By Vivien Dean
By Vivien Dean
Question: What connects a gibbet, a ha’penny and a lighthouse?Answer: Stonehouse Creek
Clearly, if not very accurately, shown on sixteenth century maps, the lower reaches of the creek led into the Tamar where it widened into the Hamoaze, offering ships calmer waters than Plymouth Sound and a greater draught than Cattewater.
The upper part curved east towards what was then the little town at the mouth of the Plym, narrowing as it went. Here was an obvious crossing point; the Romans are thought to have built in stone here, hence ‘Stonehouse’, shown on these early maps as an independent township.
By the time of Henry VIII, fortification of the complicated coastline formed by the confluence of the Lynher, Tamar and Plym rivers was under way. By the end of the seventeenth century the Citadel had been built and the ‘King’s Dock’ on the Hamoaze employed 500 men, building and repairing warships.
Some shipwrights could earn as much as sixpence an hour and the opportunities for employment in the dockyard meant that the local communities grew.
Stonehouse Creek came in very handy for steeping the ‘tinkies’ - oak timbers which, chained together, made a slippery pathway across for the intrepid.
The more usual way to access the Hamoaze from Plymouth involved crossing the creek either by rope ferry or by the Mill Bridge, negotiating narrow lanes ‘not safe after dusk’ on a horse ‘familiar with the local terrain’ The way was dismal and dangerous; people travelled in groups and pistols were packed!
Once the Royal Naval Hospital on the south side of the creek was completed in 1762, easy access between East Stonehouse and Dock became a matter of urgency.
John Smeaton, of Eddystone Lighthouse fame, was selected to design Stonehouse Bridge. The Turnpike Act of 1760 began the transformation of England’s roads. The bridge opened in 1773. Lord Edgecumbe and Sir John St. Aubyn, landowners on the two sides of the creek, obtained an Act of Parliament empowering them to demand tolls on the bridge. They made a good profit: £2,000 a year by 1790.
Pedestrians paid a halfpenny – hence the name ‘Ha’penny Bridge, as the locals called it, even after it became toll-free in 1924.
Many a carriage laden with ladies in their finery and gallant naval officers must have travelled to ‘The Longroom’ at Stonehouse, which a guide of 1796 described as ‘the place to which all genteel company from Dock and Plymouth resort during the summer for assemblies’.
Gentlemen were requested not to wear swords, but swords and pistols were still essential for travel to protect criminals.John Richards and William Smith were hanged for the murder of a Dock Yard clerk in the dark lane near Stoke Church. Their corpses were not passed to the surgeons for dissection as was customary, but ‘suspended between Heaven and Earth as they were fit for neither’.
It took seven years for the bodies to disintegrate and reports described the sight as being ‘to the terror and disgust of many’ and that the rotting corpses ‘loaded the air with putrefaction’.
The stump of the gibbet was used for a while for a mooring and an entrepreneurially minded carpenter turned the useable wood into snuff boxes which he sold as macabre souvenirs.Counterfeiting was just one of the issues be-devilling the area in the early 1800s. Watchmen had to contend with arson, burglary, highway robbery, assault, cattle theft and wanton damage, as well as drunkenness and debauchery.
One man murdered his wife then shot himself – he was buried without service at Deadlake, Stonehouse Creek, and his spirit was said to have appeared as an eerie glow in the air at dead of night for years afterwards.
There may have been a methane-related scientific explanation for this phosphorescence, for the creek was notoriously malodorous. This made work to raise the bridge and lower Devonport Hill, so that a public hackney service could run between Plymouth and Devonport, unpleasant and exhausting.
The park was named in honour of the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The work fell behind schedule and did not open to the public until 1902.
The park was described as ‘the first park of its kind in this part of the country for the people of the area to use for their leisure activities’.
Harry Houdini visited in 1909 and jumped from Halfpenny Bridge to perform demonstration of escapology.
In 1972 the remainder of the Creek was filled in. Many people who live or work in the modern day area around Stonehouse Creek are probably blissfully unaware of its chequered history.
Fleming, G., Plymouth: A Pictorial History, Chichester, Phillimore & Co, 1995.
Japes, D. William Payne: A Plymouth Experience, Exeter, Japes, 1992.
Richardson, A., Plymouth, Stonehouse & Devonport, The Town Planning Review, April 1917, Vol 7 (2) pp.124-129.
Robinson, C. A History of Devonport, Plymouth, Pen & Ink Publishing, 2010.
Stuart, E., Lost Landscapes of Plymouth, Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1991.