The History of Mount Batten

We attended a very entertaining, interesting and illustrated talk on the History of Mount Batten which included lots of stories and jokes throughout.

Robin Blythe-Lord explained that the peninsula of Mount Batten lay on the east side of Plymouth Sound and is the site of the earliest port.   It was originally called How Stert which is Saxon meaning ‘high ground’ and there is evidence of Neolithic habitation. In the Bronze Age tin and lead from Dartmoor were transported down the Plym to Cattewater.  Iron Age coins and horse harnesses have been found and there is evidence of thatched round houses.  In Roman times it was an important port, possibly the lost port of Tamaris.  In the 16th century there was pirate activity, boat maintenance and fishing.  An armed merchantman was found in the Cattewater from around 1530.

 In the seventeenth century it became a mass grave for victims of the plague and during the Civil War the area was used for burying the dead.  In 1666 after the Restoration the tower was built as part of the Plymouth defences and was named after the governor, Vice Admiral William Batten.  The tower is hollow and has a flat roof for the positioning of cannons, facing seaward and landward.  Inside there were 2 floors, the ground was for storage and the garrison occupied the other floors.  When the Citadel was completed the cannons were moved there.

The area was used for burials again during the cholera epidemic of 1832-1849.  When the Castle Inn was being built they dug up some of the plague victims.  Lots of artefacts were also found and stored for safekeeping in Plymouth but, unfortunately, were all destroyed in the Blitz.  From 1878 to 1881 the breakwater was built for protection of the Sound. 

In 1910 people caught the ferry to Mount Batten and spent time on the beach.  In 1911 sea planes were trialled there and the breakwater had to be altered for the planes to land.  In 1917 the hangars were built which are now listed.  In 1918 the first Wrens arrived and in 1919 the first transatlantic flight went from Mount Batten.  In 1929 the Met office was situated at Breakwater House and the instruments were kept in the tower.  In the 1920s the government bought Mount Batten but had to pay compensation of £24,000 to the previous owner, Earl Morley, who had the mineral rights.

T.E. Lawrence was stationed at Mount Batten and witnessed an air crash in 1931; due to the slowness of rescue boats he designed a much faster vessel for rescues.  In WW2 Shorts Sunderland flying boats of the RAAF operated there and Robin showed photos of the damage done by German bombers.  In 1984 the government announced closure of RAF Mount Batten: local amateur archaeologist and Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University arranged a dig to find the artefacts which are now in the museum.  In 1993 the area was handed over to Plymouth Development Corporation and is now home to a Sailing and Water Sports centre with some housing; no more building is allowed.  Mount Batten is also used for the annual National Fireworks display.

New Zealand- Plymouth connections

Clive Charlton’s brand-new talk took us to the settlement of New Plymouth on North Island in New Zealand. For centuries occupied by quite sophisticated Maori tribes, “Taranaki” (named after the local volcano), from the 1800’s started seeing early pioneers such as whalers and sealers, and traders looking for flax, metal and even guns.

One of these was Richard “Dickie” Barrett who set up the first trading post and married a local Maori, a key link to future settlement. He also negotiated land buys of dubious legality, helped by lots of land being unoccupied with many of the true owners absent because of slavery and warfare. He learnt the local language and even fought in inter-tribal conflicts.

As colonisation pressures started to grow, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, a constitutional document between the British Crown and the Maori’s, aiming to protect the local culture and equality. The Plymouth Company of New Zealand was set up and with the Southwest of England going through a period of rural depression, a new life overseas seemed attractive and was encouraged. The company surveyor named Carrington was sent out to map out the area for the new settlement.

Migrant families from all over Devon and Cornwall, even 7 from Meavy, could travel free, though the 3-month voyage from Plymouth was difficult. Life once there was also harsh, with rough living conditions, food shortages, boredom and drunkenness leading to growing unrest and conflict. Numbers arriving in the congested area grew to over 1,000 by 1843.  The press referred to the colonisation process as “heroic work”.

A prominent artist called Edwin Harris from Newlyn took his young family to settle in the new town in 1840. His daughter became the first professional artist, producing books on local flora and fauna. Many of Edwin’s own paintings survive in the town’s Puke Ariki Museum.

As the town of New Plymouth continued to grow, so did local Maori resentment, resulting in 1860 the start of a year-long armed conflict on land ownership and sovereignty known as the Taranaki Wars. The town was transformed into a fortified garrison and troops poured in; there were many casualties on both sides. William Odgers, a Royal Navy sailor and one-time Saltash innkeeper was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry before the wars ended in an uneasy truce.

Taranaki today is known as a vibrant and contemporary city, famed for its sunny climate, art galleries, picturesque parks, decadent dining, and family-friendly fun. Many of the places and street names echo their origins from our own city of Plymouth.

Clive concluded his talk with the sad tale of the connection to Bere Ferrers. In 1917, ten soldiers from New Zealand alighted from their troop train on the wrong side, having assumed they should leave by the same side they had entered, and were struck and killed by an oncoming express. A plaque to their memory was unveiled in 2001 in the village centre. A big thank you, once again to Clive for stepping in at late notice with his excellent talk.

