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The History of Mount Batten (History Section)

Wed. 14 April 2021 at 2:00 pm


To be held by Zoom video conferencing

This talk by Robin Blythe-Lord traces the history of Mount Batten, a promontory that juts out into the Cattewater in Plymouth and is the site of the earliest port.

Professionally, Robin is very concerned with the design and presentation of educational materials. He is also concerned with local history and is currently chairman of Plym Valley Heritage.

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Report on the talk

Robin Blythe-Lord gave members an interesting illustrated talk on the history of Mount Batten.

Mount Batten occupies an area in the north east of Plymouth harbour. In Neolithic times Cattewater was the original harbour and the river Plym was navigable to Plymstock and the area now called Mount Batten was much larger in area. Coastal erosion has severely reduced the region.

Human habitation goes back to 2,500BC when Neolithic hunter gathers came here. Later in the Bronze Age tin and lead from Dartmoor were transported down the Plym to Cattewater to trade with Europe. Iron Age coins have been found on Mount Batten and in Roman times it was an important port, possibly the lost port of Tamaris.

After the Romans left Britain there was some fishing and pirate activity until 1587 when the area was fortified against the threat posed by the Spanish Armada. In the seventeenth century it became a mass grave for victims of the plague and again in the Civil War the dead were buried in the area.

In 1666 after the Restoration the tower was built as part of the defences and was named after the governor, Vice Admiral William Batten. The top of the tower has a flat roof for the positioning of cannons, the ground floor was used for storage and the garrison, between ten and twenty men, occupied the floors between. By 1771 the citadel had been completed so the cannons were moved there.

During the cholera epidemics between 1832 and 1849 the area was again used for burials. The first photo of Mount Batten appeared in 1865. When the Castle Inn was being built they unfortunately dug up some of the plague victims. When they were building “Palmerston’s Follies” around Plymouth in the 1860’s, Roman artefacts were found by the Irish labourers. These were bought up by a local dentist who was interested in such items and stored for safe keeping in Plymouth. Unfortunately they were all destroyed in the Blitz and only drawings of them now remain.

By 1910 when the tide was out people from Plymouth caught the ferry to Mount Batten and enjoyed sitting or promenading on the beach there. In 1911 sea planes were trialled there and the breakwater, which had been built in 1881, was altered so that sea planes could land. 1917 saw the hangers built which are now listed buildings and due to be restored and 1918 saw the first Wrens arrive! In 1919 the first transatlantic sea plane went from Mount Batten.

By the 1920s the government was interested in buying Mount Batten and did so in 1925. Compensation had to be paid to the previous owner, Earl Morley, who had the mineral rights there, to the ferry company and to Octagon Brewery for the Castle Inn. In 1928 RAF Mount Batten was stationed there until 1986. During the 1920s T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was stationed at Mount Batten and in 1931 witnessed an air crash. Concerned about the slowness of the rescue boats, he designed a much faster vessel for rescues on inshore waters.

During the Second World War Shorts Sunderland flying boats of the Royal Australian Air Force operated from RAF Mount Batten. Robin showed photos of the war damage that was inflicted by German bombers.

In 1984 the government announced the closure of RAF Mount Batten and RAF Catering Officer and local amateur archaeologist Terry Hugo contacted Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University and an archaeologic dig was arranged in 1988. The finds are in the local museum.

In 1993 the area was handed over to the Plymouth Development Corporation and is now home to a Sailing and Water Sports Centre and Spinnaker Quay as well as housing.

Robin ended his illustrated talk by showing a video of the fireworks display and answering questions.

Robin’s talk was recorded and is available on request to DA members only.

Chris Reader
April 2021


Wed. 14 April 2021
2:00 pm
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History Section


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