East India Company ships at Deptford

(Updated, February 2015) The ships used by the East Company were initially purchased privately as required. Losses from wear, tear and wreck took their toll and large ships suitable for the Eastern trade were soon at a premium, some costing as much as £45 per ton. In 1607, the Company therefore decided to build its own ships and leased a yard to do so at Deptford, just upstream from Greenwich on the west side of Deptford Creek, with another on the north side of the Thames at Blackwall, downstream from Greenwich. Initially, this change of policy was found to be fully justified, the first ships costing the Company about £10 per ton. However, both yards proved highly expensive to run and maintain. The Company, ever eager to save money, then had second thoughts and reverted to the practice of hiring suitable vessels built by private investors for the East Indies trade. In 1644 it sold its Deptford yard and while this painting was previously called 'The East India Company Yard at Deptford', it in fact shows Indiamen being built and maintained there under the later private regime. The church tower in the centre is that of St Nicholas, Deptford. In 1656 a Deptford shipbuilder called Henry Johnson, a grandson of the shipwright Peter Pett and trained by his nephew, Phineas, also bought the Blackwall yard. Johnson (d. 1683) was succeeded by his son (also Henry) and, after his death, their Perry and Green family successors developed Blackwall into the largest private shipyard in the world. By around 1700 century Deptford's significant East India activity, as shown here, had declined and Blackwall's was rapidly growing, constructing and maintaining Indiamen in large numbers well into the early 19th century. The Museum previously dated the painting to around 1660. It has more recently been suggested that the large ship shown being fitted in the dock is the Indiaman 'Charles the Second', 775 tons, belonging to Captain Sir Thomas Grantham, which was launched by Johnson at Blackwall in February 1683 when the king knighted Grantham on board for previous gallant conduct: this in turn might indicate that he commissioned the picture. The ship's stern bears the appropriate Stuart royal arms and an early 1680s date is also likely given that the royal yacht with elaborate carved work in the left foreground has also now been fairly well identified as the 'Henrietta' of 1679 (see K. Moneypenny and D.P. Bucur 'The Royal Yacht 'Henrietta' of 1679...', 'Mariner's Mirror', vol 100, no 2 (2014) pp 132-46). The large mansion to the right has not yet been explained, since it does not convincingly fit what is known of Sayes Court, which was the diarist John Evelyn's house at Deptford, set in extensive gardens further back from the river.

Object Details

ID: BHC1873
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: English School, 17th century
Places: Deptford
Date made: circa 1660; circa 1683
Exhibition: Traders: The East India Company and Asia
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 915 x 1867 mm; Frame: 1032 x 1988 x 80 mm Overall: 38kg

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