The 'Fathers of the Dockyard'

In the chancel at Portsmouth Cathedral there are two memorials sitting side by side dedicated to William Willoughby and Robert Moulton. Stylistically they are a pair, as indeed were the two men, and yet neither was born in Portsmouth and nor did they live in the town for very long, though both are buried at St. Thomas's church. What marks them out for distinction is that they were both Commissioners for the Navy appointed by the Council of State for the Commonwealth, and they can reasonably be considered, along with Willoughby's son Francis who succeeded Moulton, to have laid the foundations of the modern dockyard.
Although it had existed since the time of Henry VII the role of Portsmouth's dockyard had long been subservient to that of the Thames yards, where most of the ships were actually built, with Portsmouth serving largely as a base for their repair and victualling. In the early years of the Commonwealth this was entirely understandable given that the most important enemy of the day was the Dutch Navy and the Thames was a lot closer to their theatre of operation than Portsmouth, but once the Dutch had been effectively neutralised attention turned to the privateers that operated in the Channel and Irish Sea. It was at this point that The Council of State directed the Navy Commissioners to send one of their number to Portsmouth as a Resident Commissioner.
The man they chose to send was William Willoughby [born c1573, died 30th March 1651] who first appears in the records of the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic [CSPD] in 1628 when he was already established as a merchant, supplying the Navy with timber. He was later described as being the owner of several vessels which he put at the disposal of the Government during the reign of Charles I. At the outbreak of Civil War, Parliament decreed on April 12th 1643 that the Committee for the Militia of London should raise regiments of volunteers as support for the regulars charged with the protection of the city. Willoughby, as a member and possibly head of the Committee, accepted the duty and raised a hundred 'well affected and stout youngsters' whom he set about training at Gravesend with himself as Captain.
Over the next year the regiment took part in a number of actions and by 1644 Willoughby, as Colonel of the unit renamed the Regiment of [Yellow] Auxiliaries of the Hamlets of the Tower, was at Abingdon after which he returned to London. In 1648 Willoughby was present at a Council of War considering the means of preventing disaffected navy crews taking their ships to Holland during which it was resolved that Parliament had to fit out a loyal navy. He was accordingly appointed by the Council of State on February 16, 1649, Master Attendant for Portsmouth, and a Commissioner of the Navy.
On March 13th 1649 the Council of State directed Colonel Willoughby "There is no affair before us of greater concern than expediting our fleet to sea, for want whereof the shipping of this nation is daily taken, by those pirates and rebels which abound in this and the Irish seas ; but the business is much retarded for want of your presence at Portsmouth, there being no master of attendance there. You are therefore to repair thither forthwith, and use your utmost endeavour to send out that part of the fleet that is to go out from thence, which is very much retarded."
The fact that Colonel Willoughby was appointed Navy Commissioner is not in itself surprising, he had by all accounts demonstrated an organisational ability and was plainly seen as loyal, but the speed with which he was promoted has raised questions. In 'Family Histories and Genealogies' by EE and EM Salisbury, a Colonel Chester is reported to be "convinced that Col. Willoughby was related to the noble family of his name, because no man could have obtained the high offices which he filled, who had not friends influential with the Government" This is followed by "We now have reason to believe ... that (Sir) Francis, fifth Lord Willoughby of Parham, who was, in 1643, a General in the army of the Parliament, but afterwards a Royalist, was third cousin, twice removed, to Col. William. The Colonel's rapid promotion in the military service may therefore have been due to the influence of this nobleman."
This claim may have validity but it would have to be squared with the records that suggest Willoughby was born in Chiddingstone, Kent [EE & EM Salisbury] the son of Christopher Willoughby, a member of the Willoughby d'Eresby family, rather than that of Sir Francis. This is supported by the memorial in Portsmouth Cathedral which displays the arms and crest of the D'Eresby family which also stand at the head of the section on the Willoughby's in the Salisbury book. In the "Calendar of State Papers" he is always spoken of with much respect, being referred to as "Mr. Willoughby," the designation of a "Gentleman," before he had acquired the titles of Captain and Colonel. His frequent requests to the Admiralty for facilities to perform the duties of his office received ready attention, and appear to have been promptly complied with. His advances of his own money for the public service were the more generous because there was little security for their repayment in those troubled and uncertain times. He was evidently a man of strong patriotism, intense religious convictions, much earnestness and warmth of feeling, and energy and courage in action.
Colonel William Willoughby was appointed Navy Commissioner with the instruction to finish the building work on eight ships then being constructed at Portsmouth and get them into service within six weeks. The Council of State played heavily on Willoughby's loyalty, even expecting him to use his own resources in payments for the work pending receipt of funds from Parliament. Willoughby must have succeeded in his efforts as no further instructions along these lines were issued by the Council of State, indeed Willoughby's name does not crop up again until June 28th 1649 when the Commissioners are ordered to provide permanent accommodation for him at Portsmouth. Over the next six months Willoughby worked to build, repair and victual the fleet and on January 12th 1650 he was ordered to prepare the fleet for sail on 20th January and to press 150 men into the service.
There are few further mentions of Willoughby over the next 15 months apart from May 14th 1650 when he was made Commissioner of the Peace for Hampshire, a role that gave him greater control over the local watermen, and in August that same year when the Council of State approved Willoughby's plans for the defence of Portsmouth. Colonel Willoughby's residency at Portsmouth was to last only a few more months as he died on 30th March 1651. The Council of State wasted no time and appointed a successor, Captain Robert Moulton on 5th April.
