Drake's Island in History
The first recorded name for the island was in 1135, when it was referred to as St Michael's, after the chapel erected on it. At some later date the chapel was rededicated to St Nicholas and the island adopted the same name. From the latter part of the 16th century the island was occasionally referred to as Drake's Island after
Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer who used Plymouth as his home port. Even well into the 19th century, maps and other references continued to refer to the island as St Nicholas's Island and it is only in about the last 100 years that this name has slipped into disuse and the name Drake's Island has been adopted.
It was from here that Drake sailed in 1577, to return in 1580 having circumnavigated the world, and in 1583 Drake was made governor of the island. From 1549 the island began to be fortified as a defence against the French and Spanish, with barracks for 300 men being built on the island in the late 16th century.
For several centuries, the island remained the focal point of the defence of the three original towns that were to become modern Plymouth. In 1665 the Roundhead Robert Lilburne died imprisoned on the island. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the Regicide of Charles I. A few years later John Lambert, a Roundhead General, was moved to Drake's Island from Guernsey, where he had been imprisoned since 1662. He never regained his liberty, dying on Drake's Island in the winter of 1683.
In due course the Governorship of the Hoe fort and the island passed to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and in 1599 he was instructed to construct barricades on the foreshore and a barracks to accommodate a garrison of 300 men in preparation of an expected action by the Spaniards in retaliation for the defeat of their Armada in 1588. Sir Ferdinando retired as Governor in 1627.
When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Sir Jacob Astley was Governor of the Island. Plymouth declared for Parliament. When he quit, the Mayor and Corporation put Sir Alexander Carew in his place, which was slightly unfortunate because he was suspected of treason, arrested and later beheaded On Tower Hill, London. Apparently he had refused to come to the mainland to even collect his pay. If he had allowed the Royalists to land on the Island, Plymouth might never have been able to withstand the Royalist siege.
A respected Parliamentarian soldier by the name of Henry Hatsell was next placed in charge of the Island and he strengthened the garrison and fortifications.
After the War, Drake’s Island was used for the next 25 years as a state prison and for a time it held some important opponents of the Parliamentarian cause, including Major-General Lambert, who was confined to the Island from 1670 until his death in 1684.
When another prominent prisoner, Colonel Robert Lilburn was sent to the Island in 1661 as a life sentence, it is interesting to note that the warrant still referred to it as St Nicholas Island. It was inevitable that some local people involved in the siege would also have been sent to the Island as prisoners and these included the Reverend George Hughes, vicar of St Andrew's Church, and Abraham Cheare, a Baptist minister. He died on the Island.
In 1691 the role of the Island changed considerably as the Royal Naval dockyard was moved from the Cattewater into the Hamoaze. The Island's position at the mouth of the Tamar became more significant and the it became an important defence, covering as it did the main channel that all ships had to follow to gain access to the Hamoaze. Many proposals were made for improving the military status of the Island but little seems to have been done as in 1717 a Colonel Lilley reported that the defences on the Island were in a ruinous state and not cable of holding off an attack for any length of time. It would cost £7,000 to put matters right.
As late as 1763 the Island was still being referred to as St Nicholas Island, when it was reported as having twenty-three 32 pound guns, six 18 pounders and two 13 inch brass mortars.
Until 1771 the Island was manned by a semi-military corps of gunners, which was adequate in peace time but not very satisfactory in the threat of invasion. But in that year the Royal Regiment of Artillery took over the manning of coastal defences, including the Island, and continued to do so until after the Second World War. This was just as well as war with France broke out in 1793, just after the Revolution. Luckily, this had no effect on Plymouth and in 1802 the garrison was reduced again to such an extent that from 1816 to 1846 there was only one Royal Artillery company stationed in the Plymouth area. This included two Master Gunners, of whom one (George Mahon) was stationed on the Island along with a detachment of troops comprising two officers and 72 men. A company (three officers and 96 men) from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry served here in 1825. Eight Privates slept in one room while the Sergeants had a room each.
