Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pett, Phineas
PETT, PHINEAS (1570–1647), master-builder of the navy and naval commissioner, elder son of Peter Pett (d. 1589) [q. v.], by his second wife, Elizabeth Thornton, was born at Deptford on 1 Nov. 1570. After three years at the free school at Rochester, and three more at a private school at Greenwich, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1586. After his father's death, in September 1589, Phineas was left destitute, and in 1590 was bound ‘a covenant servant’ to Richard Chapman, the queen's master-shipwright at Deptford. Within three years Chapman died, and he shipped as carpenter's mate on board the Edward and Constance, in the second expedition of Edward Glemham [q. v.] The voyage had no great success, and after two years of hardship and privation Pett found himself again in London as poor as when he started. In August 1595 he was employed ‘as an ordinary workman’ in rebuilding the Triumph at Woolwich. Afterwards he worked, under Matthew Baker, on the Repulse, a new ship which was being got ready for the expedition to Cadiz. During this winter Pett studied mathematics, drawing, and the theory of his profession, in which Baker gave him much assistance and instruction. In April 1597 Lord Howard, the lord admiral, who was much at Baker's house, accepted him as his servant. It was not, however, till near Christmas 1598 that Howard was able to employ him in ‘the finishing of a purveyance of plank and timber’ in Norfolk and Suffolk, which occupied Pett through the whole of 1599; and in June 1600 Howard appointed him ‘keeper of the plankyard, timber, and other provisions’ at Chatham, ‘with promise of better preferment to the utmost of his power.’ A quarrel with Matthew Baker followed, and for the next ten or twelve years, according to Pett's story, Baker lost no opportunity of doing him a bad turn. According to Pett, the administration of the dockyards was at the time altogether swayed by personal interest, jealousy, and malicious intrigue.
In March 1601 Pett was appointed assistant to the master-shipwright at Chatham. In November 1602 his good service in fitting out the fleet in six weeks won for him Mr. Greville's ‘love, favour, and good opinion;’ and shortly after the accession of King James he was ordered by Howard to build a miniature ship—a model, it would seem, of the Ark—for Prince Henry. This was finished in March 1603–4, and Pett took her round to the Thames, where on the 22nd the prince came on board. The admiral presented Pett to him; and on the following day Pett was sworn as the prince's servant, and was appointed captain of the little vessel. He was also granted the reversion of the places held by Baker or his brother Joseph, whichever should first become vacant; and in November 1605, on the death of Joseph, he succeeded as master-shipwright at Deptford. In 1607 he was moved to Woolwich, and there remained for many years, favourably regarded by Howard, John Trevor, the surveyor of the navy, and Mansell, the treasurer; and, in consequence, hated and intrigued against by their enemies and his own, of which, as a successful man, he had many.
In October 1608 he laid the keel of a new ship, the largest in the navy, which was launched in September 1610 as the Prince Royal; but in April 1609 definite charges of incompetence displayed in her construction were laid against him by the Earl of Northampton, instigated by Baker and George Weymouth [q. v.], ‘a great braggadocio.’ A commission was ordered to investigate the matter, and reported in Pett's favour; but as Northampton refused to accept their decision and continued to press the charges, the king had the case formally tried before him at Woolwich on 8 May, and Pett was formally acquitted on all points.
In 1612 Pett was the first master of the Shipwrights' Company, then incorporated by royal charter. In 1613 he was in the Prince with Howard when he took the Lady Elizabeth and her husband, the Palatine, to Flanders; and was ordered by Howard to dine at his table during the voyage. In 1620–1 he seems to have accompanied Sir Robert Mansell [q. v.] in the expedition against the Algerine pirates; and in 1623 went to Santander in the Prince, which he had fitted specially for the reception of the infanta (cf. Gardiner, Hist. v. 120). Charles I, on his accession to the throne, gave him a gold chain valued at 104l. In June 1625 he was at Boulogne in the Prince, which brought the young queen to Dover on the 12th. In August 1627 he was sent to Portsmouth to hasten the equipment of the fleet, and, continuing there, ‘saw many passages and the disaster which happened to the Lord Duke [of Buckingham].’ In February 1629–30 he was appointed an assistant to the principal officers of the navy, and in the following December one of the principal officers and a commissioner of the navy. He still, however, continued to exercise the supervision over Deptford and Woolwich yards, assisted to a great extent by his son Peter (1610–1670?) [q. v.] In 1635 he was sent to Newcastle to provide timber, &c., for a new ship to be built at Woolwich, the keel of which was laid on 21 Dec. She was launched on 13 Oct. 1637, and named the Sovereign of the Seas—the largest and most highly ornamented ship in the English navy. A model of her, possibly contemporary, is preserved in the museum of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.
But though the Prince Royal and the Sovereign of the Seas were the chief products of Pett's art, he was more or less responsible for every ship added to the navy during the reigns of James I and Charles I, as well as for many of the largest merchant ships then built, among others the Trade's Increase and the Peppercorn [see Downton, Nicholas; Middelton, Sir Henry]. During this period shipbuilding was improved and the size of ships increased. It has been said that the secrets of the trade were preserved in the Pett family—handed down from father to son (Charnock, Hist. of Marine Architecture, ii. 284); but Phineas Pett learned nothing directly from his father, and indirectly only so far as Chapman and Baker were his father's associates. The excellence which he attained and handed down to his successors may be more justly assigned to his Cambridge training and his subsequent studies in mathematics. He died in 1647, and was buried at Chatham on 21 Aug.
Pett was married three times: (1) in 1598, to Anne, daughter of Richard Nichols of Highwood Hill in Middlesex; she died in February 1626–7; (2) in July 1627, to Susan, widow of Robert Yardley, and mother, or stepmother, of the wife of his son John; she died in July 1636; (3) in January 1636–7, to one Mildred. By his first wife he had three daughters and eight sons, the eldest of whom, John, a captain in the navy, married, in 1625, Katharine, daughter of Robert Yardley, and died in 1628. Peter [q. v.], the fifth son, is separately noticed; Phineas, the seventh (b. 1618), was in 1651 clerk of the check at Chatham; and Christopher, the youngest (b. 1620), was master-shipwright at Deptford, where he died in 1668, leaving a widow, Ann, and four children.[The principal authority for the life of Pett is his autobiography—Harl. MS. 6279—a late seventeenth or early eighteenth century copy. It appears to be trustworthy as to its facts, though with a strong personal bias. A lengthy abstract is printed in Archæologia, xii. 207 et seq. Pett is frequently mentioned in the Calendars of State Papers, Domestic; see also Birch's Life of Prince Henry.]