About the Merchant’s House

From Elizabethan privateers to four mini museums in one, the Merchant's House has an interesting history.

Merchants and mayors

Photograph showing the front of the Merchant's House showing timber windows and granite door frame.The first recorded owner of the Merchant’s House was William Parker, an Elizabethan privateer and merchant. He was Mayor of Plymouth from 1601 to 1602 and we know that he was certainly living in the house in 1608.

The massive limestone walls that form the south, west and part of the north sides of the building contain clues which suggest that they were built in the early part of the 16th century. However, the architectural details of the main granite door frames and the finely moulded timber partitions and windows are more typical of the early 17th century. It seems likely that Parker modernised an earlier building to create most of what survives today.

Owners and occupiers

The house has passed through many hands since Elizabeth I’s time including the heirs of William Parker (occupied the house from 1617 to 1632); Abraham Rowe, a merchant (occupied the house from 1632 to 1651) and Justinian Peard, merchant and Mayor of Plymouth from 1644 to 1645 and 1656 to 1657 (occupied the house from 1651 to 1658). From 1678 to 1707 it was owned by members of the Beele family and from 1708 to 1807 it was owned by members of the Martyn family. William Symons, Mayor of Plymouth from 1668 to 1669, 1680 to 1681 and 1688 to 1689 was living in the house in 1680.

In 1807 the house was bought by Thomas Holmes, a carpenter. A new house was built on the rear of premises fronting onto Finewell Street. The front house, looking out onto St Andrew Street was rented out as a shop and lodging house.

Black and white photograph of a street view looking towards building with tudor style gabled roof and timber frame windows. There is a car parked in front.

More recently, the House has been used as a taxi office and was rescued from decay by Plymouth City Council in 1970. With assistance from the Department of the Environment, many of the original features were kept and made good. Two steel joists, fire precautions and some modern partitions were also added. Work was completed in 1976 and the house was opened as a branch museum, showing different aspects of Plymouth life, in 1977.

The house today

Today, the Merchant’s House is the largest and finest surviving example of a 16th/early 17th century residence in Plymouth. The house is divided into seven rooms, each one with its own central theme and the displays examine aspects of Plymouth’s past history, from transport and trade to the effects of the Second World War.
The social history of a bygone age is revealed with a contrast between the rich and poor, whilst the Victorian school room reflects the growth of mass education in the last century.