The Port of London and docks in Tudor times. By Sue Flockton

Each of the Tudor monarchs took some actions which impacted on the development of the port of London and the docks further downstream. However, it was during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I that there is evidence of the greatest activity.

Henry VII did much to encourage the development of the merchant fleet, establishing the first permanent navy, and using a small dockyard at Deptford for repairs. Throughout the Tudor period it is difficult to provide accurate information about numbers of ships in the navy, as merchants were expected to put their ships into service at times of war and numbers often include these ships, along with captured ships which were then put into service.

The Great Harry (public domain)

Henry VIII ordered construction at Deptford and Woolwich dockyards so that he could construct warships close to his home in Greenwich. These sites were easier to defend than coastal ports. Ships such as the Henry Grace a Dieu, better known as the Great Harry were built at Woolwich. Ships built elsewhere were fitted out at these docks e.g the Mary Rose. Changes in construction of ships, allowing for larger and stronger ships and bigger guns, required more manpower both in builders and crew. There was also an increase in associated trades which proved useful for merchant shipping as well as the navy.

We have information from The Anthony Roll (1546). Anthony Anthony – an official at the Tower – recorded all the ships in the Navy. While the drawings are thought not to be particularly accurate, the roll also included information such as armaments and crew. The roll – actually 3 rolls – was presented to the King and placed in the Royal archives. Charles II gave two rolls to Samuel Pepys who was intending to write a history of the navy. At the time the third roll could not be found. Pepys had the documents cut and placed in book form – now in the Pepys library. The third roll was later found and eventually made its way to the British Library.

Henry’s reign also saw the inception of Trinity House in 1514. This was set up to provide safe piloting of ships in the Thames by experienced English pilots, and followed a number of occasions on which ships ran aground.

The seal of the Muscovy Company, 1555. The legend reads Refugium nostrum in Deo est – God is our refuge. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The reign of Edward VI saw interest turn to increased trade and its potential for raising revenue. The number of taxable goods was increased as were the rates of tax. There was also a desire to find new markets and in 1553 an attempt to find a northeast passage led to a contact and eventual trade agreement with Russia. Queen Mary I gave a charter to the Muscovy or Russian Company, and also ordered a further survey of ports and goods.

During the reign of Elizabeth, the Lord Treasurer (William Paulet), further developed the system of taxation. In 1558 a revised book of rates was issued, adding another 300 commodities to the list and doubling duties. This highlighted a need for more effective administration to prevent smuggling to avoid tax.

A commission surveyed the port and in 1559 parliament established legal quays which were the only places where taxable goods could be landed. The list was revised in 1584. Alongside these was a system for recording and checking cargoes, with each being recorded by 2 officials- to make corruption more difficult. This information was recorded in Port Books, of which a few survive.

During these years, trade continued to expand, with the setting up of a number of companies such as the Levant, Barbary and East India Companies. At the same time, there was a development in exploration – and of privateering! Drake – who made a fortune from the latter – was knighted at Deptford and the Golden Hind went on permanent display at the dock. The docks continued shipbuilding, for example, the Ark Royal – flagship of the Armada – was built at Deptford in 1587.


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