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We are not alone - the name of Plymouth is known worldwide

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 27, 2013

Comments (0) Old Plymouth Society member Neill Mitchell offers some intriguing insights to the cultural and potential promotional links between Plymouth and its many cousins across the world.

Between 1913 and 1914 there was considerable tension within the three Devonshire coastal towns of Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse. The cause of the hullabaloo was a unilateral plan by Plymouth – then Devonport's geographically smaller neighbour – to merge the three towns.

1 Plymouth, California2 Plymouth, Connecticut3 Plymouth, Florida4 Plymouth, Illinois 5 Plymouth, Indiana6 Plymouth, Iowa7 Plymouth, Kansas8 Plymouth, Kentucky9 Plymouth, Maine10 Plymouth, Massachusetts 11 Plymouth, Michigan12 Plymouth, Minnesota13 Plymouth, Nebraska14 Plymouth, New Hampshire15 Plymouth, New York16 Plymouth, North Carolina17 Plymouth, North Dakota18 Plymouth, Ohio19 Plymouth, Oklahoma20 Plymouth, Pennsylvania21 Plymouth, Utah22 Plymouth, Vermont23 Plymouth, Virginia24 Plymouth, Wisconsin

The idea for such a merger was not new – it had been discussed by local merchants and traders as far back as October 1814.

But now, despite petitions, court actions and opposition raised in Parliament, the merger did, indeed, proceed.

However, the acrimony which it engendered was quickly neutralised by the national fervour of patriotism and unity prompted by the onset of the First World War.

Had the rumpus lingered on unabated, it is reasonable to surmise that the newly unified borough might , as a compromise, have been re-named "Tamarmouth" – the greater River Tamar being significantly more of an integral geographical feature of the combined conurbation than that of the River Plym to the East.

Alternatively, as the formerly prosperous and fiercely independent town of Devonport had been considerably larger than Plymouth at the time of the merger, the subsequent grant of city status in 1928 might conceivably have reverted to the "City of Devonport" (with "Plymouth" thence consigned to being one of the new city's eastern districts). Naming as the "City of Devonport" would certainly have carried with it deservedly strong messages of regional and international maritime and industrial importance, as Devon's foremost Sea Port and the South West Region's Atlantic Gateway.

But the inevitable weight of heritage, seniority in antiquity and population growth ultimately determined that the enlarged borough (and city) would be called "Plymouth".

Today, there are more than 50 settlements around the world bearing the name Plymouth. It is a name which for centuries has been associated with exploration and discovery, with bold new beginnings projected across broad global horizons, with sentiment and reassuring feel-good links and – in some instances – with direct kindred outreach from "home".

There is a common misconception that the earliest settlement overseas known to have adopted the name of Plymouth (located in today's US State of Massachusetts, with a population of 56,468) was attributable to the landing there in 1620 by the 102 puritan Pilgrim Fathers from The Mayflower. Not so, for the explorer Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) had earlier visited and mapped the area in 1614. Smith himself apparently named the surrounding regional territory "New England", but invited King James I to select names for the embryo coastal settlements and plantations emerging there. In the case of the former native American village of "Accomack" the King chose to re-name it "New Plimouth", this being some six years before the coincidental and unplanned arrival of The Mayflower.

Within a generation, the fears of the native American tribes began to materialise as European settlement and land enclosures in New England spread inexorably inland from the modest confines of the Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, MA). Today's State University town of Plymouth, New Hampshire (pop 6990) displaced the Abenaki Tribe (whose village was burned to the ground by British Captain Thomas Baker in 1712) and it was incorporated in 1763. This was followed by incorporation in 1785 of Plymouth, Connecticut (population today 12,243 and located not far from CT's familiarly-named neighbours Bristol, Park Street, and Torrington). Both of these adopted their Plymouth names directly from Plymouth MA. However, although there are also Plymouths in the nearby New England States of Vermont and Maine, Maine's settlement and early governance was driven entirely separately from this side of the Atlantic by two families from Plymouth, England – the Pophams and the Gorges (as impressively commemorated in St Budeaux Parish Church here in Devon).

Of course, the greatest medium for mass proliferation of the Plymouth "brand" throughout the United States was distribution of the "Plymouth" automobiles, successive models of which were manufactured between the years 1928-2001. Over those years, perhaps some 15 million or more vehicles rolled off the production lines, collectively carrying the name of "Plymouth" to every corner of the United States and exported around the world.

Ironically, despite production being based not far from the town of Plymouth in the State of Michigan and their bonnet (hood) logo badges featuring a stern view of "The Mayflower", these direct connections were not in fact the reason for the company's original branding. Instead, it had been the positive association in the US agricultural industry with a product renowned for its durability and multiple use – Plymouth Binder Twine. But, where was this popular twine produced? Yes, you've guessed it, at the mighty Plymouth Cordage Company in Plymouth Massachusetts, one time largest manufacturer of rope and twine in the World (1824-1964). To a lesser extent, other Plymouth branded products continue to be distributed across the USA today, most notably Plymouth (UK) Gin.

