The Port of Plymouth sits between the Rivers Tamar and Plym that flow into Plymouth Sound in Devon County in southwestern England about 70 kilometers east-northeast of the Port of Falmouth. Plymouth’s economy has long been closely related to maritime activities, particularly the military until the 1980s. The United Kingdom’s only naval base refitting nuclear submarines, the Devonport Dockyard, contributes as much as 10% of the city’s income.
Almost 300 maritime and marine firms operate in the southwest area of the Port of Plymouth. Since the 1980s, the city’s economy has transformed to a base of administrative, education, medicine and health, and engineering sectors. In 2005, over 246 thousand people called the Port of Plymouth home.
The first settlement in the area of the Port of Plymouth grew at Mount Batten during the Bronze Age. The settlement grew as a trading post used by the Roman Empire. Human bones and artifacts have been found in local caves at Mount Batten dating from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. In 1086, the Domesday Book listed the town of Sudtone, and the Port of Plymouth’s first harbor is still called Sutton Harbor. The city’s early growth benefited from trade and the movement of armies to France.
French soldiers attacked the Port of Plymouth in 1340 during the Hundred Years’ War but failed to invade the town. French Breton raiders burned the town in 1403, leading to the construction of a line of fortifications that included four towers. The remains of two of the towers are still visible at Mount Batten and at Sutton Pool.
The English fleet, led by Sir Francis Drake, sailed from the Port of Plymouth in 1588 to meet the invading Spanish Armada. By the 16th Century, the Port of Plymouth was exporting locally-produced wool products, and the port was known as a successful maritime trade center. The first attempts to colonize Virginia in the New World were made by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th Century. The United States’ first Pilgrims sailed to establish Plymouth Colony in 1620.
The Port of Plymouth was held by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, and it was under siege by Royalists for almost four years in the middle 17th Century. Even though the Parliamentarians won the Civil War, the monarchy was restored in 1649, and King Charles II imprisoned many of his opponents on Drake’s Island south of the Port of Plymouth. Charles II built the Royal Citadel in Plymouth in 1665, pointing cannons both into the town and out to sea, apparently to remind residents of his supremacy.
During the 17th Century, the Port of Plymouth began to lose its influence as a trade port, as it became too expensive to ship goods to Plymouth, and the city had no facilities to process imported tobacco or sugar.
The Royal Dockyard at Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) was begun on the banks of the River Tamar in 1690. Additional docks were constructed in the 18th Century, and new homes were built near the dock, stimulating the growth of the new town of the Port of Plymouth. By 1733, about three thousand people lived there. By the late 1700s, coal and timber were the primary imports, but the city’s real wealth came from the dockyard.
By the latter 19th Century, the Port of Plymouth was importing grains, sugar cane, sodium nitrate, guano, and phosphate from Europe and the Americas. Tramways, railways, gasworks, and a few chemical works began to develop outside the dockyard. In 1914, three towns (Plymouth, Devonport, and Stonehouse) were combined to form the Port of Plymouth.
The Port of Plymouth was heavily bombed during World War II in a series of 59 raids called the Plymouth Blitz. Though the German target was the dockyards, the bombs destroyed much of the city center and many homes, killing over a thousand people. Rebuilding efforts began in 1943, led by Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and 20 thousand new homes had been completed by 1964. Much of the damaged city center was cleared to encourage redevelopment. Today, the partly-destroyed Charles Church stands as a monument to the Plymouth Blitz.
By 1971, the army had generally left the Port of Plymouth; however, the nuclear submarine base was operating by the late 1970s, and the Port of Plymouth is now home to the Royal Marines’ 42 Commando.
The modern Port of Plymouth is one of England’s most outstanding civic, shopping, and commercial centers. New light industries have sprung up in its ever-growing suburban communities. The city is also home to industries producing chemicals, engineering products, precision instruments, machine tools, and lubrication equipment. Ship-building is still an important part of the city’s economy, but service industries have increased since the 1990s. Today, the Port of Plymouth is England’s 15th most populous city.