The Railway Time Machine

A goodly audience was entertained by Bernard Mill’s photographic time machine, which took us on a nostalgic journey around the local area. Using familiar landmarks, Bernard’s camera captured the changing landscapes as the railways gradually disappeared, often without trace.

Churches provide key points of reference as seen above at Monksmead in Tavistock, illustrating the way history can be easily erased. Dual carriageway and housing dominate the scene in St. Budeaux where railway lines once passed through. The viaduct at Keyham creek was another example with housing replacing the Southern line, though the GWR survives. Car parks and retail developments contrast with views of the inner-city lines, with a background of old landmarks such as the dockyard grain silo, various churches, Plymstock power station (Bernard includes a video of the chimneys being demolished), and also on the scene are old vehicles like Scammel trucks and Millbay laundry vans.  

Crossing into Cornwall, Bernard captured images of the old Saltash steam ferry from 1961, a “steam special” crossing the bridge and the fireworks display on its 150th anniversary. Of particular interest and pride were his photos of the wooden steam rail coach with boiler beside the river on the Looe Valley line; stunning images captured on a clear day by the Moorswater canal bridge, with frost on the fields, still waters and steam smoke in the air. More memories came with scenes of the vintage locomotive “The City of Truro” back at its home, Bernard pleased to have taken photos from the bell tower of the cathedral.

Back nearer home, we visited the Plym Valley railway, a rare example of a restored line. A founder member of the society, Bernard took us past the old Lee Moor tramway crossing and up to the current terminus of the rebuilt Plymbridge Halt platform – the old one now being at St. Ives station. On up what is now the cycleway, past Shaugh Bridge Halt and its once impressive rhododendrons and Clearbrook with its derelict railings the only trace of lines past. At Yelverton, a lovely image shows locomotive no. 4538 coming out of the station. In 1962, the footbridge and signal box were still to be seen, but the area, including the start of the branch line to Princetown is now sadly totally overgrown – the tunnel still runs through private land under the A386 roundabout.

His images and memories continued to Princetown past Burrator Halt with its remaining kissing gate, and the famous snake notice at Ingra Tor Halt. Back on the old main line, his views took us past the “black bridge” at Horrabridge and the stunning Walkham viaduct to the two stations at Tavistock. On to Lydford where the Southern and GWR stations sat side by side, sharing facilities such as the signal box.

This was a classic evening for showing the importance of recording local history because of how quickly things can change and be forgotten. Bernard’s stunning images taken over many years have done this superbly, also making for an excellent talk – all supplemented by his unique humour and off-the-cuff anecdotes.

On the road in Devon in 1682

Kevin Dickens painted a picture of life in the period of Restoration. Charles 11, the “Merry Monarch” with his many mistresses including Nell Gwyn was king and life on the surface seemed good, contrasting vividly with the time of Puritanism. Christmas had been restored, there was maypole dancing again, licentiousness and live theatre with racy comedies was popular. However, in the background people were haunted by bad memories – could the year of ’41 come again – the Civil War, religious disorder and dissention, the Popish Plot to overthrow the Government and the Rye House Plot where one of the Russell family was killed.

Kevin went on to take us on a journey of the time through Devon from Tiverton to Plymouth.  He drew on tales from several notable travellers such as Tristan Risdon, Count Magalotti and Daniel Defoe. Roads were rough (maybe to slow any advancing armies); vehicles were primitive – “boxes on straps”; inns were very basic often with mixed bedrooms, shared beds and risks of fleas and lice; the weather was not good either – 1675 was in the middle of a little ice age.

Tiverton was dominated by wool merchants with their smart houses, though the town had alms houses and the ruins of a fort. Dissenters’ bodies which had been hung, drawn and quartered were on display. Further down the road Barnstaple, a Parliamentary town in the Civil War, had been occupied by brutal Royalists who were now laying low nearby. Bideford had been a Civil War garrison and now the churches were centres of anger and dissention. Three poor women were accused of witchcraft and sent to Exeter Assizes. In Torrington, a Royalist (Cavalier) town, tensions were everywhere. Here, there had been street fighting with c200 people killed in a church explosion.

The town of Exeter was a powder keg. The Duke of Monmouth was welcomed that year in the town. Society was divided and tense between the gentry and the clergy, rich merchants and the poor. The three ladies from Bideford were found guilty and executed. Totnes was passed by quickly, then a town in decline.

Plymouth had survived a 3-year siege from the Royalists though had suffered c 3,000 deaths, a quarter of the population. Magalotti described it as sedition and now the King took charge. No parliaments were called, a standing army was formed, and foreign subsidies undermined the City of London. The fears of ’41 come again, resurfaced.

Three years later King Charles was dead, allegedly from self-inflicted but accidental mercury poisoning. Fears for the future returned and in 1688 William of Orange landed at Brixham to claim the throne from James 11. Wars with France followed though there were compromises on religion. Plymouth had a new dockyard.

Thanks to Kevin for a very informative and entertaining talk.