The History of Plymouth
Archaeological finds in local caves show that human settlers have been in the Plymouth area since the Upper Palaeolithic era. There have also been findings from the Bronze Age and middle Iron Age from nearby Mount Batten.
The history of Plymouth itself as a town dates back to Saxon times. It lies between the mouths of the River Plym and River Tamar and it is the rivers that have shaped its history. The origins of Plymouth appear to be in the Saxon settlement of Sudtone (South Farm); a small area of farmland that is referred to in the Domesday Book . This developed into Sutton Harbour, the hub of medieval Plymouth. The earliest record of cargo leaving Plymouth dates back to 1211 and it is known that trade through the port thrived for the next two centuries at least.
The town began life as a fishing village owned by the Prior of Plympton . In the 13th century the prior created a market there, which helped the village achieve town status by royal charter in 1254. The port did particularly well during the Hundred Years War with France. However, Plymouth’s role in the wars with France caused the town to suffer at the hands of the French on numerous occasions over the following centuries. In 1403 the French occupied the town overnight, despite an attempt by the English army to repel them from the town. The attackers left the next day but only after burning and ransacking much of the town.
At the end of the 15th century John Cabot discovered the rich fishing grounds of Newfoundland, this prompted a large amount of fish trade to be directed back through Plymouth, helping the town to thrive.
Fishing became the mainstay of the Plymouth economy, although the port was used for the importation of many other goods. Imports including hemp from the Baltic and sugar, paper and wine from Spain and France. Goods were also bought into Plymouth from other ports in the UK as this was historically easier and more economical than transporting them overland. The military history of Plymouth dates back to the time when Admiral Drake’s force left from the mouth of the River Plym. This raised the military profile of the town of Plymouth.
From the early 16th century to the middle of the 17th century, Plymouth doubled in size from a population of around 3,500 to over 7,000. This made it quite a large town by the standards of the day, particularly for that part of England. In 1642 Plymouth was one of the few places in the South West to support the Parliamentarians at the outbreak of the Civil War . The people of the town dug a ditch and built palisade fortifications around the town to help stave off what they saw as an inevitable attack from Royalist forces. By the time this came, 9,000 Parliamentarian troops had been stationed at Plymouth. The Royalist troops attacked and laid siege to the town. They were unable to drive the Parliamentarian troops out by force, so they tried to starve them out. The people of Plymouth were saved by their ability to fish and Plymouth held out until the Royalist forces withdrew towards the end of the war.
Towards the end of the 17th century the development of Plymouth continued with the building of new marketplaces and a grammar school in 1658. During this time trade grew with the colonies of the West Indies and North America. Sugar and tobacco came into Plymouth; wool and manufactured goods went out. At the end of the 17th century, William of Orange became King and almost immediately ordered the
building of a new naval dockyard at Devonport, in the west of the modern city of Plymouth. The dockyard became a mainstay of the economy in Plymouth and dockyard workers wanted to live closer to the docks, leading to the building of considerable amounts of new housing in the area. The population of Plymouth continued to rise steadily and new docks were added throughout the 18th century to cope with demands in the dockyard.
In the mid 19th century the city as we know it today was really three towns, Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse. The combined population was over 100,000 people. By this time, Plymouth old town had grown sufficiently to overtake Devonport in size, which had outgrown the old town by the start of the 19th century due to the growth of the docks.
The modern city of Plymouth has a population of over a quarter of a million and the dockyard is still very important to the local economy. A bridge was built over the Tamar in 1961 to improve road travel through Plymouth and the motorway reached Exeter ( A non-motorway dual carriageway, the A38, continuing west to the city - for long a bone of contention!) in 1977. From the 1970s, Plymouth has operated ferries to Spain and France making it once again a gateway to Europe.
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