Plotting Plymouth’s Past

by Doreen Mole
Published February 2013

In November 2012 the Old Plymouth Society was successful in obtaining a grant of £6,300 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project called Plotting Plymouth’s Past. The money was awarded as part of All Our Stories, a brand new grant programme that was introduced earlier in the year by the Heritage Lottery Fund in conjunction with a BBC Two television series The Great British Story, and also as an attempt to help people explore, share and celebrate their own local history. Plotting Plymouth’s Past was begun in early December 2012 and has to be completed within one year. The aim is to survey, record and photograph all the historic boundary stones, milestones and other markers of Plymouth and to publish the information on a website. The Old Plymouth Society is being supported by Plymouth City Council Arts & Heritage via the City Museum, which is actively promoting the project, and will make the results available online. The Milestone Society is also involved by supporting and providing invaluable assistance in surveying and recording techniques.

The original boundary of Plymouth was set in 1439 when Plymouth was the first town in Devon to be incorporated as a borough. The boundary was then described as Between the hill called Windy Ridge – by the bank of the Sourpool – against the north all the way to the great dyke otherwise called the great ditch – and from there again – against the north to Stoke Damerell Fleet – and from there by the shore of the same fleet all the way to Millbrook Bridge (included) and from there against the east by the middle ditch of Houndiscombe all the way to Houndiscombe Bridge (included) and from there all the way to Thornhill Park (excluded) and from there all the way to Lipson Bridge (included) and from there by the sea-strand continue all the way to the Laira – to the Catte – to Hingston – Fish Tor and East King – and from there all the way to the said hill of Windy Ridge.

Windy Ridge was the twin heights of the Hoe and Stonehouse Hill, later known as Battery Hill until it was levelled off by quarrying many years later. The Sourpool was the tidal bay that ran inland from Millbay. There is no known record of the Great Dyke, it was probably once a defensive point and Stoke Damerell Fleet is now Victoria Park. Millbrook Bridge carried the Plymouth to Saltash Road over the Houndiscombe Brook at Pennycomequick, and Houndiscombe Bridge crossed the Houndiscombe Brook directly opposite Houndiscombe Farm, which stood at the junction of present day Hillside Avenue, Dale Road and Beechwood Avenue. Thornhill Park still exists today but at the time the boundary was set it extended further south, down to the northern end of Mutley Plain. Here the line of the boundary turned eastward to follow Elm Lane, an ancient pathway to Lipson Bridge where it crossed the Compton Brook and ran along the southern shore of Lipson Creek to the Laira or River Plym. It continued along the shoreline under Mount Gould, there was no Embankment or railway until the early 1800s, around Tothill Creek, now Tothill Park to the Catte, later Cattewater, to Hingston now Cattedown, Fish Tor now Fisher’s Nose and East King now West Hoe. 

This boundary remained unchanged apart from natural or manmade alterations to the landscape, until the first extension of Plymouth in 1896 which took in Compton, part of Peverell and part of Laira. Stonehouse and Devonport were then both separate towns each with their own boundary stones, but also with their own local boards of administration. There had been talk of amalgamation of the three towns as far back as 1835 and again in 1888. Ballots were held in Plymouth and Devonport in 1913 to ascertain opinion about amalgamation and an inquiry opened in Plymouth Guildhall on 28th January 1914. The inquiry lasted for five days, but the key witness was Major-General A.P. Penton, CVO, CB, Officer in Command South West Coast Defences, who was in residence at Government House, Mount Wise. Part of his testimony was this: In peacetime the organisation of the Three Towns into three distinct bodies does not affect us much, in wartime it is an entirely different question. You would have the fortress commander having to go to three different bodies. In fact if I was fortress commander here in wartime I should have to go to the three civil magistrates and say One of you must represent the whole civil community. The threat of war from Germany had been evident for some time; hostilities by Germany began in July 1914 leading to the outbreak of war in August 1914, almost coinciding with the amalgamation of the Three Towns which received the Royal Assent on 10th August 1914. From then on the boundaries of Plymouth took in Stonehouse and Devonport. Further boundary extensions took place in 1938, 1949 and 1967 which took in Plympton, Plymstock, Tamerton Foliot and other outlying areas. It is this history that makes Plymouth unique in having so many differing boundaries and boundary markers. 

There is no record of when the first boundary stones were erected in Plymouth, but the first mention is in 1518-19. An entry in the Old Audit Book reads It for mourestones to stand at the bonds vjs viijd. In modern terms Item for moorstones to stand at the bounds 6s 8d. The entry doesn’t state the number of stones erected but moorstone probably indicates that they were granite stones. Further items in 1537, 1549 and 1588 refer to the cost of setting up freedom or liberty stones at Lipson and one between the town and Stonehouse. In 1589 another item lists ten freedom stones, six of them with the castle graven in them for the Millpoole, and in 1650 William Gaire, the stone cutter was paid £2-2s-6d for renewing the Freedom Stones spoiled by the late war.

Most of the boundary stones in Plymouth are of limestone and were erected in the Victorian era, but a few granite stones still survive. Other stones in Plymouth include a few personal landowner stones, leat marker stones and about ten milestones. Due to the long standing military and naval occupancy of Plymouth over many years, there are also other distinctive stones marking the limits of Board of Ordnance, Admiralty, War Office and Ministry of Defence owned land. These will all be included in our new survey which is being carried out by three volunteers who are members of the Old Plymouth Society. They are Mark Fenlon, Ernie Stanton and Tim Jenkinson. In addition to being an Old Plymouth Society member, Tim is also the County Representative for the Milestone Society. The three of them have been out in all weathers since the beginning of the project, dressed in their distinctive Plotting Plymouth’s Past clothing of green shirts and high visibility jackets adorned with the Old Plymouth Society and the Heritage Lottery Fund logos, methodically surveying present day Plymouth district by district. Two other volunteers, Richard Spear and Michael Chown are just as busy behind the scenes, entering the data that the other three bring them. All the data resulting from the survey will eventually be published online. We hope to raise awareness of these sometimes overlooked markers of the past and to provide a better understanding of their importance to local history. We would also like to think that this project will lead to better care and conservation of them in the future. Many of these stones have been lost in the past to rebuilding, road works and alterations. With this project we are also hoping that any stones hidden from public view, behind walls, amongst foliage or on private property can be brought to our notice. If you are aware of any hidden stones or stones at risk, please let us know by email headed Plotting Plymouth’s Past to [email protected] or by contacting The Old Plymouth Society.

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