Saturday 2 December 2023

Island 514 - Drake's Island, Plymouth Sound

Drake's Island, which is also known as St Nicholas's Island, is located in Plymouth Sound 0.5 miles south east of Western King Point and a mile south west of The Hoe.  It has an area of 6 hectares and the highest point on the island is 25m above sea level.  

The island is made of Devonian limestone and fossilised rhyolite volcanic lava and ash (tuff or tufa).  Drake's Island was joined to Mount Edgcumbe on the Cornish coast until c3,000 years ago when sea levels rose after the last ice age and flooded the land bridge.

There was a chapel dedicated to St Michael on the island in the 12th century. Drake's Island used as a refuge by Protestants during the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.  The island was first fortified c1550 to safeguard the maritime approaches to Plymouth.  The chapel was demolished at this time and the stone was reused to build two artillery towers. 

The fortifications were upgraded c1601 by Federico Genebelli for Elizabeth I.  Barracks, firing platforms and store rooms were built on the top of the island and walls were built around the island's coast.

During the English Civil War of the 1640s Plymouth supported the Parliamentarians and the island played an important role in helping the city withstand a 4 year siege by the Royalists.

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Drake's Island was used as a prison for 25 years.  Prisoners included Leveller Robert Lilburne and General John Lambert, both of whom died on Drake's Island.

The strategic importance of Drake's Island increased after the Royal Naval Dockyard moved from Cattewater to the Hamoaze (Tamar estuary) in 1691.  In 1715 or 1717 Colonel Lilley surveyed the defences on Drake's Island and reported that they were in a very poor condition.  In 1720 a guardhouse and barracks were built on the west side of the island. In 1780 the defences were modernised. A south facing battery was built on the top of the island.  A barrack block and officers' quarters were built constructed at the west end of the island. The barracks were upgraded and extended in the 1830s and 1840s.

In 1860 work began on fortifications on the orders of Lord Palmerston.  An arc of 21 casemates were constructed on the south west side of the island for 9 inch 12 ton guns, along with a complex of tunnels and magazines. In 1870 five 12 inch 25 ton guns were delivered and hauled to the Upper Battery. From 1898-1901 three new batteries were built on Drake's Island - Eastern, Centre and Western Batteries

During the First World War Drake's Island had 9 guns in 3 batteries and a garrison of up to 300 men but the guns were never fired in anger.  Lady Nancy Astor opened a recreation hut for the soldiers on Drake's Island, which had been funded by her husband Waldorf Astor.

During the Second World War Drake's Island was equipped with guns and searchlights to protect the Royal Navy's base at Devonport from sea borne attacks.   The jetty, which is still in use, was built in 1939. Up to 490 men were stationed on the island but once again the main guns were never fired in anger, as the Germans attacked Plymouth from the air.

In 1961 the War Office handed Drake's Island back to the Duchy of Cornwall.  They leased it to the National Trust, then the Mayflower Trust and finally Plymouth City Council. It was run as an Adventure Training Centre from 1963 until 1989.  Trees were planted on the island during this period.  A mains water pipe was laid from the mainland to the island in 1964.

In 1996 Dan McCauley, businessman and former owner of Plymouth Argyle FC, purchased Drake's Island from the Duchy of Cornwall.  His plans to build a hotel and leisure complex on the island were turned down by Plymouth City Council.

Local businessman Morgan Phillips bought Drake's Island in 2019 and it is currently open for pre-booked guided tours in conjunction with Plymouth Boat Trips.  The ferry departs from the Barbican landing stage.  When I visited in September 2023 the guided tour cost £18 and the ferry was £7.50.  The guide who showed us round was excellent and I thought it was very good value for money.

Tudor wall on the north side of Drake's Island

Upper Battery - 25 ton guns

Palmerston era gun remounted

Upper Battery: Palmerston era guns




Inside the casemates

Doorway to tunnel

Guardroom, Master Gunner's Quarters with the modern day toilets in front

Soldiers' Barracks

Ablution block and cook house


1970s Boathouse in a very dilapidated state, with the Tudor fortifications behind it

Entrance gateway to the island

Stores underneath the western gun emplacement

Drake's Island Ferry

Barracks from the jetty
Drake's Island from the jetty

Officers' Quarters

Odd mural in one of the former magazines 
I was told this room was used as a bar during the Adventure Training Centre era

Steps down to the casemates

Ventilation shaft

Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven sailing by

Side of the Soldiers' Barracks

Guard Room and Master Gunner's Quarters

Centre Battery

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