Webpage created: April 28, 2021
Webpage updated: April 28, 2021
On this Ordnance Survey map of around 1890
Drake's Circus is erroneously shown between Old Town Gate and
Old Town Street.
A circus is, well, circular. It is round. When roundabouts in roadways were first introduced they were known as "traffic circuses". It has therefore always been assumed that Drake's Circus was the entire block of buildings but in fact that was not the case at all. The name only applied to six shops facing southwards down part of Old Town Street. Hardly a circus!
A similar view to the one above but with the
later addition of the Bovril advert.
In the above photograph that means the two with white windows shades and all those visible on the right. All the remaining shops in the block were in either Old Town Street, to the left, or Tavistock Road, to the right.
Drake Circus looking eastwards straight in to
Up until the Old Town Gate was demolished in 1809 Old Town Street only ran as far as the Gate. Outside it forked left to Saltash and right to Tavistock. Once the Gate and the old Town Wall had gone Plymouth expanded northwards and houses appeared along the Tavistock Road. Of the other roads that were built one was Garden Street. It ran north to south between Ebrington Street and Tavistock Road.
Traffic ran in both directions up the Tavistock Road and this became increasingly congested so the Corporation decided to widen Garden Street and turn it into a separate main road. The whole area was rebuilt and re-opened in 1903 as Drake's Circus, although traffic still ran in both directions up both Old Town Street and Tavistock Road as one-way streets had not been invented then. Both roads were two-way until circa October 1926, when the Borough Council made them one-way as an experiment. This was evidently very successful because they were still one-way streets twenty-five years later. Traffic went out of town up Old Town Street and came in to town down Tavistock Road. At one time it was even possible to come out of Ebrington Street and turn right up Old Town Street towards Tavistock but that opportunity was later thwarted by the installation of an island blocking the way and enabling pedestrians to have a safer crossing from Ebrington Street to Boots the Chemists.
The six shops had so many different occupiers over the decades.
1 - 1920 - Messrs W Stidston's cafe;
2 - 1920 - Messrs W Stidston, bakers and confectioners;
3 - 1920 - Messrs Chapman, outfitters;
4 - 1920 - Messrs Chapman, outfitters;
5 - 1920 - Messrs Hender and Son, fruiterer;
6 - 1920 - Mr J C Hug, bookseller;
Drake Chambers, the offices over the shops, were generally occupied by insurance firms like the Refuge Assurance Company limited, the Caledonian Insurance Company, the Provident Clothing and Supply Company Limited, credit drapers, and the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society, but in 1953 there were also a watchmaker, an engraver, and a jeweller, not to mention Messrs Harding and Sons Limited, house furnishers in temporary post-war accommodation.
To Plymothians the most famous thing about Drake's Circus was that it was the home of the Guinness Clock, and before that, for even older Plymothians, an illuminated Bovril advert.
Demolition of the northern part of Drake's Circus, by the Harvest Home Inn, commenced at the end of 1964. While the new roundabout was under construction traffic for Ebrington Street and Cornwall Street had to use the old part of Tavistock Road to gain access. Finally, from Sunday December 10th 1967 that section of Tavistock Road was closed to traffic so that demolition of the lower part of Drake's Circus could be started.
The southern part of Drake's Circus was demolished in September 1968 and replaced with a new shopping centre on two levels. Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne officially opened it on November 16th 1971. That block has now been replaced as well.
Technically speaking, Drake's Circus was neither a road nor a street. It was certainly a place but is probably best described as a terrace. The eastern side of Drake's Circus was on the western side of Tavistock Road while the western side was on the eastern side of Old Town Street.
Come to that it was not even a circus as it was not, well, circular! It was shaped rather like a teardrop or a tadpole, fat at the bottom, southern, end and thin at the top. It also had nothing whatsoever to do with Sir Francis Drake, being built several centuries after he died.
But whatever its deficiencies, it was and still is
one of Plymouth's best known place-names and is kept alive today by the
Drake Circus Shopping Centre.