Deptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards
|17th- and 18th-century developments|
But at the same time, technological changes and the increasing size of the Navy's ships highlighted some of the shortcomings of the Deptford and Woolwich yards.
The Sovereign of the Seas
The major naval commission of the first half of the 17th century was the massive Sovereign of the Seas, a hugely impressive 1500-ton warship of 100 guns. The ship was designed and built at the Deptford yard by Phineas Pett (1570-1647) and his nephew, the master shipwright, Peter Pett (1592-1652).
When launched in 1637, she was the largest and most lavishly decorated and gilded warship afloat. Nicknamed the 'golden devil' by England's Dutch rivals, the Sovereign of the Seas was technologically advanced and, perhaps, as much as 150 years ahead of her time in terms of size.
The ship saw action in the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-54 and was renamed the Royal Sovereign after rebuilding at Chatham in 1660. The ship saw further action in the Second and Third Dutch Wars before being accidentally burnt at Chatham in 1696.
Deptford and the Tsar of Russia
Fisher Harding (active 1698-1701)
The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) described Harding as 'a very slow man, of no learning, authority and countenance', but he could clearly build ships.
The wooden ruler, pair of dividers and plans of the ship in this portrait show Harding's technical mastery of his trade. The magnificent Royal Sovereign demonstrates the practical application of his skills.
The 18th century
By the beginning of the 18th century, hundreds of men were employed at the two London dockyards, building and repairing warships.
However, Deptford and Woolwich were not the only Royal Dockyards. Others had been established at Plymouth, Portsmouth, Chatham and later at Sheerness.
These yards were closer to Europe and, therefore, more strategically situated for the rapid launching of the fleet in times of war. Moreover, it could take as long as eight weeks for a ship to get from the Nore, where the fleet often lay at anchor, to the Thames. The difficult voyage was clearly a waste of time for anything less than a major repair.
The problem of bigger ships
As ships got larger, the Thames became too shallow for them to navigate, further threatening the future of the Thames yards. Ships headed for Woolwich, for example, and often had guns and stores removed at Northfleet to reduce their draft before sailing up the Thames. This was a great inconvenience!
Despite these problems and the growth of the other Royal Dockyards, Deptford and Woolwich continued to be a significant part of the Navy's organisation. Each yard sprawled over a large site and was made up of docks, slipways, storehouses, specialised workshops, timber ponds and accommodation.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
In 1814, the 120-gun HMS Nelson was launched at Woolwich. She was one of the largest warships ever built at the yard and the launch was a major public spectacle.
HMS Nelson saw no active service and was presented to the Government of Victoria in Australia as a training vessel in 1867.
The launch of HMS Queen Charlotte
As shipbuilders became more skilled in the use of slipways and so reduced the danger to onlookers, launches attracted huge crowds. The Times estimated that more than 20,000 people witnessed the launch of HMS Queen Charlotte at the Deptford yard in 1810.
John Theodore Barker, a Congregationalist minister in Deptford, used the great event as the basis for his weekly sermon. This proved so successful that he published it to reach a wider audience.
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