Peter Pett

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Peter Pett and the Sovereign of the Seas.
Painting by Peter Lely, 1637[1]

Peter Pett, (6 August 1610 – ? 1672) was an English Master Shipwright, and Second Resident Commissioner of Chatham Dockyard. He is noted for the incident concerning the protection of his scale models and drawings of the King's Fleet during the Dutch Raid on the Medway, in Kent in June 1667, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Pett was the son of the King's Master Shipwright Captain Phineas Pett. He was introduced to King Charles I of England in 1634 and was ordered to construct a new Third Rate ship of 500 tons at Woolwich Dockyard, to be named the Leopard. With the construction of the Leopard underway, Charles decided that he would have a ship built larger and more ornate than any of her predecessors.

In June 1634 whilst at Woolwich and on the Leopard with the King, Phineas Pett, Peter's father, relates: "His Highness, calling me aside, privately acquainted me of his princely resolution for the building of a great new ship, which he would have me undertake...."

Under the watchful eye of his father Phineas, who had drawn up the plans for this great ship Peter Pett so built HMS Sovereign of the Seas at Woolwich Dockyard.

One of the largest in the world at that time, the Sovereign was a ship of 1,637 tons and was launched on 12 October 1637, after about two years in construction.

John Evelyn wrote in his Diary on 19 July 1641 "We rode to Rochester and Chatham to see the Soveraigne, a monstrous vessel so called, being for burthen, defence, and ornament, the richest that ever spread cloth before the wind. She carried 100 brass cannon, and was 1,600 tons, a rare sailer, the work of the famous Phineas Pett."

Commissioner Pett[edit]

Despite his contracts from the King, Peter Pett sided with Parliament during the English Civil War and was consequently retained as Commissioner at Chatham Dockyard during the Commonwealth (1649–60).

Pett was the only member of the group of Commonwealth Commissioners who governed the Navy with any technical knowledge of shipbuilding and the designs of most new ships rested principally upon him. He became a Justice of the Peace by 1649. In 1659 he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Rochester in the Third Protectorate Parliament. He was re-elected MP for Rochester in 1660 for the Convention Parliament.[2]

Determined to survive the rigours of the nation's political upheavals, Pett, with great resourcefulness, having withheld Chatham from Charles I, was afterwards in Holland preparing the fleet to accompany the return of Charles II. The success of these efforts established for Pett a firm relationship with the King.

In 1667 Pett was blamed for the insufficient protection of the British fleet at Chatham, the charge being that he failed to tow the most capital ships higher up the river. Modern historians argue that it is doubtful whether this would have protected them, the Dutch being powerful enough to advance a few miles more, and that Pett didn't have enough manpower anyway. Being asked during the official investigation why he had brought his ship models into safety but not the ships themselves, he answered that the former were more valuable, much to the incredulous laughter of his accusers. Pett's view was that without the models it was impossible to build new ships, as it was not then feasible to build from drawings alone. Pett was fined and fired. He was seen to be a scapegoat for the incompetence of higher-ranking officers, as shown in part of Andrew Marvell's satirical poem:

After this loss, to relish discontent,
Someone must be accused by punishment.
All our miscarriages on Pett must fall:
His name alone seems fit to answer all.
Whose counsel first did this mad war beget?
Who all commands sold through the navy? Pett.
Who would not follow when the Dutch were beat?
Who treated out the time at Bergen? Pett.
Who the Dutch fleet with storms disabled met,
And rifling prizes, them neglected? Pett.
Who with false news prevented the Gazette,
The fleet divided, writ for Rupert? Pett.
Who all our seamen cheated of their debt,
And all our prizes who did swallow? Pett.
Who did advise no navy out to set,
And who the forts left unrepairèd? Pett.
Who to supply with powder did forget
Languard, Sheerness, Gravesend and Upnor? Pett.
Who should it be but the Fanatic Pett?
Pett, the sea-architect, in making ships
Was the first cause of all these naval slips:
Had he not built, none of these faults had been;
If no creation, there had been no sin.
But his great crime, one boat away he sent,
That lost our fleet and did our flight prevent.

Pett's will was proved on 2 December 1672, and it revealed that he had enough worldly goods to be able to live in comfort after his dismissal as Commissioner. For example, in his will there was mentioned a necklace containing over 270 pearls, and that he was Lord of the Manors of Woodbridge Ufford and Kettle Ufford in Suffolk indicates that he remained possessed of some wealth.

The Pett Dynasty[edit]

Some confusion may arise between the identities of Peter Pett and his many relatives; even the Navy Board had difficulty in keeping its records straight on this matter.

From probably before the time that John Pett, (son of Thomas) was 'paid' for caulking (making watertight) the Regent in 1499, the Petts have been variously mistaken, one for the other. Often this was the case with Peter Pett. The first of that name was a Master Shipwright at Deptford in the late 16th century, who built a number of English warships (and other vessels) in the 1570s onwards. The next Peter Pett, two generations later on, was also a Master Shipwright at Deptford, who died in 1652. That Peter had two sons, Sir Peter, the Advocate General for Ireland and Sir Phineas Pett, Master Shipwright at Chatham, who was knighted in 1680, and who was the Comptroller of Stores, and resident Commissioner at Chatham, and who is further to be distinguished from the Commissioner Peter Pett's brother Phineas, a clerk of the check at Chatham.

Three other Petts named Phineas were at the same time in the Naval Service at Chatham or in the Thames, one of whom was killed in action in 1666 whilst in command of the Tyger, this being a brother of the 2nd Commissioner at Chatham.

The Roll and index of the domestic State Papers have so confused the numerous Petts as to have been described as useless.

References[edit]