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A colourful legacy captures city life over two decades

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 17, 2012

  • Chris Robinson's book Plymouth in the Fifties and Sixties, below, includes Royal Parade without the Theatre Royal, above, and the Tamar River without the road bridge, left. The bridge opened in 1961 and the theatre in 1982

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Plymouth historian and artist Chris Robinson has found plenty of fascinating material in his continuing series of books chronicling the changing face of the city down the years.

His latest volume, published this week, is Plymouth in the Fifties and Sixties, which picks up where the previous volume – Plymouth in the Forties and Fifties – left off.

It begins around 1956-57, by which time much of the post-war rebuilding of the centre of the city had been completed, but there was still plenty of work ongoing around the perimeter. There was also the important matter of reconstructing St Andrew's Church and the Guildhall.

This book looks at all those areas; around Western Approach, Cobourg Street, Charles Street, Exeter Street and Royal Parade.

It was in the late Fifties that the impressive architectural punctuation mark, the National Provincial Bank, appeared at the eastern end of Royal Parade, and that the Drake Cinema, the Pannier Market and the Co-operative House, were built or completed at the other end. They were followed, in the early Sixties, by the city's first really tall buildings – the Civic Centre, the new office accommodation at North Road Station and the three tower blocks at Devonport.

The early Sixties also saw Plymouth bid a fond farewell to a number of much-loved blitz survivors, among them the original Drake Circus with the Guinness Clock, the Harvest Home pub and the Odeon (formerly the Regent) cinema – where Bill Haley came to play for his doting fans in February 1957.

Central Park was a scene of a great deal of activity throughout the Sixties as Plymouth Zoo was opened just behind the Barn Park end of Argyle's ground, and the city's first indoor pool was built near the Milehouse entrance to the park. The pools at Mount Wise and at Tinside were still hugely popular, though, and regularly attracted great crowds.

The biggest crowd of the decade, however, was on the Hoe on May 28, 1967, to witness the return of lone yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester as he completed the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world. It was a memorable occasion and well over 100,000 people watched from one vantage point or another around the Sound, at a time when the city's population was around 250,000.

The city had expanded in April of that year to include Plympton and Plymstock. Where once there had been a number of towns and villages in this area, now they were all subsumed under the Plymouth banner, and, as if to add insult to injury, the Sixties also saw Plympton and Plymstock, and Devonport, Keyham, Oreston and Turnchapel, all lose their railway stations as Dr Beeching's axe made major cuts in the provision of local and national railway services.

There was not a lot of choice in the world of radio and television either. The BBC expanded its wireless transmissions in 1967, when, out of the old Light Programme, Home Service, and Third Programme, they fashioned Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. This was mainly to counteract the influence of pop pirate stations, like Radio London and Radio Caroline.

A month or two earlier in 1967 also saw the nation's third of only three TV channels, BBC 2, become the first station in Europe to broadcast regularly in colour. Not that it affected too many people at first, especially if they were tied into a black and white rental agreement.

Among the first stories the TV stations would have covered were the last journey of the Saltash Ferry and the first crossing of the Tamar Road Bridge at the end of October 1961. The flags were out on both sides of the Tamar as the new crossing meant an end to the hours of queuing that motorists had had to deal with at various times of the year, and the lack of any sort of service in the small hours of the morning.

The local road infrastructure received plenty of attention throughout the Fifties and Sixties, particularly in the wake of the closure of so many rail routes. There was an improvement to the access into the South Hams via the new bridge over the Laira, which was also opened in 1961.

There were improvements to the northern route in and out of the city with the construction of the Crownhill by-pass towards the end of the Sixties and numerous other modifications here and there as the A38 was upgraded to rival the previous main artery.

These were heady times: the "modern" shopping centre was more or less completed and the old quarter of Plymouth, the area we now know generally as the Barbican, was saved from almost total destruction by the timely intervention of a group of men who came to call themselves the Plymouth Barbican Association (now Trust).

It is thanks almost entirely to that trust that Chris Robinson was able to include so many images in his book, because in 2007 – to celebrate its 50th anniversary – the directors of the trust decided to found and fund the South West Image Bank. Without it thousands, millions even, of negatives and photographic images might have been lost forever.

Alas, we do not know the names of some of the photographers who took the many wonderful colour images, but it is a great legacy to find pictures in glorious colour for an era that, for the most part, was recorded in black and white.

Plymouth in the Fifties and Sixties (£16.95) can be bought in Plymouth at Waterstones, Smiths, Mannamead News, University Bookseller and Peverell Post Office, and at The Book Shelf, Saltash. You can also order copies online at www.chrisrobinson.co.uk. Chris's books will be available at the Christmas Market in Plymouth city centre.

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