by Walton Gale
Published January 2013
This is not an attempt to draft a pocket edition of a history of the Old Plymouth Society. It is merely a record of some of the Society’s activities over the past years, and a little of the background to these events.
The Old Ring o’ Bells
I think it was in 1956 that the Old Ring o’ Bells in Vauxhall Street fell to the City’s bulldozers. This was a building for which the Society had urged preservation for many years. It was derelict and needed a small fortune to repair it, and some immediate waterproofing to protect its splendid corniced ceilings. Both of these needs were far beyond the financial ability of the Society. The Housing Act of 1946 gave ruthless city councils the authority to destroy almost any building which was not “lived in”. Many priceless antiquities throughout the country were destroyed in pursuit of the grants which the government gave for every building so removed.
There was a wave of anger throughout the City following this act of corporate vandalism, and some of the active younger businessmen in Plymouth decided to bring this kind of activity by the Council to a halt. They met, (“the Barbican Underground”) in the Plymouth Arts Centre, of which at that time I was honorary Secretary. In a series of meetings there it was decided to form a Company, limited by guarantee, in an effort to talk to the City with a stronger voice. (I’ve just remembered that I am still a guarantor of the Association, and if they should go down the financial drain I shall be a pound out of pocket!)
At this time I received a message from the Rt. Hon. Isaac
Foot – a gentleman whom I had never met. The messenger was another stranger to me. He was Crispin Gill – something to do with the Western Evening Herald I believe! The message was short.. Would I undertake the task of Hon. Sec to the Old Plymouth Society. I was most reluctant to do this. I had a seat on each of the five committees which ran the Arts Centre. Part of my job
was to help to organise Art and Literature Exhibitions, Drama
Productions, and Orchestral Concerts, and to draft a case for the
annual Arts Council Grant to maintain the Centre and it’s services
(£250 of the Arts Council’s Treasury Grant of nearly one million pounds).
I recalled my anger at the loss of the Ring o’ Bells and felt that I
must accept the post. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, Mr. Foot conveyed his thanks, with the hope that I would retain the post for a “reasonable” time – Secretaries having been difficult to find, and even more difficult to keep.
The Barbican Pressure Group worked under the umbrella of the Old Plymouth Society – which was at least a respectable and well established organisation – and was finally registered as the Plymouth Barbican Association Limited. They certainly added some new life and vigour to the Society and I was made a director (I believe the correct title was “management councillor”) with the post of Liaison Officer between the Society and the Association. I held this position until the Association decided to come out into the open as a successful business company in its own right. By that time I had become Vice-Chairman of the Arts Centre and life became a little less hectic.
To advertise the cause of the Old Plymouth Society a public meeting was held in the Abbey Hall, and guest speakers included Isaac Foot and John Betjeman. When his time came to address the meeting John Betjeman was nowhere to be found, and I was sent out to track him down. In the Barbican of course. He was in the Ship Inn with a full tankard in his hand entertaining an enthusiastic audience of local fisher folk by reciting his own verses. Later my wife and I took him for a stroll down Royal Parade which by then had been fully built. He was not too impressed. “I could equally well be in Kensington or Cincinnati”, he said, “This doesn’t look much like Plymouth to me”.
Another distinguished visitor to support the cause of preservation in Plymouth was Professor Andor Gomme, head of the Faculty of Architecture at Liverpool University. Again I was instructed to show him round the new City Centre. He made some sketches of the new buildings, and these were later printed in the rather glossy Architectural Review. Under them appeared his personal caption -“These are the tombstones which mark the spiritual death of the City of Plymouth in 1941”.
A reception was held by the Lord Mayor for the Minister of Housing and Local Government (whose name escapes me). The committee instructed me to try and reach the Minister and acquaint him of the efforts of the Society and the Association to secure and preserve buildings of historical or architectural value. Since I had no invitation to this distinguished gathering I decided to do a little gate crashing. Unfortunately I reckoned without Alec Cumming, the Curator of the Museum where the reception was held. We had had disputes, he and I. The worst one was when I took Mr. James Blades, the percussionist to see Drake’s Drum. I presented the internationally acclaimed Jimmy Blades to Cumming who explained, rather curtly, that the Drum was no longer in the Museum having been returned to its owner at the end of the summer season. I asked if we might contact the owner through Cumming so that Mr. Blades might at least have a sight of the famous drum. This he refused to do.
