PortCities London

Deptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards

Origins and Tudor development


Henry VII, 1457-1509.
View full size imageKing Henry VII (1457-1509). © NMM
From the medieval period onwards, Deptford was an important place for shipbuilding and fishing. It was used as a repair yard and as an anchorage for the 'king's ships' in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509).

Deptford in the Tudor period

During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), a number of developments increased the significance of Deptford's maritime connections. Henry knew the area around Deptford well. He was born in the royal palace of Placentia at Greenwich and often travelled up the Thames to London.

In 1513, as part of Henry's overhaul of the English navy, he chose Deptford as the site for his chief Thames dockyard for building and repairing warships. It was not until 1542, however, that proper dock facilities were completed and the Deptford yard could carry out a wider range of work.

Golden Hind
View full size imageThe Golden Hind.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) knighted Francis Drake (1540-96) in Deptford in 1581 after he returned from the great circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind.

In the Tudor period, Deptford was also an important trading centre. In 1514, Henry VIII established Trinity House in the parish church at Deptford Strand. Trinity House was an association of 'shipmen and mariners', working to support English shipping. In the reign of Elizabeth I, it became responsible for the maintenance of buoys, lighthouses and other aids to navigation.

Woolwich in the Tudor period

The Great Harry The first ship of War that carried Guns, built at Woolwich in the Reign of Henry VIII, 1514, and accidentally burned 1553... From an original in Greenwich Hospital by Hans Holbein
View full size image The Great Harry, built at Woolwich in the reign of Henry VIII, 1514.
Henry VIII also established the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich in 1512-13.  The site was chosen to build Henry's largest warship, the Henri Grâce à Dieu or the Great Harry. William Bond, the master shipwright at Woolwich, built the ship, which was launched in 1514.

The Great Harry was between 1000 and 1500 tons and was the largest vessel at that time. She was one of the first vessels to carry guns and had a complement of 700 men. The great ship was accidentally destroyed by fire at Woolwich in 1553.

Elizabeth I maintained the naval connection with Woolwich and improved its facilities. A ropeyard, for example, was built nearby in 1574.

A view of His Majesty's Dock Yard at Woolwich, on the south side of the River Thames, in the County of Kent.
View full size imageWoolwich Dockyard.
Both Deptford and Woolwich were strategically placed on the Thames to be within easy reach of the Tower of London. The Tower was home to the Royal Armoury and Tudor warships sailed up the Thames for military supplies.

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