About Elizabethan House

The Elizabethan House is currently closed for refurbishment. Find out about the very interesting history of the house below, or watch The Spice Box film, based on a performance set in the House that moved audiences across the centuries – immersing them in sounds, smells and tastes of the past.

The development of New Street

Plymouth prospered during Elizabethan times thanks to the exploits of sea captains, merchants, fishermen and privateers – so much so that in 1584, Mayor John Sperkes approved the development of a new street on The Barbican to accommodate the men whose work and livelihoods were based around the harbour.

The first recorded occupant of the Elizabethan House at 32 New Street was a man called William Hele. He purchased the property from a merchant called Richard Brendan in 1631 for £150. During the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries the house had a number of different occupants, most notably around 1746, the London Company of Merchant Ventures who were developing and exploring the fishing grounds of Newfoundland.

Social issues

Black and white print of an ink drawing showing a sketch of a street scene. The buildings are of stone with timber frame windows and gabled roofs.Later, in the latter half of the 19th century, New Street became heavily overcrowded as slums and hovels replaced the privately owned properties of the entrepreneurial classes. By 1850 up to 24 people could be living in one property and diseases such as smallpox, diptheria and scarlet fever were rife. Today, the walls in the garden at the Elizabethan House still show the remains of bricked up fireplaces and windows from servant and tenant dwellings.

In the early part of the 20th century, social issues such as housing and sanitation improvements were firmly on the agenda. In 1919 the Addison Housing Act identified 19 different areas of Plymouth for clearance including the city’s old Elizabethan quarters. Just over 10 years later, the final occupant of the Elizabethan House relinquished his deeds to the City Council for a demolition fee.

Black and white photograph showing a woman wearing a broad rimmed hat and coat, standing in an opened window of a timber framed building.At the same time however, local MPs were calling for certain buildings in the city to be reconditioned and this cause was championed by the Old Plymouth Society. As a result:

“No 32 New Street, which has already been purchased by the Corporation, should when restored, be devoted to the purpose of a Drake or Elizabethan Museum and handed over to the care and charge of the Museum Committee of the Plymouth Corporation……….”
(Elizabethan Plymouth and its Preservation by Sir Philip Pilditch, MP, 1929)

The house today

Today, the Elizabethan House at 32 New Street, The Barbican is a rare surviving example of its time and still retains many of its original features. Its structure and layout are largely unaltered with 7 rooms on 3 different floors, white lime washed plaster walls, bare wooden floors and oak beams which may have been salvaged from a ship and a central newel post which was once a ship’s mast. The house has been built with local materials including limestone, slate and oak and the furniture contained within it reflects the original functions of the different floors (working and cooking on the ground floor, entertaining and dining on the second floor and sleeping and privacy on the top floor).

The kitchen at the house has been revamped and now contains recreated cooking and eating wares, food and furniture. The items on display have been carefully selected using archaeological finds and archival documents. Most notably, evidence from the archaeological excavations at Castle Street and Lambhay Street (1959 to 1969) and an inventory of the estate of Humphry Gayer, a merchant who lived during the same period as the first recorded owner of the house and who probably knew and socialised with him.

Text based on information contained in ‘The development of a reconstructed kitchen’ – a workplace project report by Roland Sloggett.

The documents, ‘Elizabethan Plymouth and its Preservation by Sir Philip Pilditch, MP’ and the inventory of the estate of Humphry Gayer were both sourced from the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.