On the occasion of my gate crash Alec Cumming stood at the head of the stair to receive the guests – of whom I was not one. As I had no invitation card he instructed one of the uniformed attendants to escort me out of the premises and not to permit me to return. Rather frustrated, I stood at the Museum entrance just as the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress arrived (Alderman Percy Washbourne and his wife). Mrs Washbourne, who was an old family friend, looked at me and said “Are you coming with us, Walton?”. I said “no” and explained why. She then slipped her arm through mine and led me up the stairs, past a fulminating Alec Cumming and took me straight to the Minister for a chat.
I returned home from the office one Saturday lunch time to find a stranger waiting for me. He said “I’m Stanley Goodman. I’m just going over to Drake’s Island and thought that you might like to come”. I went, thus commencing a stint of unremitting manual labour which took all my weekends for the next four or five years. The Island had been offered to the City by the Crown Land Agent; the City declined to accept. Goodman – who was technically my assistant -decided to take the Island into the tender care of the Society and I wasn’t in the least disposed to argue, although we had no authority to do so.
He organised parties of volunteer workers, mainly to tidy up the Island. Just before we took it over a local military commander decided to hold an explosives exercise there. Stanley went to see Major X and explained to him the value of the fortress buildings and asked him to ensure that no damage was done to these. The Major assured him that with modem controlled explosives we would be able to sweep up such rubble as he created with a dustpan and brush. I recalled his words some months later when Stanley and I took a couple of pick axes to see what we could do towards breaking up a slab of reinforced concrete 20m long and 6m wide and 20cm thick!
The City Engineer had lent us pick axes, sledge hammers, shovels and wheelbarrows and asked us to clean and collect any salvable bricks. It was hard, unrewarding toil, and I don’t think that the City even bothered to fetch the bricks which we had salvaged. I began to worry. It seemed to me that some of the uncertain results of the explosions could create danger for a gang of unskilled, if enthusiastic, demolition workers. I went to Mr. Knight’s naval surplus store, and brought an Aldis Lamp for £1. I contacted the Queen’s Harbour Master and asked if I could signal to his Eastern King Signal Station, if only to advise him that the Island was being occupied and to summon assistance if needed. He agreed. Armed with my lamp and a car battery I staggered up to the Island Commandant’s house, and set up my station in his back bedroom window.
The signals staff at Eastern King accepted my signals and responded with what appeared to be a 36″ searchlight, and at a speed which set my eyes watering. Later on I had the idea of signalling to the customs officers on the Breakwater Fort, as a result of which we later went to visit the fort, and made it one of the Society’s visiting sites. Even the Eddystone Lighthouse keepers were not averse to a little chat on a quiet Saturday afternoon!
Under the Society’s guidance various Youth and Church groups came to the Island at weekends and made themselves comfortable in the line of casemates and other buildings. Virginia House were the first to arrive, and their group leader became the first Warden of the Island.
We then learned that Sir John Hunt was coming to Plymouth to open the rebuilt Ballard Institute. Stanley wrote to him to ask if he could make time to visit “our” island. He agreed to do so, and I asked the QHM if he could provide suitable transport for our very distinguished visitor. He sent the Admiral’s Barge with a full crew of white clad matelots. Stanley and I in attendance wearing our own white uniforms with which we had paraded around the town centre in the early days, in an effort to make the citizens believe that something important was happening on the island.
Sir John Hunt approved the developments which we had made, and said that nothing like it existed in Northern Europe. We approached the city Council for a short term interest-free loan enabling us to waterproof some of the barracks buildings. Alderman Leslie Paul responded for the council. “It would” he said, “be quite improper to direct public funds to an organisation such as yours”.
In London Sir John Hunt “had a word” with some folks he knew with the happy result that we received an immediate grant from the Ministry of Education for, I believe. £30,000. I hurried to advise Alderman Paul of our good fortune.
