Millbay has worn many hats over the years – and today the streets look vastly different to how they once did, with further development to come in the near future.
Since Millbay’s former historic docks were built by the iconic engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel back in the 1830’s, the area has undergone tremendous change.
Over the centuries, Millbay really has seen it all – from being used as a Civil War port, to hosting the work of John Smeaton as he built the third Eddystone Lighthouse – which still stands off the coast of Plymouth today.
Millbay docks has welcomed some of the most glamorous ocean liners over the years, along with their wealthy, sometimes celebrity passengers.
The dock was also host to the return of most of the surviving crew of the Titanic – two weeks after the liner sank in the Atlantic in 1912.
Millbay also served as a launching point for many great ocean adventures, none more so than the departure of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic expedition to the Antarctic in 1914.
However, the flight of Millbay through the years has been a somewhat turbulent one at times.
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Wealthy inhabitants of the area began to leave in the 1830’s, in part due to considerable flooding in the area.
The area became a much more working-class part of the city, with plenty of employment opportunities available for labourers and construction workers over the years.
And in World War Two, Millbay suffered significant damage from bombing, and struggled to recover – not helped by a decline in maritime travel, which was another blow for the area.
Following the war, Millbay began to fall into decline, and it was known to be part of Plymouth‘s red light district for many years until recently, when the internet seems to have become the ‘new’ street corner.
Essentially, the red light district was a box behind Union Street. There’s a few back lanes and alleyways, like the cobbled Slate Lane and the strange tunnel that goes under Stonehouse Street.
Steps on the Miller Court industrial estate side were nicknamed “Johnny Steps” thanks to the occasional pile of used and discarded prophylactics.
Now, Millbay is undergoing a massive transformation.
The end of the road in sight
Plymouth’s long-awaited Millbay Boulevard is weeks away from completion, according to Plymouth City Council.
The work is completely transforming what was once a dingy backwater lane into an airy boulevard which will have homes and businesses along it.
And it’s not just on the surface. Beneath the road, underground tanks have been installed as part of a ‘Sustainable Urban Drainage’ system which are capable of holding 240 tonnes of water – equal in volume to seven standard shipping containers. This will help tackle flooding episodes in this part of the city centre particularly when times of high rainfall coincide with high tides.
Above these tanks, will be ‘rain gardens’ – sunken beds planted with coastal grasses and flowering plants arranged beneath an avenue of trees – these will be irrigated using the rain and flood water.
Councillor Mark Lowry, cabinet member for finance and city centre champion said: “This is an extraordinary project both above and below ground. It is about bringing new life into this part of Plymouth and helping to address potential problems that climate change may bring us in the future.
“Before we started we looked at what measures we could instigate now to make life that bit easier later on. I know there will be people saying so what, what’s in it for me. Well, lots! We are opening up this part of the city to new development, new homes and new businesses.
“We are strengthening the link between the city centre and the waterfront – which is again good for the city’s economy. And bit by bit we are taking steady steps to help tackle the consequences of climate change.”
The system has been developed by the Council in partnership with the Environment Agency and South West Water as part of the Water Resilient Cities Interreg Programme.
That’s not all, beneath the ground there is now a District Heating Network with over 600 sq metres of pipework and two thermal boreholes tapping into Plymouth’s warm water aquifer.
It means that when developments do progress, the buildings will be able to tap into low carbon energy. This can be rolled out across the city centre in the future, the council said.
This new lease of life for Millbay has seen more than £120million of a planned £250million invested since 2006, according to millbayplymouth.com.
However, with works still ongoing, and more planned for the future – the streets of Millbay are oozing with aesthetic juxtaposition.
The contrast is evident in many of the streets around Millbay, including Bath Place, which has been a popular spot for street drinkers over the years – since the enforcement of Public Space Protection Orders, introduced in 2017.
Dazzling structures, new pavements and buildings under construction on one hand, and cobbled streets peppered with discarded beer bottles and fly-tipped furniture on the other.
Memories of Millbay
Ken Baker, 73, has lived in Plymouth his whole life – and he remembers playing in Millbay as a young child after bombs had been dropped on much of the city, when he and his friends revelled in exploring the buildings reduced to rubble.
He said he feels “indifferent” about the current development in the area, but noted that Millbay is an up-and-coming area in the city.
Ken said: “Millbay was virtually derelict when we were growing up. Not much of this that you can see here today was here, it was built after the war.
“Everyone wants to live beside the sea or near water, so that’s an attraction in itself.”
Ken added: “There used to be a flour mill over there, and all around here was places like the Rusty Anchor, Devil’s Point – which is still there – and we used to go jumping in the water.
“There was no safety precautions back then, no lifeguards or anything, life was a lot more free – we were lucky.
