Woolwich Dockyard

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Clock House (Dockyard offices, 1783-4), the earliest surviving building on the Woolwich Dockyard site.

Woolwich Dockyard was an English naval dockyard along the river Thames in Woolwich, where a large number of ships were built from the early 16th century until the late 19th century. The area is now partly residential, partly industrial, with remnants of its historic past having been restored.


Painting of the Dockyard
Woolwich Dockyard (Nicholas Pocock, 1790, National Maritime Museum). The surviving Clock House (then newly-built) is seen centre-right, and the Parish Church far left. Left to right along the shoreline: three shipbuilding slips (two of which survive, much rebuilt, at Mast Quay), two dry docks (which also survive, much rebuilt) and a further slip (since filled in). Behind the latter stands the large Sail and Mould Loft of 1740, with the Great Storehouse to its right and the Officers' Terrace (houses with gardens) to the right of that; all these were demolished in the early 20th century. Everything west (right) of the Clock House was newly-acquired land in 1790; the painting shows planned buildings, including a long ropehouse that was never in fact built.

Founding and early history[edit]

Woolwich Dockyard was founded by King Henry VIII in 1512 to build his flagship Henri Grâce à Dieu (Great Harry), the largest ship of its day.[1] For much of its history it was known as The King's Yard, Woolwich. Like its counterpart Deptford Dockyard, Woolwich was probably chosen for its position - on the south bank of the tidal River Thames conveniently close to Henry's palace at Greenwich. Initially situated further to the east, past Bell Water Gate, the yard moved in the 1530s-40s to what was to become its permanent site, where a pair of dry docks formed the centre of operations.

Map of 1746 showing the 'King's Yard' (left), old Woolwich (centre) and the 'Rope Yard' and 'Warren' to the east

During the Age of Sail, the dockyard facilities ultimately included covered slipways for shipbuilding, masting sheers, numerous storehouses (including a palatial Great Storehouse of 1693) and, in later years, a large metal-working factory used to produce anchors and other iron items. The two dry docks were rebuilt in the early 17th century (the first of several rebuildings) when the western dock was expanded, enabling it to accommodate two ships, end to end.[2]

The Ropeyard[edit]

In the 1570s a Royal Ropeyard was established in Woolwich, one of the largest in the world at the time. Too long to fit within the confines of the Dockyard, its parallel sheds lay along the line of present-day Beresford Street. It remained in service until 1750, by which time similar establishments in other Royal Dockyards had begun to come to the fore. Not long afterwards the Ropeyard suffered significant fire damage and its buildings were demolished in 1835.[3]

The Gun Wharf[edit]

As at other Royal Dockyards, the Board of Ordnance maintained a gun wharf at Woolwich for storage and provision of guns and ammunition for the ships based there. The gun wharf was sited east of the main yard, alongside what is now Bell Water Gate; the land (and wharf) was shared with the nearby Ropeyard, which maintained a storehouse there for hemp and other materials. From the 1650s the Board of Ordnance began to make use of open land further to the east, formerly used as a domestic warren, as a site for proving (and later storing) cannons and other large guns. This was the beginning of what would later become the Woolwich Royal Arsenal.

Demise and second golden age[edit]

The gun battery, established to defend the dockyard in 1847, was rebuilt in 1976[2]

The fortunes of the yard had waned toward the end of the seventeenth century; in 1688 its work was valued at £9,669, in contrast to nearby Deptford (£15,760), not to mention the (by now much larger) Royal Dockyards at Portsmouth (£35,045), and Chatham (£44,940).[2] In the eighteenth century, however, it gained a renewed momentum: the site doubled in size, as did the workforce, and even in the first decade of the 1700s there were more ships launched from Woolwich than from any other English yard. Much of the area of the expanded dockyard was preserved as open ground for storage of timber, which was seasoned in wooden sheds; timber for masts was preserved in a pond, excavated to the east of what is now Mast Quay in the 1720s.

Engineer Samuel Bentham was an apprentice shipwright at the dockyard during the 1770s.