Soon afterwards I was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Plymouth Arts Centre and was made Controller of the Company for whom I worked. This appointment entailed an eighty-four hour working week, which left me little time for other occupations. I was Chairman of an ad hoc Committee of the Save the Children Fund who had a small building on the island. They were an impoverished group who had difficulty in crossing to the island, and it was suggested that we should endeavour to purchase a boat for them.
A Mr. Drake of Shell Mex eventually found for us the hull of a steel ship’s lifeboat. We had a session with SNSO at the Dockyard, and he found for us a condemned diesel engine, which he restored, repaired, and fitted into our boat. We had a ceremonial launching off Cornwall Beach. Mr. Drake had insisted that the boat should be named after his wife Frances Drake. With Councillor Parker at the helm the boys set out for Drake’s Island. Mr. Drake took me to one side. “That” he said “is one bloody awful boat. Find a better one”. He then handed me a very large cheque.
These are incidentals to the story of the island but they show how the activities of the Old Plymouth Society spread from this one venture which occupied us for some years. Finally I found myself unable to stay the pace. Stanley envisaged a change. He appointed himself Chairman and made me Treasurer. Life became a little easier. Through the years we did manage to maintain Isaac Foot’s Sabbath Day Fight ceremony.
As a “one man band” the Old Plymouth Society still accomplished services to the Community. We continued to take parties of visitors (and natives) to places of interest in the city. We went to the Naval Hospital, the Dockyard, Ham House, Drake’s Island, the Breakwater Fort, Mount Batten, the Egyptian House, the Barbican (of course) and some others.
We made one visit which involved the transportation of our “customers” from Mayflower Steps to the Island. Following a brief visit there, they re-embarked and set sail for the Breakwater fort. A few minutes there, and they came back to the Barbican. Stanley took the first boatload, and I followed after a short while with the second. Whilst I was at the Fort, Stanley’s second boatload was just leaving the Barbican. With this leap frog system we carried more than 400 people that afternoon and evening and left ourselves in a state of complete exhaustion. We made no charge for the visit which was open to the public at large, and was advertised as such.
We also had the battle for Mount Batten Tower. The Air Officer Commanding the station became concerned that stone falling from the Tower might injure his airmen. He wanted the Tower demolished. I had always believed the tower to be unsafe. Paton Watson, Stanley Goodman and I went across one lunch time to have a good look at the place. With all the Officers at lunch the airman at the gate found himself confronted by two senior City Officers and admitted us.
Paton Watson entered the Tower and discovered that the RAF had turned it into a reservoir. He calculated that it contained more than six hundred tons of water. He placed glass slides in fissures in the limestone on which the tower stood in an effort to discover whether either the tower or the cliff face were moving.
We came home and organised a public protest meeting in the Astor Hall of the YMCA in Cobourg Street. Two supporters were Dame Joan Vickers, MP and Sir Henry Studholme, MP, both of whom subsequently became honorary life members of the Society. Costs submitted by the RAF suggested that to make the Tower safe would need some £25,000. Mr. Paton Watson said he would undertake to cover the cliff face with a concrete apron to avoid the creation of the fissures which are common in limestone. He Finally achieved this plan at a cost Df rather less than £11,000, and this sum was met by the Air Ministry -Mount batten Tower exists through the good offices of the Old Plymouth Society. Let nobody forget that.
In some of our activities we were rather less than successful. We managed to persuade the council to repair the Stonehouse Manor Wall, but our warnings about the cave system at Stonehouse were unheeded, and the new store being built for W.H. Smith collapsed during its construction.
We failed to save St. Michael’s Terrace in Stoke. I went to talk to the architect about it. He took me up to the roof of the terrace and pushed at the parapet with his foot. This action sent a portion of the parapet weighing several hundredweights crashing to the ground. He said nothing and I left the site.
We were unsuccessful in an attempt to preserve some of the stanchions and the balustrade of the Old Iron Bridge at Laira. The City Engineer, when I asked him to save a few samples, wrote to say that if I wanted it, I could have the whole Bridge, and where would I like it delivered. We also didn’t manage to save some of the polished granite facade of St. Catherine’s Church, and were quite unable to save the noble Georgian Brunswick Terrace.
BUT the Society flourishes, thanks to a dedicated band of committee men and women, and to a faithful and stalwart membership. Stanley Goodman would have been pleased.