PortCities London

Deptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards

17th- and 18th-century developments

Growing activity

Shipping at Deptford.
View full size image Shipping at Deptford.
As English and British maritime activity grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Royal Dockyards on the Thames continued to build important warships.

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).

Peter Pett, 1610 - 70, and the Sovereign of the Seas
View full size image Peter Pett, 1610-70, and the Sovereign of the Seas. © NMM

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

Statue of Peter the Great in Deptford.
View full size imageStatue of Peter the Great in Deptford.
Deptford's reputation as a centre of shipbuilding excellence spread across Europe. In 1698, the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great (1672-1725), visited the dockyard to learn more about shipbuilding methods. The Tsar was keen to modernise Russia by introducing the latest Western technologies and designs.

John Evelyn (1620-1706).
View full size imageJohn Evelyn (1620-1706).
He stayed in Deptford at Sayes Court, the home of the famous diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706). Peter the Great's drunken parties damaged the house and its garden. In his more sober moments, the Tsar worshipped at the Quaker Meeting House in Deptford High Street. A plaque marks the site and Peter the Great's visit is also commemorated by a statue of the Tsar near Deptford Creek.

Fisher Harding (active 1698-1701)

Fisher Harding, Master Shipwright Active 1698-1701 with the launch of the Royal Sovereign 1701.
View full size image Fisher Harding, Master Shipwright Active 1698-1701 with the launch of the Royal Sovereign 1701.
Fisher Harding was master shipwright at the Deptford yard from 1686-1705. He designed and built the second Royal Sovereign, a first-rate warship of 100-guns, which was launched at Woolwich in 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.

Woolwich Dockyard.
View full size imageWoolwich Dockyard.

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

Deptford Dockyard.
View full size image Deptford Dockyard. © NMM

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

Launch of the Nelson at Woolwich, July 14th 1814.
View full size imageLaunch of the Nelson at Woolwich, 14 July 1814. 
During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars at the end of the 18th and early in the 19th centuries, more large and important warships were launched on the Thames in another period of naval expansion.

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

Launch of the HMS Queen Charlotte at Deptford, July 17 1810
View full size image Launch of HMS Queen Charlotte at Deptford, 17 July 1810.

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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