England’s dockyards were self-contained communities of highly skilled craftsmen. 

Dockyard life

The earliest dry docks had a wall of mud blocking one end. When a ship was ready to be launched it took 20 men one month of digging to remove the wall so the dock could be filled with water. Launching vessels became easier from 1574, when floodgates were built at one end of the dry dock.

They also had a large mast pond where long lengths of timber, of up to 35 metres long, were soaked before being used to build ships. The wood had to be well seasoned so the planks would not split or shrink in the water.

Storehouses in dockyards were used for masts, rigging and 'cooperage’ (the making barrels in which most supplies were stored). In 1570, privately owned ropeworks were set up in Woolwich and Deptford to supply rope for rigging.

Many dockyards had workshops and houses for Senior Officers and their families, and some had gardens, churches and hospitals.

Building ships

It took approximately 140 men to build a ship, including caulkers, joiners, carpenters, riggers, sailmakers and labourers. Workers were paid a basic rate, which was often supplemented by overtime during wartime. Workers were also entitled to 'chips', pieces of wood less than one metre in length. Fragments of copper and iron were regularly concealed in chips and smuggled out to be sold.

Between the 16th and 19th century, English warships were built from four different kinds of timber, including oak, elm, beech and fir. English oak was used for the 'hull' (the main body of the ship) because it is strong and resistant to damage by water. 

The Master Shipwright oversaw the day-to-day running of the dockyard. He was responsible for getting the supplies and for making sure each ship was carefully constructed. The most famous Master Shipwrights were the Pett family, who worked for the Royal family in Woolwich and Deptford for three generations. The eldest was Peter Pett, appointed Master Shipwright in 1586.

In 1634, his son Phineas oversaw the building of a great new ship, the Sovereign of the Seas which took three years to complete. Peter Pett, son of Phineas, was the third generation. He became Master Shipwright for Woolwich, but was accused of neglect after the Dutch sailed up the River Medway and destroyed several important and expensive vessels in 1667.

The Admiralty were slow to introduce new technology. Engineers like Samuel Bentham tried to persuade them to introduce steam engines in the early 1800s, but it took until 1843 for the Woolwich dockyard to manufacture and repair steam engines.

Using our collections for research

The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time. Find out how to use our collections for research