When you stroll along the magnificent Plymouth Waterfront from Sutton Harbour, around Madeira Road and The Hoe, toward Millbay and Royal William Yard – spare a thought for how things were in the days when safe navigation was in it’s infancy, and Plymouth was small but vital and well-defended natural harbour.
Imagine a world where navigation was in it’s infancy, hazards abounded, and the unknown was everywhere; if you recognise that navigation allows trade, which means money, which advances discovery, which equals power – then a key which unlocks all this potential has a value above anything else.

That key is a flat sheet of paper plastered with hieroglyphics – and an understanding of how to use it! Many great navigators set sail from Plymouth and Sutton Harbour – Drake, Cook, Chichester – all ‘Masters’ of their vessel.

Before the term ‘Captain’ became synonymous with being in charge of a ship, the boss was the ‘Master’ meaning that he had mastered navigation and seamanship; ‘Captain’ was a title given to a fighting leader with soldiers aboard a vessel in time of war.  Volumes could of course be written about maps and charts, and their development up to the accuracy of today’s superlative Admiralty Charts.

Credit British Library Board

Credit British Library Board


Here is a look at a few features of just one chart, of Plymouth, published in 1798; because as well as having been a key to the world at the time, today it offers an opportunity to unlock some long-forgotten secrets of the past!

Listed here is The Hoe; spellings were inconsistent, and mapmakers rarely local so that they depended on the sound of a name and recorded it phonetically. ‘Hoe’ means ‘high’, and you can see that it extends from the Citadel to Millbay – before the west Hoe end was quarried away to build Plymouth!

On the Hoe are three ‘obelisks’ – tall pillars, painted black white and red. These were placed for sailors to navigate more safely past the many rocks and reefs of Plymouth Sound, and the red obelisk stood where Smeaton’s Tower stands today.

By aligning the pillar with the tower of St Andrew’s Church (the old Mother Church of Plymouth – and Andrew the Patron Saint for sailors and fishermen) a sailor could judge position and course; see how the sight-lines (‘transits’) align with safe passage?

Many of the names are quite charming; one wonders how the reefs and rocks got their names! ‘Crimble Passage’ into the Tamar past Mount Wise is rather lovely. Ashore, prominent hilltop buildings were identified again for navigation, and to the East of the City is ‘Old Sugar House’ which was probably an early sugar refinery out toward Plympton; a quay on that side of Sutton Harbour is still called ‘Sugar Quay’ today; the quaysides were often named after the goods they specialised in, and they were always in direct line of transport – so ‘Tin Quay’ was closest to Dartmoor, Fish Quay for the fishing boats, and Dung Quay for the very important manure trade!

Look closer into Sutton Pool; the Citadel has been built and the old castle demolished – no Barbican here! West Pier and the Fish House guard the Pool entrance. Do you see that the warehouses directly abut the water? The ships tied up literally at these ‘Keys’ under the loading cranes (that can still be seen today on some buildings) and goods were hauled up. Only later did flat quaysides develop.
To the East, Mill Bay is a simple, open marshy pool; it was surrounded by Mills, some originated by Drake, powered by water flow down the leats from the Moor. These Mills would later be used as prisons for Frenchmen as Napoleon came to prominence – and that would in turn lead to the building of Dartmoor Gaol.

The word ‘Assembly’ beside Millbay is the large redbrick building known then as the Assembly Room; it was a long building – and became in time the ‘Longroom’, a base for the Queen’s Harbour Master; the building still stands within Stonehouse Barracks, and mariners call ‘Longroom’ on their radios to this day.

See how Stonehouse Creek runs up past the Royal Naval Hospital (now ‘Millfields’) to Millbridge , where tidal-powered mills stood on a bridge over the water (which ran up to the Prison at Pennycomequick!)

More maps can be discovered b