Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 12, 2018
Webpage updated: October 15, 2020




The impressive Royal William Victualling Yard, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was designed by Sir John Rennie (1794-1874) for use by the Admiralty as a victualling depot for the Royal Navy.  It replaced the Naval Victualling Office on the Barbican at Plymouth. 

It extends to about 16 acres, of which 6 were recovered from the sea by levelling the remainder of the site. 

On June 3rd 1824, in the reign of King George IV, the Royal Assent was given to an Act of Parliament authorising the purchase of land at Cremill Point for and the supply of water to the new Yard.

Work started in 1826 and in the following year the Duke of Clarence laid the coping stone of the sea wall.  This was laid 11 feet under water by means of a cast-iron diving bell only 6ft x 4ft. 

In the course of its construction it is estimated that 300,000 tons of rock were displaced.  The works were executed by the contractor Hugh McIntosh under the superintendence of Sir John Rennie and Mr Philip Richards (who was paid 400 per year and given a house) and cost about 2 million.

The Yard was completed in 1835, by when the Duke of Clarence had succeeded to the Throne as King William IV and as a result of an Admiralty Order dated 3 December 1833 it was named the Royal William Victualling Yard after King William IV, the last Lord High Admiral. 

The gateway of the Royal William Yard from outside

The granite entrance gateway in Cremyll Street is in the Greco-Roman style.  Over it there is a 13 feet 9 inch high statue of the King William IV in Portland stone, surrounded by carvings illustrating the trades that flourished inside the walls -- butchers, bakers and coopers.   Note also the carved ox heads and crossed fouled anchors, both symbols of the Naval Victualling Board.

The gateway of the Royal William Yard from inside

There is a separate ceremonial access from the sea at the Clarence Steps, guarded by a pair of cast iron gates embellished with crossed fouled anchors.  There is also a tunnel entrance direct from Firestone Bay. 

There is a tramway to facilitate the movement of heavy stores and an extensive fresh water reservoir, served by Plymouth Corporation.

To the left of the entrance is the police house, which used to be manned by an Inspector, three Sergeants and twelve Constables, suggesting that a Sergeant and four Constables each covered three 8-hour shifts per day.  There is also a Porter's Lodge and Guard House.

To the right of the entrance is the slaughter house.  Although completed in 1831, it was not used for its purpose for another 28 years.  Between 70 and 80 head of cattle could be slaughtered simultaneously.   They would have been driven down through Stonehouse and in through the gateway to the right of the main entrance, inside which there were "cattle lairs". It ceased to be used as a slaughterhouse in 1885.

Both the slaughter house and police house were given special architectural treatment by Rennie to give a good impression to visitors.

The general facing of the remaining buildings is of wrought limestone.  But the plinth throughout and the dressings, cornices and architraves are of granite.  The door and window frames are cast iron, as are the internal columns of the warehouses and the girders and lintels of the cooperage.  Several of the stores are roofed with iron. 

Up the road to the left were the Officers' Residences.  The one furthest away, No. 1, was the home of the Yard Superintendent and the one nearest the main roadway, No. 2, was for the Chief Clerk.  Beyond the residences is the entrance to the tunnel through to Firestone Bay, originally designed for allowing light provisions to be taken out to ships in the Sound when the ebb tides made access to the Basin difficult.

The building facing the flagstaff on the right of the entrance was the Mills and Bakery, brought into use in 1843, where two 40hp steam engines drove 27 millstones capable of grinding 100 bushels of corn every hour, or 270,000 lbs (122,500 kilos) every week.  It also housed 12 conveyor ovens.  It is thought this was never used to full capacity.  Baking ceased in 1925.  There was a serious fire in this building in 1960.

To the west of the flagstaff, the long thin building was the new cooperage, built in 1899 after the closure of the old cooperage building when the Victualling Board reduced their requirements for barrels.

Next on the right comes the Basin, almost square at 250 feet by 200 feet.  It was designed for deep-water hoys and barges and to overcome the problems for sea access that had been experience at the previous victualling depot near the Barbican.  The swivel bridge over the entrance to the tidal basin was constructed by the Horseley Iron Company and added as an afterthought to improve circulation of traffic around the Yard.

Overlooking the Basin is the Melville Block, named after Lord Melville, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1827.  Despite its grand design, it was a general storehouse and also served as the administration block.  The entrance is surmounted by a clock and bell tower.  The buildings enclose Melville Square.

