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Widecombe History Group Talk Oct 2005

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Widecombe History Group Talk on the History of Devonport Dockyard


A Talk about The Devonport Naval Base

by Commander Charles Chrichton

Plus a report on our visit to the Base and our Guided Tour

Commander Charles Chrichton gave us an amusing and interesting talk about the history of Devonport Naval Base.

The three towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse became the city of Plymouth in the early 1900’s. Devonport however was a major garrison town in its own right and the documented military activities associated with it date well back into the 14th century. It is now the largest naval base in Europe. Many foreign navies use Devonport for training and amphibious exercises. There is now a Charitable Trust maintaining the base’s heritage and as well as Navy Days there are plenty of opportunities for the public to visit this huge site of over 900 acres. Plymouth has for centuries built on its reputation of being a naval port but it has also had barracks for the Army, Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force within its city boundaries. The base is also a business centre.

The main task is to keep the navy afloat by providing all its requirements and for years it has procured its provisions from the vast hinterland surrounding it. The vegetables, meat, and food of all description were gathered from the south west back in the Napoleonic times to keep the navy supplied, an old map showed just how much of the city was owned and controlled by the military. Barracks and their associated hospitals were spread around the area, with over 7000 troops being in garrison at any one time.

Plymouth Sound has always been a haven for sailors and in 1834 the Breakwater was constructed to make it even safer, it took 35 years to complete.

There is now an opportunity for groups to visit and have conducted tours around the base and on Saturday 8th October our group will have such a tour. For the purpose of this write-up, I have waited until after that event so as to co-opt into this report an account of our visit. Anyone wishing to arrange a tour should contact Commander Chrichton at Devonport Naval Base for details.

We arrived at 11.00a.m. We were greeted at the main gates and the procedures were explained of what we should and should NOT do. This included particular rules regarding the use of cameras. First ‘port of call’ was the cafe for coffee. The tour led by two excellent guides set off for the buildings. The ropery some 1200 feet in length where all the ropes necessary to rig a sailing ship could be made. 17 miles of rope for one ship. The process of turning the hemp into the finished product was well explained. Within the ropery there is a collection of military and seafaring memorabilia, crests, guns, boats, and spare parts. A building which housed the gallows was visited, where many French Napoleonic sailors reputed to have mutinied against their own officers were executed, the somewhat gory details of what happened to them afterwards also explained. The buildings where the ropes were tarred now holds a collection of old ‘Figure Heads’, and several models of ships.

After a short break for a snack lunch we were loaded up into the coach for a tour of the base. The buildings were pointed out to us, their uses explained and some dated from the early 1700’s. Several boats/ships were tied up alongside the docks, including one from Germany. The large shipbuilding sheds, some now in use by private boat companies, lifeboats under construction, and even nuclear submarines that have been decommissioned, were all shown and their purposes explained. The afternoon was rounded off by a cream tea in the cafe/giftshop and a visit to the museum and collection of model boats both ancient and modern,

There must be thousands of people in the Plymouth area that have never experienced a tour of the base, but do not dispair. There are three or four open days at the base this coming twelve months, when you can visit free of charge, and have a guided tour like we experienced. Watch the local press for announcements. Transport will be laid on at the base and you too will experience an interesting conducted tour by coach.

The history and heritage of your naval base is there to be enjoyed. Both you and your children need to know this.

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