Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pett, Peter (1610-1670?)

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PETT, PETER (1610–1670?), commissioner of the navy, fifth son of Phineas Pett [q. v.], was born at Deptford on 6 Aug. 1610. He was brought up by his father was a shipwright; while still very young was his father's assistant at Deptford and Woolwich, and in 1635–7 built the Sovereign of the Seas under his father's supervision. In 1647 he was ordered by the parliament a gratuity of 10l. for building the Phœnix at Woolwich. He would seem to have been then appointed master-shipwright at Chatham, and in 1648 to have sent up important information to the parliament, and to have been mainly instrumental in preserving the ships at Chatham from revolting. Probably as a reward for this service, he was appointed commissioner of the navy at Chatham, an office analogous to that of the present superintendent of the dockyard, with the important difference that Pett, as a practical man, exercised immediate and personal control over the several departments of the yard, and was thus largely responsible for the efficiency of the ships during the Dutch wars. That during the Commonwealth the ships were fairly well maintained is matter of history; but Pett excited a strong feeling of animosity by filling all the more important posts in the yard with his near relatives. As early as November 1651 complaints were laid by some of the subordinate officials, including the chaplain, that members of the family worked into each other's hands, that stores were wasted or misappropriated, that higher wages were charged than were paid, and that false musters were kept. A special inquiry was ordered in the following January, when Pett had little difficulty in proving that the charges were malicious; but it is clear that there were great opportunities for fraud and reasonable grounds for suspicion. The commissioner's cousin, Joseph Pett, was master-shipwright at Chatham; another cousin, Peter Pett, was master-shipwright at Deptford; a younger brother, Christopher, assistant master-shipwright at Woolwich; another brother, Phineas, clerk of the check at Chatham, and a cousin, Richard Holborne, master-mast-maker. When, in the following summer, his cousin Peter at Deptford died, he was able to have his brother Christopher promoted to the vacancy, and Peter's son Phineas appointed assistant. Pett was also permitted to undertake private contracts for building ships of war (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 7 Jan. 1650).

He was reappointed to his office after the Restoration, and remained in it till 29 Sept. 1667, when he was charged with being the main cause of the disaster at Chatham in June, and was summarily superseded. He was accused, in detail, of having neglected or disobeyed orders from the Duke of York, the Duke of Albemarle, and the navy commissioners to moor the Royal Charles in a place of safety, to block the channel of the Medway by sinking a vessel inside the chain, to provide boats for the defence of the river, and to see that the officers and seamen were on board their ships (ib. 19 Dec. 1667). On 18 June he was sent a prisoner to the Tower, on the 19th was examined before the council, and on 22 Oct. before the House of Commons. There was talk of impeaching him, but the accusation was merely the outcome of a desire to make him answerable for the sins of those in high places, and the matter was allowed to drop. The general feeling was clearly put by Marvell, in the lines beginning:

After this loss, to relish discontent,
Some one must be accused by Parliament:
All our miscarriages on Pett must fall;
His name alone seems fit to answer all.

After being deprived of his office, Pett disappears from view. He married, on 8 Sept. 1632, Catherine (b. August 1617), daughter of Edward Cole of Woodbridge, Suffolk (Register of St. Mary's, Woodbridge, by favour of Mr. Vincent B. Redstone). Mention is made of one son, Warwick.

Pett has been confused with his cousin Peter, the master-shipwright at Deptford, who died in 1652, and with each of that Peter's two sons, Sir Peter [q. v.], advocate-general for Ireland, and Sir Phineas Pett, master-shipwright at Chatham, who was knighted in 1680, was comptroller of stores, and resident commissioner at Chatham, and is to be distinguished from the commissioner Peter's brother Phineas, a clerk of the check at Chatham. Three others, named Phineas Pett, were at the same time in the naval service at Chatham or in the Thames, one of whom was killed in action in 1666, while in command of the Tiger. The name Phineas Pett continued in the navy till towards the close of last century.

[Calendars of State Papers, Dom., the indexes to which have so confused the Peters and the Phineases as to be useless; the only possibility of clearing the confusion is by reference to the original documents, and by carefully distinguishing the signatures; Pepys's Diary; Harl. MS. 6279; Literæ Cromwellii, 1676, p. 229.]

J. K. L.