“Plymouth got blitzed, which in a way was great, because there was very little traffic around, so the bomb sites were our playground.
“We’d go into bombed buildings and find some books or whatever, it was brilliant.
“It’s a good community here. We used to have the Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force, the Marines. They’re virtually all gone now aren’t they?
“When we were kids, at five to four in the afternoon, here, you could hear the dockyard hooter telling the workers it was time to sign off – and all the buses would be lined up outside, taking them all home.
“So yeah, it’s changed a lot. It hasn’t found a new role. People who have never been to Plymouth before come here and say ‘oh wow what a great town, why don’t we know about it?’.”
Ken said he thinks we could do more to advertise Plymouth and its rich history.
“We’ve got so much history we should advertise. Obviously everyone knows about Francis Drake, the Pilgrims and all that, but the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the settlements in New Zealand and Australia, why don’t we make more out of that?” he said.
Martin Smee grew up in Plymouth, and besides a stint in Germany, he has spent most of his life here in the city. He remembers Millbay to be somewhere to avoid when he was growing up.
Looking out across the water from Quadrant Wharf, Martin pointed into the distance to highlight the area he remembers being told to avoid as a kid – due to “hard drinkers, prostitutes, and druggies” on the streets.
Peter told us he’d spent the last eight years living in Germany, and so his knowledge of the development in Millbay is limited, but he recalled his childhood in Plymouth.
He said: “I’ve lived in Plymouth pretty much my whole life. When I was a kid, I wouldn’t come down here as a kid. I’m from Plympton, the other side of town, and this wasn’t ever known as a nice place.
“Here and Union Street were for hard drinkers, prostitutes and druggies, to be honest with you.
“The development seems to have gone really well until a couple of years ago, my son told me.”
Whilst walking around Millbay, you might see posters with ‘Is this your Millbay?’ on them – along with QR codes which take you to a Facebook page of the same name.
The posters are part of a project being undertaken by a group of Architecture students from the University of Plymouth, who are trying to understand what Millbay means to the community and the people who live there.
Sophie James, Georgina Cameron, Corey Sutherland, Dominic Ensor, James Holder and Joanna Ferry form a group of second and third year students hoping to get some engagement from the Millbay community via this project.
Sophie said: “We are a group of architecture students and we created this poster campaign to try and gain an insight into what people value about Millbay as well as the kind of things they would like to improve.
“We have asked people to join the conversation by posting their favourite pictures and memories of the area to try and build up a picture of its place in the community!
“We only displayed the posters at the weekend so have not had a great deal of engagement yet, just a couple of likes to the page.
“Our main aims for the overall project are to create a more people centred proposal for Millbay, reinstating a lost identity to the area, hence our interest in hearing the local people’s voice on the matter.
“We are trying to propose a kind of alternative to what’s currently being proposed. The architectural project is still in its very early stages but we’re excited to begin developing our response.”
One famous Millbay hotel saved, another venue demolished
Plymouth’s famous Grade II listed Duke of Cornwall Hotel has been saved and staff will get their jobs back.
The Victorian building’s owner, Singapore-based The Fragrance Group, has signed a deal with leading hotel management company RBH, which has taken over operations with immediate effect.
The previous general manager, Peter Adams, has been appointed to the same post with the new company and it is intended that, over the coming weeks, a number of other staff from the 52 who were made redundant when the hotel closed in February 2021 will also be offered jobs with RBH as soon as the hotel is permitted to re-open when Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted.
It came after the devastating news earlier this month that the Duke of Cornwall had closed and all of its staff made redundant.
Peter Adams said: “It’s really fantastic news for the hotel and for the city. We received such positive support from the community when the hotel closed – people clearly do have a lot of affection for the hotel.
“The Fragrance Group have been very reactive and this shows their commitment to the hotel as an asset and an operational businesses. We can’t wait to reopen the doors and move forward.”
The Mount Pleasant in Millbay is the latest famous venue to be demolished – after almost 150 years in the city.
The prominent pub was famed for live music and also as meeting point before concerts at The Pavilions arena over the road.
But it has been closed for more than a year – shutting even before the start of the Covid crisis – and is now being knocked down.
The space, between the spectacular Duke of Cornwall Hotel and the revamped 5-11 Building, is likely to be filled with flats and offices.
City council planning chiefs gave the green light to knock-down the boarded-up pub last October.
There were no objections to the loss of the two-storey pub, which is in the Hoe Conservation Area.
The pub dates back to the 19th Century, with records showing a Mount Pleasant Hotel on the Millbay Road site in 1878. It used to be a thriving destination on the Plymouth pub scene.
Original posted at www.plymouthherald.co.uk