Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 25, 2018
Webpage updated: November 11, 2019




The Plymouth Great Western Docks Company was formed under the authorisation of the Plymouth Great Western Docks Act, which received the Royal Assent on August 18th 1846.  This gave the Company the legal right to take over the Mill Bay Pier constructed at the behest of Mr Thomas Gill in Mill Bay to serve his West Hoe Quarry and to construct and maintain any further docks or piers it may wish to add.  Mr Gill, who happened to be a director of the South Devon Railway Company that was already constructing a railway line that would end within a short distance of his Quarry, naturally became a director of the new Docks Company.  He realised this would give him the opportunity to link his Quarry to the national railway network and improve the sale of his stone.

In the meantime, the Docks Company had secured the services of Mr Isambard Kingdom Brunel to design the Docks.  As engineer to the South Devon Railway Company, the Cornwall Railway Company and the Great Western Railway Company, he was keen to ensure that when the railway finally reached Millbay in 1849 it would be linked to the Docks as quickly as possible.

This was achieved quite quickly as by 1850 the track had been laid down the east side of Mill Bay as far as Thomas Gill's Millbay Pier, even bridging his entrance to his docks, while at the same time the Pier Hotel, passenger waiting rooms and an octagonal Customs House had also been built.  It was not long before the Docks became a port of call for the Irish Steamship Company and at their request Brunel provided another pier in the form of an iron floating pontoon 300 feet long and 40 feet wide.  Unfortunately the regular berthing of steamers at the pontoon inhibited the free passage of Gill's boats so he built the West Hoe Basin.  1860 the old dock had been filled in.

After suffering the usual delays due to lack of finance, Brunel quickly got to work.  An earthen dam was constructed across the head of the bay, about 200 yards beyond the Millbay Pier, creating an area of 13 acres of water at a depth of 22 feet.  Behind this dam limestone and granite blocks were used to build the walls of the inner basin.  Presumably the limestone came from Mr Gill's own quarry.  In the course of this work the old Union Dock was filled in.  The entrance to the inner basin was 80 feet wide and this was fitted with dock gates so that the inner basin was not affected by the tides.  This work alone was said to have created over 15 acres of wharf space.

An early view of the eastern side of Millbay Docks at Plymouth

Millbay Pier and the Pontoon seen from the western
side of the Plymouth Great Western Docks.
From a postcard.

Within the Inner Basin, informally opened in 1857, part of the earthen dam was used to create Trinity Pier on the eastern side for the benefit of Trinity House, who maintained the Eddystone Lighthouse.  The North Quay ran along the northern shore of the Bay while on the western side a Graving Dock and Shipbuilding Yard were added.  A temporary Lifeboat House and launching slip were built in 1862.  Work started in 1877 on constructing the deep-water West Wharf and at the same time Trinity Pier was enlarged.  The old offices of Messrs H J Waring and Company were about to be demolished in 1881 and part of the ground floor of what had previously been the Pier Hotel was to be used as the Baggage Warehouse.  West Wharf was followed in 1879 by a new Lifeboat Station and launching slip and its southern-most end.

In 1902 the entrance to the Inner Basin was repositioned further west, and new lock gates, hydraulic equipment and a swing bridge were provided.  Trinity Pier was lengthened and widened in 1904 and between 1905 and 1906 Millbay Pier was also extended.  As more transatlantic liners called at Plymouth so the facilities for them increased: the Plymouth Coffee House Limited provided refreshments and Mr Philip Ellis ran a bookstall.  1905 also saw a proposal by the Company to extend the pipes for the hydraulic system right he way around the Docks so that hydraulic capstans can be introduced.  These would be used for the purpose of hauling and shunting the railway wagons and trucks.  At present only the Dock Gates and the 25-ton crane are worked by hydraulic power. 

The Docks saw its highest liner passenger traffic in the year 1930, when 788 liners called, landing 41,130 passengers and 307,912 mailbags.  The number of calls fell back after that to just over 500 in 1935, which was lower than it had been a decade before.  When, in September 1939, War was declared, both the liners and the Docks had more important things to do.  Millbay Docks suffered from bombing during the Second World War, as did the rest of the City.  There were air raids on August 27th 1940, when the tender "Sir John Hawkins" was damaged and on December 15th 1940, when the "Sir Walter Raleigh" was hit injuring eight crew members.

There was a brief return to prosperity after the War.   On June 19th 1945, the Royal Mail Lines' "Drina" made the first of the post-war calls, but the Docks were not really ready for its 25 passengers and 24 mailbags, which had to be landed by the Admiralty paddle-tug "Camel" rather than one of the tenders.  The all-time peak for ocean mails occurred in 1949, when a record 437,295 bags were handled.  After that passenger traffic dwindled and slowly the tenders were disposed of.  The last of the Ocean Special trains ran on May 18th 1962.  Following the closure of the Oranje Lines' service to Canada in the summer of 1963, the "Sir Richard Grenville" made its last excursion on Wednesday September 4th 1963 although it was recalled into service the following month when the Dutch liner "Diemerdyk" became the last liner to call at Plymouth.  She embarked 18 passengers and one car but the "Sir Richard Grenville" returned empty to Millbay to await the official closure on October 31st 1963.

During the 1960s the Pontoon in the Outer Basin was towed a short distance away to be broken up but this proved to be more difficult than expected and its remains were left against the Trinity Pier.  It was replaced by the Princess Royal Pier.

Between 1967 and 1977 the Docks were the base for the ships of the National Environment Research Council, the "John Murray" and later the "Shackleton".

The Graving Dock was filled in during 1970.  In February 1972 the roof canopy that had sheltered passengers at Millbay Pier was taken down.  Although the Trinity and Princess Royal Piers remained in use, Millbay Pier was too exposed to the elements and deteriorated.   The warehouses and buildings on the Pier were demolished in 1988.  The old Pier Hotel followed the same fate in March 1989.  The former Customs House still stands.

New apartments and a marina now adorn the eastern side while the deepwater West Wharf and the was converted in 1973-74 into a terminal for Brittany Ferries' services to Roscoff and Santander.

For information about the goods imported in to the Plymouth Great Western Docks SEE Port of Plymouth Imports.