A Dockyard Difference of Opinion
Allan Burnett's two part tale of Deptford Dockyard perpetuates the claim that Deptford was, as he puts it, the 'Cradle of the British Navy' (GIHS Vol.4. No.1. p.9).
Portsmouth people could nurse a similar belief since the Mary Rose was built 'somewhere near' Portsmouth in 1509.
Referring to Nathan Dews History of Deptford (page 250) it says 'Deptford was fixed upon by King Henry VIII as a site for a Royal Dockyard'.
Turning to Vincent's Records of the Woolwich District (Vol. 1. P.128) Camden's Brittanica (1695) gives Woolwich seniority as the Mother Dock of England. Vincent follows with two pages of detailed items relating to the materials used in constructing The Henry (or Harry) Grace-a-Dieu at Woolwich from 1512.
Henry had inherited four major ships from his father which were not warships but armed merchantmen and the sinking of one of them by the French promoted the laying down at Woolwich of the 'Great Harry'. It is possible that a yard of some capacity existed at Woolwich in Henry VII's time, for the remains of a 'great ship' were unearthed in 1912 when Woolwich power station was built. This ship was supposed to be one of those inherited by Henry VIII in 1509.
It appears then that then claim 'Cradle of the British Navy' belongs to Woolwich by a short head.
The comparison of armaments carried in the Great Harry and in Mary Rose suggests that the latter, built first, was a sort of pilot experiment by Henry VIII whose two passions were big ships and big guns.
The figures are
Mary Rose Great Harry
Displacement 600 tons 1,000 tons
Heavy Bronze 7 19
Heavy Iron 34 102
Soldiers 251 102
Gunners 20 50
Mariners 120 301
On the basis of the foregoing, I think the Great Harry was the true 'First Baby' of the Royal Navy and its cradle was the Royal Dockyard, Woolwich.
This article appeared in the March 2001 GIHS Newsletter