The developments in guns and warship construction of the mid-nineteenth century meant that the defence structures on the Island had to undergo a major overhaul. They would not be much use against the iron-clad ships then being launched. As a consequence in the 1860s a casemated battery for twenty-one 12 ton guns was built on a ground 38 feet 6 inches above high water. This was built of granite but had iron shields.
A further five 23 ton guns were mounted even higher. There was a large magazine to the rear of the casements, protected from fire and linked by subterranean tunnels. The noise, should there have been an attack, would have been terrific!
One so far unrecorded event that took place on the Island on October 11th 1897, was the birth of a child, Alice Maud Lamb, to the wife of a gunner with the Royal Artillery. She became more familliarly known to generations of Plymothians as Miss 'Geraldine' Lamb.
At the end of the 19th century Drake's Island was linked by a telegraph cable to Mount Batten. On Tuesday March 28th 1899 the training brig, "Pilot", fouled the cable with her anchor and the local tug "Belle" was engaged to hold on to the brig while the anchor was got up and the cable cleared, after which the "Belle" towed the "Pilot" to a safer, more westerly anchorage. The whole operation took some two hours.
Two world wars dominated activities on the Drake's Island during the Twentieth Century. For the first, in 1914, there were four officers, eleven sergeants, two trumpeters and 134 men stationed on the Island. By the end of the War in 1918 this had been increased to 20 officers, 5 warrant officers, 4 sergeants 2 trumpeters, and
178 men. The concrete gun emplacements on the top of the Island date from this period.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 a 40mm anti-aircraft gun was installed, the pier was constructed and the slipway strengthened. An ammunition hoist was also installed and a tall gunnery control post was erected on the top of the Island. Some concrete bunkers were built but the most interesting thing was the installation of a minefield control post, which, if there had been an invasion, would have detonated mines placed all over the Sound. By April of 1941 there were 490 troops stationed on this important point. Damage during the War was mainly from incendiaries but one person was injured and the canteen roof was damaged.
The War ended in 1945 and in 1956 the War Department announced that the Island was no longer needed for defence purposes. In the December the Ministry of Supply's workmen moved in to remove the six 12 pounders still operational on the Island as well as the fittings. They also demolished the gun emplacements. The War Department finally vacated the Island in 1963 so that an adventure centre could be started.
Drake's Island was leased from the Crown by Plymouth City Council as a youth training centre. A covenant prohibited any commercial development on the Island. It was opened to the public in 1964, the year that mains water was finally laid on. Ten years later, as the Drake's Island Adventure Centre, custody passed to the Mayflower Centre Trust which was responsible for running the Mayflower Sports Centre in Central Park. In 1976 it was sold to the Council and later the remaining buildings became Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
A noteworthy event was the installation of a telephone, on May 1st 1987, using a cable attached to the mains water pipe. The telephone number was Plymouth 63393. The warden had previously used the Ministry of Defence system. Shortly afterwards, on March 31st 1989, the Mayflower Trust surrendered their lease and sold off the boats and sports equipment. Ownership reverted to the Crown.
In 1995 it was put up for sale through agents Messrs Knight, Frank and Rutley, and sold to
Mr Dan McCauley, the owner of Drakes Island.
Drake's Island, which has been described as 'the jewel in the city's crown', was the site of an ancient chapel, demolished to make way for fortifications when the island was garrisoned in 1551.
It had a strategic position guarding Devonport's growing naval base, and was also used as a prison.
The island is mainly scheduled, with four Grade II-listed buildings. It is the most high-profile historical building in the Plymouth area to be placed on the at-risk list by English Heritage.
Phil McMahon, inspector of ancient monuments with English Heritage, said Heritage at Risk status could be granted for a number of reasons, ranging from trees growing in walls to climate change and rising sea levels.
Of Drake's Island, he said: "It's really suffering the effects of not being used."
Many of the problems affecting monuments were no fault of the owners.