Phineas Pett (1 November 1570 – August 1647) was a shipwright and a member of the Pett dynasty. Phineas left a memoir of his activities which is preserved in the British Library and was published in 1918.
Born at "Deptford Strond", he was the second son of Peter Pett of Deptford, his elder brother being named Joseph.
Thomas Fuller, in his Worthies of England states: "I am credibly informed that the mystery of Shipwrights for some descents hath been preserved successfully in families, of whom the Petts about Chatham are of singular regard."
It is likely that Robert Holborn, cited as working with Peter Pett of Deptford at this time was a relative of Richard Hoborn, ‘Cousin of Commissioner Pett’. Peter Pett of Deptford was the son of Peter of Harwich (d.1554). His sister married John Chapman, Master Shipwright, whose own son Richard was born in 1620 and Master Shipwright of Woolwich and Deptford. the shipwright who was to build the Ark, raised in the Pett household, "as in all probability was Mathew Baker" with whom, from 1570, Peter Pett was associated in the works at Dover.’
Phineas's father's first wife, Elizabeth Paynter, had given him a daughter, Lydia, and four sons; their mother died around 1543. Peter Pett of Deptford married his second wife Elizabeth Thornton, the sister of Naval Captain Thornton, and they had eight further children. The three sons were Phineas, Peter and Noah. Elizabeth died, the widow of Peter, in 1597.
Life of Phineas Pett
On his father's death in 1589, Phineas was left destitute. He had been sent to the Free School at Rochester for three years and then moved to a private school in Greenwich, until in 1586 aged 16 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. By 1601 Phineas had been appointed assistant to the Master Shipwright at Chatham; over the years his good services, particularly in fitting out the Fleet in six weeks, won support for him at court.
Phineas Pett first met the young Prince Henry in 1604, through the good graces of the Earl of Nottingham, William Howard, the Lord High Admiral. Pett made a miniature ship for the Prince at Chatham. The keel was 28 feet and the breadth 12 feet, and was finished "battlement-wise" like the Ark Royal. On the 22 March Pett presented the ship to Prince Henry, who named it the Disdain and "entertained it with great joy, being purposely made to disport himself withal." On 26 April 1604, James I of England gave Phineas, described as a servant of Prince Henry, a grant of a shilling a day. The grant also mentions Phineas's elder brother, Joseph. Phineas and Joseph were named in the royal charter for the incorporation of masters and wardens of the "Art and Mystery of Shipbuilding in England" in April 1605.
In 1607, Pett made and gave a model of a ship intended for Prince Henry to Howard. Howard thought the model good enough for the direct attention of King James and the Prince. He arranged for a presentation in the presence of both at Richmond Palace on 12 November 1607. The model was set up in a private room off the Long Gallery, in an arched frame curtained with crimson taffeta. King James being likewise impressed and "exceedingly delighted with the sight of the model" placed the task of constructing a full-size replica of the ship in Pett’s charge.
In 1610, Phineas's wife gave birth to their son, Peter, and in the same year, his (step) Aunt Lydia died. In his diary for 1616, he records that he was ‘elected and sworn Master of the Corporation of Shipwrights at our common hall and meeting place at Redriff.’ From sometime around 27 March 1616, Pett expected to profit from a commission by Sir Walter Raleigh to build him a vessel of 500 tons for 500L. Admiral Howard permitted Pett to lay her keel on the galley dock at Woolwich, with the consent of King James.
In 1631, he was appointed a commissioner of the King for making "a general survey of the whole navy at Chatham." For this and other works Pett was promoted by Charles to be a principal officer of the Navy, receiving £200 per annum. His patent was sealed on 16 January 1631. In the same year the King, Charles I of England, visited Woolwich to view the launch of the Vanguard, which Pett had built. The king honoured Phineas by participating in a banquet at his lodgings. Pett was later the First Commissioner at Chatham and held this same post from 1630 until his death in 1647
Phineas lived for ten years after the Sovereign of the Seas was launched. In the burial register of the parish of Chatham it is recorded, "Phineas Pett, Esqe. and Capt., was buried 21 August, l647."
Besides his obvious skill as a shipwright, Phineas wrote an autobiography.
Peter Pett, son of Phineas.
Pett's innovations were perhaps to be finally realized in the designs of his son Peter Pett for the Frigate: a design of English shipwrightry worthy of Baker. Sir Peter Pett was almost as distinguished as his father. He was the builder of one of the first frigates, the Constant Warwick.
Sir William Symonds says of this vessel: "She was an incomparable sailer, remarkable for her sharpness and the fineness of her lines; and many were built like her." Pett "introduced convex lines on the immersed part of the hull, with the studding and sprit sails; and, in short, he appears to have fully deserved his character of being the best ship architect of his time."
The British Library has among the Harleian Collection his manuscript diary, the 'Life of Mr Pineas Pett', Harl. MSS. 6279, which was used by Thomas Birch, for his Life of Henry Prince of Wales, A. Millar, London, (1760)
- "Pett, Phineas (PT586P)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Perrin, ed., Autobiography of Phineas Pett, NRS (1918), pp.21-23: Birch, Thomas, Life of Henry Prince of Wales, Dublin (1760), pp.39-40, London (1760), pp.38-39: from BL MSS Harl. 6279.
- Perrin, ed., Autobiography of Phineas Pett, NRS (1918), pp.173-5
- Perrin, ed., Autobiography of Phineas Pett, NRS (1918), pp.177-9
- Perrin, ed., Autobiography of Phineas Pett, NRS (1918), p.31-2: Birch, Thomas, Life of Prince Henry, London (1760), 96-7, Dublin (1760), p.80
- Perrin, ed., Autobiography of Phineas Pett, NRS (1918), p.156