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Drake's Island- The Guardian of Plymouth

* Thanks to Steve Johnson for the photos, and Chris Bollard and Brian Moseley for a hand with the information.


Drake's Island is a small island that commands the surrounding Sutton Harbour and the mouth of the Tamar River at Plymouth. Because of its position of strategic importance, Drake's Island (formerly known as St.Nicholas's island) has been constantly fortified since the construction of a small fort during the mid-16th century. Ever since the dawn of naval warfare as a major form of military strategy, Drake's Island has been relied upon to protect the Sutton Harbour. There are military forts of all ages to be found on the island, dating from the 16th Century to the Second World War. The heavily fortified island is sadly closed to outside visitors today, though it has been opened to guided tours at intermittent periods during the past few decades. Hopefully the island will be reopened soon.


The small, rugged island is a little over 6 acres in size, and rises to 96 feet above sea level. The earliest reference to the isle appears in 1135 when ownership of the island passed from a rich local family to the Priors of Plympton. At this time the only material feature of the island was a small chapel dedicated to St.Michael at its summit. At some point during the next few hundred years of religious ownership, the chapel became dedicated to St. Nicholas (Patron Saint of Sailors), and the island took its name from St. Nicholas. The chapel was demolished toward the end of the 1500s, and bulwarks were raised in its place. This act signified the island's passage from religious to military ownership. From 1583 onwards the island became known as Drake's Island, as Sir Francis Drake was appointed Governor of the island. Since 1550 the isle has been in constant military use, including a period of eight years from 1660 after the English Civil War, when it was used as a state prison. More fortifications were added during the Napoleonic era, and then the Victorian era. During the Second World War modern structures were used to strengthen the existing forts, and new buildings were raised. The War Department stopped using the island in 1956, and after a seven year period of dormancy, they leased it in 1963 to the Plymouth City Council. For eight years Drake's Island had an official status as a youth training base, until it was leased to the Mayflower Centre Trust in 1971. The Mayflower Centre Trust ran Drake's Island as an Adventure Centre, and opened it to the public in summer months. However, soon the island became dormant again and has been unoccupied since.


The only siginificant historical features of Drake's Island are its foritifications. There is a little wildlife and a limited degree of natural beauty, but the forts are definitely constitute the main historical aspect of Drake's Island. There are many forts and military buildings dating from 1550 to 1945. These include bulwarks and earthworks (comprising a small fort) from the 1500s, English Civil War era relics and remains, Napoleonic era fortifications, a prominent Victorian era gun battery from the 1860s, a large barracks block and military housing structures from the Second World War amongst many other features.


Sadly, Drake's Island is not open to visitors, though apparently there are a few wardens who look after the island. Nobody lives on Drake's Island, though it has a good tourist potential for visitors. The military jetty and boathouse are still apparently in good condition as well. Maybe in the next few years the Plymouth City Council will come to their senses and reopen the island.


Here are some more black-and-white photographs of Drake's Island, courtesy of Steve Johnson, as well as a colour photograph courtesy of the Palmerston Forts Society.


Go Back to Islands of Britain


Steve Johnson's Cyber-Heritage Pages: For Drake's Island Photography
Brian Moseley's Plymouth Data Website: For Drake's Island History and Information
Palmerston Forts Society Website: For Photos of Forts from all around the UK