The Royal Dockyards of Deptford and Woolwich

Royal George at DeptfordRoyal George at Deptford showing the launch of HMS Cambridge by John Cleveley the Elder, 1757. Repro ID: BHC3602 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonLondon was a port as long ago as 55 BC when the Romans landed in Britain. The first dock was constructed during the reign of King Alfred the Great in the 9th century.

Which was the first Royal dockyard?

The first Royal dockyard was built by Henry VII at Portsmouth. Henry wanted large ships which could carry exported goods like woollen cloth for trade with the continent and further afield. Portsmouth was well placed for crossing the English Channel so the first dockyard was built there in 1496.

Why were the dockyards built in Woolwich and Deptford?

Henry VIII had argued with the Pope over obtaining a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This meant that there was a threat of war from England's Catholic neighbours, France and Spain. Portsmouth was a long way from the Armouries in the Tower of London, where all ships were equipped with cannon and artillery. To make the building of warships more convenient, Henry decided to build two dockyards on the Thames in 1513. These would be close to London where it was easier to get arms, supplies for building the ships and a ready labour force. Henry chose Woolwich and Deptford as his sites as they were also conveniently near his Palace at Greenwich, which meant that he could watch the shipbuilding in progress. He is known to have enjoyed banquets on board ships before they set sail.

Who ran the dockyards?

The Navy Board was established by Henry VIII and it was responsible for running the dockyards and for the repair and building of all naval warships. During the reign of Charles II, Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, held the position of Clerk of the Acts and later Secretary to the Navy Board. He was able and efficient and showed concern at the poor quality of many of the stores and food supplies, due to much corruption. He did his best to improve matters.

What is needed in a dockyard?

HMS Buckingham on the stocks at DeptfordHMS Buckingham on the stocks at Deptford, by John Cleverley the Elder, 1751. Repro ID: BHC3762 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonAs well as dry docks for building ships, and wet docks for fitting them out, all dockyards had a large mast pond where long lengths of timber (up to 35 metres long) were soaked before being used to build ships. The wood had to be well seasoned so that the planks would not split or shrink in the water. The earliest dry docks had a wall of mud blocking one end. When a ship was ready to be launched it took twenty men one month of digging to remove the wall so that the dock could fill with water. This performance was repeated for every launch. Launching the vessels became much easier after flood gates were built at one end of the dry dock in 1574.

Storehouses were needed for masts, rigging and 'cooperage' (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. There were also workshops and houses for the Senior Officers and their families. Some dockyards even had gardens, churches and hospitals. In fact, each dockyard was a self-contained community of highly skilled craftsmen.

What were the ships made of?

A sixth rate on the stocks, by John Cleverley the ElderA sixth rate on the stocks, by John Cleverley the Elder. Repro ID: BHC1045 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonThe English man o' war used four different kinds of timber: oak, elm, beech and fir. English oak was used for the 'hull' (the main body of the ship) as it is strong and resistant to damage by water. Some shipwrights even specified 'good sound Sussex oak'! Not surprisingly there was soon a serious shortage of timber. During the early 1800s, some ships, such as the Cornwallis were built in India of teak, a strong light hardwood grown there.

Who built the ships?

It took approximately 140 men to build a ship. Caulkers, joiners, carpenters, riggers, sailmakers and labourers were all paid a basic rate, often supplemented by overtime during busy periods such as wartime. The workers were entitled to 'chips' – pieces of wood less than one metre in length. Often small pieces of copper or iron were concealed in the chips and smuggled out to be sold.

Who were the Master Shipwrights?

Peter Pett and the Sovereign of the SeasPeter Pett and the Sovereign of the Seas by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1645–50. Repro ID: BHC2949 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird CollectionThe Master Shipwright oversaw all the day-to-day running of the dockyard. He was responsible for getting the supplies and for making sure that the ships were being 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 1647.

How did the Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich adapt to change?

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 was 1843 before Woolwich dockyard was able to manufacture and repair steam engines.

What happened to the dockyards?

Chatham Dockyard, c. 1785-94Chatham Dockyard, c. 1785–1794, by Joseph Farington. Repro ID: BHC1782. ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital CollectionThe position of Deptford and Woolwich on the tidal section of the Thames meant that the docks were gradually filling up with silt from the river. There was also very little room for expansion as towns had grown up close to the dockyards. As Deptford and Woolwich declined in importance, other Royal dockyards such as Chatham and Plymouth took over large-scale shipbuilding. However, both of the Thames dockyards continued to be very important for repair work until they closed in 1869.