The clock was made in 1832 by Mr Vulliamy, of Pall Mall, London.  In 1850-51 it was completely cleaned by Mr Lancaster, of Queen Street, Devonport.  It was then said to comprise 1,420 distinct portions of brass, iron and steel, 565 screws, four independent dials, three superior bells, two weights of seven hundredweight each and and one of one hundredweight.  The pendulum was fourteen feet in length upon which there was an iron ball weighing two hundredweight, one quarter, six pounds and six ounces.  Each vibration occupied two seconds.  In 1893 it was stated that it vibrated once in every two seconds in an arc from 3 to 3 30 from the zero point of rest.

The next building on the right, after the Basin, is the unused Brewhouse, capable of producing 30,000 gallons (137,000 litres) of beer per day.  The beer ration ceased in 1831, before the Yard was opened, after which the Brewhouse only produced a small quantity for the Naval Hospital and the Royal Marine Infirmary.  Although the building lay empty for a long time, it did eventually find a use as a slaughterhouse in 1885, a store for vegetables, meat and rum in 1891, and an armaments workshop in 1936 until becoming a submarine torpedo workshop in 1971.  In 1972 it finally became the headquarters of the No. 2 Raiding Squadron of the Royal Marines.

On the landward side of the Brewhouse is the old Cooperage.  This was designed to house the 100 or so skilled coopers who manufactured barrels and kegs for shipping biscuits, salt, meat, beer, spirits, fresh water and gunpowder.  Slowly the Royal Navy found its need for barrels and kegs declining  until in 1890 there were only 12 coopers employed.  These were moved to the new cooperage near the flagstaff and this building was taken over in 1891 by the Naval Ordnance Department as an Ammunition Process Workshop.

At that time the lower floor was used to store such things as sponges, rammers and carriages, while the first floor was used for the armoury, which contained some 9,000 rifles, plus pistols cutlasses, boarding pikes, machine guns and other quick-firing weapons.  On the top floor was a miscellany of useful stores.   Outside was a shot yard, stacked high with about 5,000 tons of heavy shot.

The final building in the Yard, commanding the best view across the Hamoaze, is the Clarence or Long Store, named after the Duke of Clarence who of course became King William IV.  This was used over the years to store a wide variety of items: spirits, porter, vinegar, and spares for small arms and other weapons.  The building is noted for its fine cast iron columns supporting the massive timber floor beams.  Nearby are the Clarence Steps referred to earlier.

It is said that at one time about 250 men were employed in the Yard, as well as officers and a superintendent.

The Yard started to become run-down from 1970 onwards, when the Royal Navy's entitlement to a tot of rum ended.  In July 1985 the then Minister of Defence, Michael Heseltine, announced the closure of the Yard because it was no longer seen as appropriate to use a scheduled ancient monument for the storage of Naval equipment.  The Royal William Victualling Yard finally closed on August 26th 1992. 

On April 1st 1993 the Yard was taken over by the Plymouth Development Corporation (PDC) along with two other important sites at Mount Wise and Mount Batten.  The PDC had extensive plans for spending 45 million of Government money on regeneration and redevelopment.  When the Development Corporation ceased to exist on March 31st 1998, the responsibility for the site devolved to the South West of England Regional Development Agency.

In August 1997 there was a 60 million plan by MEPC to turn the Yard into a massive factory shopping outlet.  This was followed by a plan by Courtleigh Property Holding Ltd for a 100 million development that would have included a four-star hotel, museum, shops and other businesses.

A 10 million plan was revealed on December 5th 2000 for converting the Grade 1 listed Mills and Bakery building into a restaurant, wine bar, shops, offices and luxury apartments.  The proposal came from the Phoenix Trust, an organisation set up by HRH the Prince Charles to help breathe new life into historic buildings.  Detailed plans were drawn up by Mr Peter Sutton of the Totnes, Devon, firm of architects Harrison Sutton Partnership.  At the same time, Manchester-based Urban Splash were proposing to convert the Clarence and Brewhouse buildings into 91 apartments, shops, waterfront restaurant and an exhibition centre or museum, while Enterprise PLC, based in Preston, were proposing to convert the New Cooperage and Slaughter House at the entrance to the Yard into offices, restaurant, and other communal facilities.