Robert Moulton, (c.15911652) was born in Landulph, Cornwall. Little is known of his life until 1620 by which time he had become a senior master mariner. In 1629 he commanded the 300 ton George and was invited by the Massachusetts Bay Company to establish a new shipyard on the Mystic River. He became a freeman there in 1631 and returned to England shortly after where he joined Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick, in a number of privateering ventures, and was a part-owner of a celebrated privateer, the Constant Warwick. In 1636 he sailed to the East in the Dragon as second in command of the fleet led by John Weddell, and sailed home from Goa in command of the Planter in 16378.
At the onset of the civil war Moulton supported parliament, which made him an important commander under the Earl of Warwick, the lord high admiral. Moulton commanded the Swiftsure, a second-rate, in 1643, and became admiral of the fleet in the Irish Sea in 1644. In this role he strengthened parliament's influence in Wales and Ireland. In 1647 he was placed in reserve, but he was summoned back to active service in the early summer of 1648 at a time when unrest in the navy presaged a serious mutiny in the fleet. Moulton did much to quell the royalists but could not prevent 11 ships deserting the fleet and sailing to join the king in Holland. In September parliament sent an expeditionary force against them, under Warwick as admiral; Moulton served as his flag captain and showed considerably more resolution than his commander. On one occasion, as the two fleets lay at anchor, Moulton ventured aboard Rupert's flagship to try to win back the allegiance of the sailors; he was arrested but the Dutch authorities secured his release.
On Feb. 20 1649 the Council of State repealed the ordinance constituting the Earl of Warwick Lord High Admiral and made Capt. Moulton, Vice-Admiral in charge of the fleet. Parliament put their full faith in Moulton who they bombarded with instructions that he could not possibly have fulfilled. Over a period of seven days to 27th February they issued no less than 6 directives, 2 demanding that he supply convoys to sail with merchantmen to Dublin and fishermen to Newfoundland, one to put a fleet in the Irish sea to protect ships carrying official correspondence and one complaining that the ships he allocated were not adequate. At the same time he was expected to deal with prizes brought into port and dispose of their prisoners as well as arrange for victualling and replenishment of ships magazines. Somehow he managed to satisfy, and retain the trust of, Parliament who issued no more directives to him until July 11th 1650 when he was ordered to take 200 men to Lisbon.
Moulton's tenure as Navy Commissioner was short-lived. He died on 22nd September 1652, just 18 months after being appointed, and was succeeded by Captain Francis Willoughby, son of the first commissioner.
We first hear of Francis Willoughby in "Family Histories and Genealogies" in which he was said to have travelled to New England in 1638 with his wife Mary and son Jonathan. Within months of arriving in America Willoughby was 'admitted an inhabitant of the town of Charlesworth' with a small parcel of land. Within two years this had grown to 1450 acres and by 1641 he was buying whare-houses and wharfs; in addition he had become an Ensign in the Militia and a Freeman. In 1640 his wife Mary died and he returned to England where he found a second wife Sarah, daughter of John Taylor, a Navy Commissioner. Back in Charlestown he became a 'Selectman', a 'Representative' and an 'Assistant', before returning to England again in 1851, probably to oversee his father's estate.
Whilst Francis Willoughby was still in England war was declared against Holland. With two others he petitioned Parliament that he might be allowed to send munitions to New England in order that the colonists might defend themselves against any raid by the Dutch. This was granted by the Council of State, possibly because their President was at that time Sir Henry Vane who had himself been a governor of the colony. Vane also used his influence to help several of the colonists to obtain prominent positions in the Navy, including Willoughby's appointment as Commissioner at Portsmouth.
Willoughby's role as Commissioner followed the pattern established by his father and Moulton, but his responsibilities seem to have been wider with many duties away from Portsmouth, in London, Plymouth and the Thames yards. Though he was diligent in his work he found Portsmouth somewhat parochial, yearning instead to be in the capital and he never really settled or asked for permanent accommodation. Instead he pleaded for someone to help with the work there and in 1653 the Navy Commissioners appointed a Master of Attendance.
One of the first tasks that Willoughby set himself was a thorough survey of the dockyard in order to determine the available resources. He added a ropeyard, a wharf for masts, a tar house and built a wall around the whole yard as a means of improving security and tirelessly argued for the provision of a dry dock. On 18th August 1656 the Navy Commissioners finally assented to the construction of a dock which was enthusiastically supported by the people of Portsmouth who contributed 500 towards the cost. Within two years the dock had been built and though it was well constructed, officers at the yard thought it too small. Nevertheless from that time Portsmouth received a steady stream of ships for repair, so many in fact that the local workforce had to be augmented by men from London.
Refitting and repair of the ships could now be carried out with greater efficiency but victualling them proved to be an ongoing problem, especially for perishable goods that frequently had to be ferried from London. Local producers supplied as much as they could but the fluctuations in demand by the dockyard during times of peace and war made it difficult to respond when an entire fleet may appear in harbour with little notice. Willoughby helped resolve this matter by establishing direct control over supplies which was administered by an agent, a storekeeper, a clerk and a Victualling Officer with a deputy. