Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 19, 2018
Webpage updated: February 19, 2018




The Mill Bay took its name from the grist mills owned by Sir Francis Drake that used to exist in the north-east corner, where the present Millbay Road and West Hoe Road meet.  The water of the Plymouth Leat used to work the mill and where it flowed from the western end of Frankfort Street across Union Street, used to be marshland.  In Drake's time it was known as the 'sourepool' and in 1592 the northern part was 'made drie for a meadow', which reduced the area of the creek to around 45 acres.  Even in modern times the land on which Derry's Cross Roundabout is built has flooded badly in heavy rain.

The Bay was not considered as important as Sutton Pool, it being far from the Town, but it was clearly used by ships as anchors have been dug up there.  It probably first assumed any strategic importance at all during the Siege of Plymouth in the Civil War.  With the enemy fort at Mount Batten covering access to the Sutton Pool, the only place for ships carrying supplies was to Mill Bay.  The mill itself was converted into a prison in 1695.

Then in 1756 Mr John Smeaton appeared on the scene, preparing to construct the third lighthouse to stand on the notorious Eddystone Reef.   He chose the western side of the Bay as a location for his stonemason's yard and a jetty was built to enable ships from Falmouth and Portland to unload their cargoes of stones.  A timber railway was also built to carry the stones and on Sunday June 12th 1756 the foundation stone left Mill Bay for the reef.

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that an actual dock appeared.  Called, appropriately, the Union Dock, it was owned by Messrs B and D Derry and Mr J Meadows Rendel.

The position of the West Hoe Dock built by Thomas Gill and the canal can be gleaned from this map of around 1858.

The location of West Hoe Dock and the canal, built by Thomas Gill,
can be gleaned in relation to the quarry and lime kilns from this
map of around 1858.

The eastern side of the Bay was also full of activity.   Mr Thomas Gill, who owned the West Hoe Estate, was busy blasting away at the cliff outside the ownership of the Corporation.  He had already built some small quays on the shore to carry away his stone but in 1840 an Act of Parliament gave him authority to erect a pier and deepen the bed of the Bay to accommodate larger vessels.  The result was the 500 foot long Millbay Pier, completed in 1844.  Soon warehouses were being built near the Pier and ships were regularly calling with passengers and cattle.  One of the first was the SS Great Britain while on her way to Liverpool in June 1845.

By authority of the Plymouth Great Western Docks Act 1846, which received the Royal Assent on August 18th 1846, a company was established to take over Gill's Millbay Pier and to develop the docks.  Mr Gill became a director of the new company.   He also happened to be the chairman of the South Devon Railway which was under construction and was destined to terminate at a station within walking distance of the Docks.  This meant there was an opportunity for a rail connection which in turn would help his exporting of stone blocks and lime from his kilns under the Hoe.  But just in case it all went wrong, he excavated a small dock of his own, within his quarry, the entrance to which passed beneath a wooden footbridge in what later became Radford Road.   When that was completed, he sold Millbay Pier to the Great Western Docks Company.