 cars, Pont-Aven is Brittany Ferries' flagship cruise ferry to France and Spain, and the largest within our fleet.

On board you'll enjoy award-winning service and top-class facilities, not to mention French chefs and friendly bilingual staff, all combining to create a truly French experience from the moment you drive aboard. Brittany Ferries

This was a bit of a stroke of luck as I hadn't planned seeing a ferry arrive. What I hadn't realised was that they actually swivel right around and reverse into the small port, meaning at one point it got up close and personal and looked like I might even be in the way.

Brittany Ferries has an unusual history as it all started back in 1828 when a group of Brittany farmers looking for new markets for their produce chartered a barge in Roscoff and sailed a shipment of their onions to Plymouth. That put this Roscoff Plymouth route on the map for over a hundred and fifty years and the Johnnies of Roscoff were born.

A tradition of French men on bicycles carrying strings of onions door to door was born. They travelled all over Britain even as far north as Scotland, although I am assuming they had by then set up distribution systems by train. My family are originally from West Wales and even there the tradition prevailed and I remember my mother telling us about the "Sioni Wnions" as they were called in Welsh.

As an interesting side note, the Breton farmers also spoke their own language very close in origin to Cornish and Welsh, and so close were these languages that Welsh speakers and Breton speakers could easily converse in their native tongues. I have seen a clip on TV of a conversation like this and was surprised to hear Breton spoken, as to my ear it sounded like Welsh spoken with a strong French accent.

Brittany Ferries came later, although it was born out of the trade that had emerged.

BAI (Bretagne Angleterre Irlande) S.A. was founded by Alexis Gourvennec. Working with fellow Breton farmers, Gourvennec lobbied for improvements to Brittany's infrastructure, including better roads, telephone network, education and port access. By 1972 he had successfully secured funding and work to develop a deep-water port at Roscoff. Gourvennec had no desire to run a ferry service, but existing operators showed little appetite for the opportunity. The company itself began sailings on 2 January 1973 between Roscoff in Brittany and Plymouth in the South West of England, using the freight ferry Kerisnel, a former Israeli tank carrier.

Bristol Evening Post - Thursday 15 November 1973


You can now take your car across the Channel from Plymouth to Brittany


begins January 3

Cross the Continent on the new luxury ferry Pen-ar-Bed from Plymouth Ferryport to Roscoff in Brittany and you are well on your way to Spain and Portugal.

Special rates for


(passports not required)

Bookings open from November 15. More information on fares and reduced group travel, see local travel agent or contact...

Brittany Ferries

Plymouth Ferryport Plymouth

Tel Plymouth 21840 20057

Here the ship reverses in to dock with Smeaton's Tower and the Hoe in the distance.

Part 2 of this walk around Stonehouse will feature Royal William Yard.

Here is the full copy of the eyewitness account of the world's first submarine fatality. There is a certain breathless immediacy to the writing.

Extract of a letter from Plymouth, June 28, ten o’ clock at night.

"I have waited till the last moment before the post sets off, to give you an account of an affair perhaps as remarkable as the whole history of gaming can produce, viz. the sinking of a vessel in 17 fathom water by a man within it, without any assistance but such as himself alone could furnish. The wager was, that he was also to remain twelve hours beneath at that depth, then to raise the vessel to the surface again, and himself to be produced alive; such was this extraordinary bet. Mr. B. who is said to have laid it, and several Gentlemen, came down here about a week ago; and yesterday (only as an experiment) the vessel was had round from Catwater to off the Eastern King, a point of land almost opposite a fort on Drake's island, attended only by a hoy (small single-masted coastal sailing vessels), and scarcely known to twenty persons; and about two o'clock in the afternoon went own. The people on board the hoy say her going down was very swift, and that in about five minutes after, or less, the water seemed to rise and be much agitated.

The affair soon got wind; numbers flocked to the Hoe and the Point at the long Rooms, expecting his raising the vessel; however, night came without any appearance of her; several indeed, whose curiosity was very predominant, stayed all night, others went home, it having been suggested that he would stay to the end of the time fixed by the wager, i.e. twelve hours; however, the time arrived, two o'clock this morning, and no signs of the vessel from seven o’ clock the morning, to this present time. The whole town of Plymouth, and also of Dock have been out to wait his coming up, but are disappointed ; in short, Sir, at this present writing there is no sort of tidings of the man or vessel, but that several of the launches from the Dock-yard have been down sweeping for her, and though they had got a cable under her, and hove thereon, but it broke They are gone back to the Yard for fresh ones and more assistance, and in this state the affair now stands. It is almost impossible to describe to you the consternation Plymouth is in, among all ranks of people on account of the fate of this unhappy man, though the folly of him is so evidently glaring, yet all agree to pity him for having fallen a sacrifice to that villainous passion for gaming, which so infects this country.

" Another Letter from Plymouth, dated July 1.

" The fate of the vessel that was sunk for experiment, is at last determined,—irrecoverably lost.—The launches and barges of the dock-yard have been striving to get her up ever since Tuesday. Yesterday they raised her up five fathom ; but one hawser breaking the other (for there were two) slipped from under her and she is now given entirely up. They had got her within almost a cable's length of the shore, when the hawser broke, and she is supposed to have rolled down the beach, as it is amazingly steep, and got among the rocks, as they have ineffectually tried to get hold of her again.—The men and barges are all returned to the yard this day.

" When she went down, she had three buoys one painted white, one red, and one black, which the man who went down in her said he could send up at pleasure, and promised to do.—the first, if he was very well; the second, if middling ; and the last if very bad.—The first of these came up yesterday in taking the turns round her, (as supposed) to weigh her. It is still believed that the project is feasible, and would have succeeded, but on account of the badness the bottom, there being rocks (as said) upwards of sixty feet high near the spot where the vessel was sunk " Another account says, " Mr. C. Blake having compleated his extraordinary bark, intends bringing his marine experiment to a speedy issue. A trial has already been made of the vessel, and the pilot, tho' he had skill enough keep her under water six hours; had not, however, the address to maintain his briny post for a longer period. On his return to the more favourable elements, he offered many reasonable objections to the depth of twelve fathoms, philosophically proving, that it might be done to a certainty in ten fathom water, but beyond that, the attempt must at least be hazardous. This has caused a fresh debate between the betting parties; Mr. Blake insisted upon it, that it was meant as a give-and-take, and therefore he is entitled to a couple of fathoms. The parties are not agreed upon this point; yet is imagined some day next week will determine this singular wager.

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page