Plymouths in the USA come in all shapes and sizes, the smallest seemingly being in North Dakota with a population of just 71. But over the years not everyone has been entirely enthused by having the name of "Plymouth". Just as here there still remains lingering resentment in Devonport at the manner in which their once proud and prosperous town was subsumed into the city of Plymouth, likewise, in the USA, the townsfolk of the former Dakota tribal settlement of Medicine Lake took considerable umbrage at being told in 1857, by the Hennepin County Commissioners of the Minnesota Territory, that their town would henceforth be called "Plymouth". Town meetings were held in 1858, at which it was agreed that the former name of Medicine Lake should continue, but for reasons seemingly no longer known "Plymouth" prevailed. Today, grown to become the chartered city of Plymouth, some 15 miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it appears to be the largest of the 24 Plymouths in the USA – having a population of 70,576 and rated by the US Money Magazine, in 2008, as "America's best place to live". A few months ago, the president of a prominent historical society based in Washington DC, visited our Plymouth and was impressed by its global outreach. So much so that, once home, the lady concerned has taken an ongoing interest in Plymouth's links across the USA. As she delightfully observed in a recent email: in the US, "Plymouth is everywhere!"

Yet, whilst it is understandable that Plymouth England should view its heritage as being inextricably entwined with that of the US Plymouths, and Massachusetts above all other (indeed the two are formally "twinned"), in reality the links are more the product of accident and happy coincidence than of substance. None of the Pilgrim Fathers were from Plymouth and the Mayflower's brief stop-over in the port was only a contingency occasioned by the un-seaworthiness of its accompanying vessel, the Speedwell.

By contrast, in terms of focussed merchant venturing, entrepreneurship and emigration, the closest kindred cousin to "our" Plymouth has to be "New Plymouth", which nestles in the shadow of the mighty Mount Egmont Volcano on the North Island of New Zealand (urban population today 53,000). A quick look at the latter's town map almost tells the story for us, as the names in the oldest quarter include the likes of Buller, Bulteel, Courtenay, Devon, Eliott, Molesworth, Powderham, St Aubyn, Tavistock, Trelawny, Vivian, Woollcombe etc.

The establishment of New Plymouth (NZ) was rapid by any standards. The earlier formation of the New Zealand Company had initially led to its founder, Edward GWakefield, and a group of 35 pathfinder emigrants setting sail from Sutton Harbour on board the 382-ton fast barque "Tory" on May 12, 1839 (a journey under sail and around the Cape of Good Hope of some 4-5 months). This event is marked at our end by a massive granite paving slab upon which visitors to the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth will often stand, unaware of the reason for the simple cut inscription "TORY".

A year later, in 1840, the (new) Plymouth Company was established back here in Plymouth by the prominent local Victorian capitalists Thomas Woollcombe (managing director), the Earl of Devon (1st Governor), Thomas Gill, Edward St Aubyn and others. The purpose being to develop a new settlement specifically for people emigrating from the Westcountry to a site on the coast of NZ's North Island, where there appeared to be a then uninhabited former Maori settlement. Although almost immediately hit by the banking crisis of April 1841, the Plymouth Company had of necessity to merge with the earlier New Zealand Company but its purpose continued as envisaged.

By 1852, the name of "New Plymouth" had been extended to embrace the surrounding NZ province in addition to the town itself. Conflict with the returning native Maori population thence led, in the 1860s, to New Plymouth reflecting the militaristic history of its English mother in becoming a fortified garrison town.

Although observed in 1876 as being "the dullest hole in the Colony" (for lack of things to do), New Plymouth today offers a very high quality of life including being labelled as a "model community" for walking and cycling in recognition by the New Zealand Government of its positive attitude to cyclists and pedestrians. Its people also remain mindful of their Plymothian heritage, as exemplified a few years ago by their enthusiasm to host a "Plymouths of the World" gathering and convention at home in New Zealand. Sadly, this intriguing initiative failed for lack of adequate sponsorship. But, perhaps our City of Plymouth might yet see value in reviving the idea as part of the "Mayflower 400" celebrations in the year 2020?

Obviously, whilst it is both a cultural joy and a promotional asset for "our" Plymouth to celebrate the remarkable outreach of its name, this has to be tinged with sadness at the fate of the one-time Capital of the Leeward Island of Montserrat – the port City of Plymouth (population circa 6,000). This once pretty Georgian town was engulfed by the lava flows from the pyroclastic volcanic eruption in the Island's Soufriere Hills in 1997 with 19 deaths, resulting in its evacuation and total abandonment. The southern half of the island was then declared an exclusion zone. It is certainly sobering to view the images on the internet of Plymouth Montserrat after the event, with the Cathedral spire and pediments of former government buildings etc, even the top of a red telephone box, just protruding above the ugly grey solidified lava field.

Well, today, "Plymouth" surely has the potential for recognition as a global brand. It is ubiquitous across the USA with direct kinship links to New Zealand and a wealth of other associations elsewhere. A name built upon maritime exploration, wars, trade, inward investment and in present times transformation from a past dockyard and garrison port to a dynamic international university city – Britain's "Ocean City".

There being "Plymouths" located in at least 24 of the USA's 50 States, how pleasing it would be if we are soon able to welcome to "our" Plymouth the new US Ambassador to the UK – Harvard history graduate Matthew W Barzun, whose recently stated wish to get to know the regions of the UK could hardly be more pertinent, seeing as how he grew up 56 miles from Plymouth MA, attended school 42 miles from Plymouth NH and graduated from Harvard just 43.9 miles from Plymouth MA !

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