Naval Dockyards Society

Exploring the civil branches of navies & their material culture


Devonport Ropery Office 2009. Image by Ann Coats.

Horsley swing bridge at Royal William Victualling Yard 2014. Image by Ann Coats.

Since 2002, when the NDS organised a tour of Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth Citadel and Royal William Yard, the Society has engaged with Devonport heritage societies in protecting the surviving heritage of the dockyard. The Former Devonport Market House in South Yard was removed from the Devonport Dockyard estate in 2005, when the land around it (the South Yard Enclave) was sold to English Partnerships (Plymouth City Council, 2007, The Devonport Area Action Plan 2006–2021, p. 14. Plymouth: Department of Development) This area has been developed as new housing.

In 2008, alerted by a letter from the Association of Friends of Plymouth Naval Base Museum to Peter Dawson (Chatham Dockyard Historical Society) about threats to the Museum, Dr Coats was kindly escorted around South Yard in the same year by Hon. Sec. Mary Wills and Guide Tom Wood. The Museum had existed in concept since the early nineteenth century, having as an artefact the flag under which Nelson fell at the Battle of Trafalgar. Mary’s father, Naval Stores employee Stanley Greenwood, was influential in persuading Admiral Dick Wildish (later an NDS member), Norman Chaff and Fred Stott to set up its modern manifestation (2-sided leaflet. n.d., Devonport Dockyard Museums). After the Museum opened in the Fire Station in 1969 it moved in the 1970s to the St Lo church, then to its current home, the Ground Floor of Building S029, formerly the Police Station, with the previous Clerk of the Cheque’s Office above.

Devonport East Ropery 2009. Image by Ann Coats.

Devonport East Ropery 2009. Image by Ann Coats.

The MoD was seeking in 2008 to lease much of South Yard to private contractors. The Friends of Plymouth Naval Base Museum were concerned about the future of their Museum and artefacts, exhibited in the Ropery and the Tarred Yarn Stores. They also ran regular group visits and tours. NDS proposed to Plymouth City Council that they move to the West Ropery, with room for their collection and a nearby entrance at Mutton Cove. (Coats, A., Dec 2008, Visit to Plymouth Naval Base Museum 17 September 2008. Dockyards, 13(2), pp. 12-15. Portsmouth: Naval Dockyards Society)

Princess Yachts’ 2010 Application (Plymouth Planning Application Reference: 10/00640/FUL HM Naval Base South Yard Devonport Plymouth PL1 4SG) was the first step in the MoD disposing of this estate. The super yacht facility was at first welcomed for bringing employment and shipbuilding back to South Yard. This is the most historic part of Devonport Yard, whose core was a revolutionary design by Edmund Dummer in the 1690s: a stepped stone dry dock opening onto a wet dock, with storehouses around it, to minimise time taken in getting men and supplies to ships needing repair. However, it became apparent from the plans that not only would the scale of Princess Yachts’ facilities impinge on historic listed buildings and future access become uncertain, but the company was including use of the Ropery in its plans, even though the building was not included in the application. NDS objected on the grounds of impaired views and lost access to historic buildings, queried the status of the Ropery and called upon the councillors to raise these issues and reverse the three development phases. Nevertheless, on 21 July 2010 the Planning Committee recommended acceptance conditionally subject to S106 Obligation.

NDS intervention attracted considerable media interest in Devon. Secretary Dr Ann Coats was interviewed live on BBC Radio Devon on 22 July 2008 about the Society’s views on the proposed development and how she thought it would affect the local area. She stressed how beneficial the jobs would be to the local economy, but how little Devonport heritage is promoted in Plymouth and how the plan would seriously limit South Yard’s potential for future heritage tourism access and interpretation. It would remove historic buildings from local community access and the museum would lose its building. (Coats, A., December 2010, 2010 Planning Issues, Dockyards, 15(2), pp. 5-8) Our views were noted by Superyacht Business and our opposition to the proposals was reported in the local press.

In 2011 the MoD announced that the freehold of Devonport North Yard had been sold to Babcock, including six listed buildings, among them the Grade I listed Quadrangle, and reported a new Listing, Building 13 (Receipt and Issue Magazine) at Grade II (Defence Infrastructure Organisation, 2011, MOD Heritage Report 2009–11, p. 15; Table 6. MOD Disposals North Yard, p. 28.). In 2014 a City Deal sought to acquire land at South Yard in Devonport Naval Base. (Maritime Development Land Deal Signed, 20 January 2014, Marine News. New York).

Currently here is no conservation plan for South Yard and no specified conservation programme for the listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments within Devonport Dockyard. The Plymouth Naval Base Museum, the Fire Service Museum and the Lighthouse Museum will all close. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is conducting an audit of the PNBM collection and historic fire engines are being valued for sale. South Saw Mills, South Smithery and Turncock’s House are on the Historic England At Risk Register, while the South Yard Dockyard Wall (1763–71) is also on Plymouth City Council’s Buildings at Risk Register.

On 17 March 2015 the NDS responded to Marine Industries Production Campus Planning Applications 14/02269/OUT and 14/02268/LBC, criticising several proposals:

1. Removal of a capstan (Cowans Sheldon, 1939) from the north of No. 1 Dock, to erect a security fence. Although other examples remain in South Yard, this will remove an element of the interpretation of this historic dock.
2. Removal of the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre from the Museum and Fire Station. This will remove a key interpretational institution from South Yard, harming its evidential, historical and communal value.
3. Interruption of the vista of the North Smithery and Dock No. 4 from Fore Street Gate by a proposed new 4 storey car park.
4. Further visual intrusion from the new security fence, interrupting site vistas and reducing South Yard’s aesthetic value.

Ongoing plans to release South Yard from MoD ownership will cumulatively and irreversibly risk its evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal value. The NDS called for Plymouth City Council to establish a Conservation Management Plan for Devonport Dockyard to provide overall care of the historic estate.

26 March 2015 Decision Devonport Dockyard, South Yard, (Areas 1 and 5), Devonport, Plymouth
Application No: 14/02269/OUT
Outline planning permission has now been granted.
Head of Development Management Strategic Planning and Infrastructure