A Piece of History
A stronghold since the Tudor era
Drakes Island in Plymouth Sound was initially known as St Michael’s from the first building, a 12th Century Chapel. The Island was subsequently known as St Nicholas when the chapel was rededicated in the 13th Century. Drakes Island has a rich history having been a religious centre, refuge, prison and military fortification over the last 900 years.
As the threat from Catholic France and Spain increased the Chapel was demolished and artillery towers, musketry walls and barracks were built in the 1550’s. During the English Civil War (1642-1649) Plymouth declared for Parliament but was isolated and besieged for 4 years. Drakes Island was crucial as it protected the Parliamentarian Navy making covert supply runs in and out of Plymouth before dawn. Although the Parliamentary forces won the War in 1660 King Charles II was restored to the throne. For the next 25 years the Island became a prison, Major-General John Lambert, who tried to prevent the restoration and Colonel Robert Lilburn, one of the signatories of the King Charles 1 death warrant, both died as prisoners on the Island.
The movement of the Naval Dockyard to Devonport in response to the Dutch burning of the British Fleet in the River Medway determined the Islands importance in the defence of the dockyard for the next 250 years.
1780 saw a major reorganisation of the defences. The existing buildings on the top of the Island were demolished and replaced by a gun Battery and Barracks with a guardhouse were built on the current Governors House site. The defences consisted of 23 x 32 pounder guns, 6 x 18 pounder guns and 2 x brass 13 inch mortars.
Drakes Island was a base for testing various Sea Chronometers, prior to Captain Cook’s 1774 circumnavigation of the world and also witnessed the first recorded submarine fatality. A local shipwright and carpenter John Day bet a local gambler Christopher Blake that his wooden sealable diving chamber could descend to a depth of 130ft and stay down for 12 hours before resurfacing. Day’s idea was to attach the chamber to a boat then add ballast to sink the ship. After 12 hours he would release some of the ballast and resurface. The ship sunk as predicted but along with Mr Day was never seen again.
1830 saw the construction of the current Governors House, Barrack and Ablution Blocks. 1860 saw the existing battery in the centre of the Island replaced and the 21 casemates built. Along with the tunnel and underground magazine. 3 new Batteries were built on the top of the Island from 1898 – 1901.
Both World Wars saw some adaptations and updating of the existing defences notably 2 World War II Minefield Control Posts used to electronically detonate mines remotely in the sound. In 1956 the military prepared to leave the Island and contractors removed all armaments and fittings and demolished a lot of the gun positions. From 1963 the War Office leased the Island to the National Trust as a Youth Training Base which passed in 1974 to the Mayflower Trust who surrendered the lease in 1989. The Island has been owned by Rotolok Holdings Limited since 1996.