The yard was further expanded in the 1780s, again almost doubling in size. Shipbuilding continued in earnest during the Napoleonic Wars; but thereafter, as ships grew bigger and the Thames began to silt up, the constrained riverside dockyards began to be wound down in favour of the ever-expanding yards at Portsmouth and Devonport.

The Steam Factory[edit]

From 1831, however, Woolwich briefly found a new lease of life as a specialist yard for marine steam engineering (a relatively new technology which was being developed commercially at nearby Millwall). New buildings were constructed on the site for steam manufacturing and maintenance, including a boiler shop for manufacturing boilers, foundries for brass, copper and iron work, and an erecting shop for assembling the steam engines; by 1843 all were integrated into a single factory complex, with a single large chimney drawing on all the various forges and furnaces.[4]

Closure and aftermath[edit]

Main gate, c. 1900. Beyond, the Dockyard Church (by Gilbert Scott, 1856), taken down and rebuilt as St Barnabas's, Eltham in 1932.

This new activity was relatively short-lived, however, and the yard eventually closed in 1869 following the establishment of large-scale steam yards at Portsmouth and Devonport.[5]

After closure, much of the land was retained by the War office as storage space for the nearby Royal Arsenal. Warehouses were built across much of the site and existing buildings were converted to provide storage space. A narrow-gauge railway system served the complex, linked by way of a tunnel under Woolwich Church Street to the North Kent Line (which itself was linked into the Royal Arsenal Railway); the tunnel remains in situ for use by pedestrians.

In 1926 the western part of the site was sold to the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society; the Co-Op still occupies a number of buildings on the site. The older, eastern portion of the site remained in Ministry of Defence hands until the 1960s, when it was turned into a housing estate by Greenwich London Borough Council in the early 1970s. Two towers with luxury apartments were built at Mast Quay around 2005, with even taller towers being projected in 2015.[2] The various housing projects have encroached on the historic character of the area.

In the 1980s and 90s the Thames Path was extended to the area.

Notable ships launched at the dockyard[edit]

The Great Harry
HMS Royal George
HMS Beagle


Fishing in a former dry dock

On Woolwich Church Street, a late 18th-century guard house and police office with neoclassical features stand alongside the former dockyard gates. Nearby, the former office and house of the Dockyard Admiral-Superintendent now serves as the Clockhouse Community Centre; it dates from 1778-84.[6] Closer to the river, a couple of closed off docks have been preserved (and partly rebuilt) as a reminder of the area's marine significance. Two shipbuilding slips have also survived, either side of the new Mast Quay apartment blocks, and a pair of antique guns have been mounted on the quayside where a Royal Marines gun battery formerly stood.[2]

Surviving industrial buildings include parts of the old factory wall along Woolwich Church Street, remnants of the Steam Factory with its prominent chimney (1838–44) and some historic Co-op buildings. An iron-framed building of 1814 by John Rennie, removed from Woolwich, was re-erected at Ironbridge where it houses the Blists Hill foundry exhibit; in the dockyard it had housed Rennie's anchor forge, which was notable as the first industrial use of steam power in any naval establishment (other than for pumping water).[4] A number of metal roofs, built over shipbuilding slips at Woolwich in the 1840s and 1850s, were dismantled after the Yard closed and rebuilt at Chatham to house various manufacturing processes. One, which formerly housed a boiler shop, is now the main mall of Chatham's Dockside Outlet shopping centre.[2]

Less than half a mile to the south there is a railway station called Woolwich Dockyard.


  1. ^ Woolwich, Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition, 2010
  2. ^ a b c d e f Saint & Guillery, The Survey of London vol. 48: Woolwich, Yale, 2012.
  3. ^ Timbers, Ken (2011). The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. London: Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society. ISBN 978-0-9568614-0-5. 
  4. ^ a b English Heritage Survey of the Naval Dockyards
  5. ^ "The Royal Dockyards of Deptford and Woolwich". Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  6. ^ Pevsner, The Buildings of England - London: South. Yale, 1983 & 2002.

Coordinates: 51°29′40″N 0°3′22″E / 51.49444°N 0.05611°E / 51.49444; 0.05611 (Woolwich Dockyard)