Quest for 17th century relics at Plymouth’s first navy supply yard

Archaeologists are today beginning a major investigation that could reveal early evidence of Plymouth’s status as an epicentre of global trade.

Experts from the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Archaeology Society will be carrying out excavations on part of the earliest victualling yard for the Royal Navy in Plymouth, sited at Commercial Wharf to the south of the Barbican.

The area was used for nearly 200 years to supply the Navy with bread, biscuits and beef until those operations moved to Royal William Yard in the 19th century.

Conservation work on the quay wall at Commercial Wharf, currently being undertaken by JNE Construction Ltd on behalf of Plymouth City Council, has revealed important 17th century material.

This has included pottery and clay pipes dating to the second half of the 17th century from Italy, Iberia, France, Holland and the Rhineland, as well as English pottery from North Devon and Somerset.

Archaeologists have also found tableware, jars, a candlestick and a strange unglazed shard that was probably part of a Spanish wine amphora or olive oil jar, never before seen in Plymouth.

They hope to uncover more such items during their investigation, with the possibility of also finding earlier items from around the time of the Mayflower’s departure from the city.

University of Plymouth maritime archaeologist Martin Read, chairman of the Plymouth Archaeology Society, will be directing the work with a team based at the Boathouse Café. He said:

“Plymouth has always had a much higher proportion of imported pottery from southern Europe and the Mediterranean than elsewhere. It was probably brought back by fishermen after selling their salted cod, with something like 40% of the ceramics recovered in Plymouth from this time having been imported. This is an exciting opportunity to examine part of an early victualling yard. There are very few of these sites that have not been later redeveloped and built over, so the area is of international importance.”

Plymouth has been used as a Royal Navy base for centuries, but initially had no dedicated facilities for supplying the Navy.

This changed during the Commonwealth when the Lambhay was chosen for the earliest victualling yard in the 1650s. Phoenix Wharf was built at this time, towards the southern end of the present Commercial Wharf, while at the northern end of the wharf, the quay had been built by 1665.

After the opening of the Dockyard in 1693, the Lambhay was considered in the wrong place to easily supply the Navy and was eventually moved to the more convenient Royal William Yard in the 1830s.

The old yard was then sold for commercial uses, including the making of biscuits and an embarkation depot, although the buildings were retained. The buildings on the wharf were demolished in the 1930s when the road behind was widened during the building of Madiera Road around the Citadel.

Royal William Yard

Royal William Yard

Plymouth Archaeology Society: for marine to moor and urban archaeology

Archaeology draws people from diverse disciplines and of varied interests, which is reflected in our membership. Our core functions are to offer a series of lectures in the winter months and local guided walks in the summer. The winter lectures cover topical, British, marine and international work. Summer walks are similarly varied and exploit the range of sites which are within easy reach. In addition, there may be an organised visit to a site under excavation. There are occasional opportunities, often at short notice, to participate in local digs.

Lectures and walks are held on the first Monday of each month except in January when we hold our AGM and members present their own research.

Plymouth, a city steeped in maritime history

Find out how Plymouth played a role in history from 1588 until the present day.

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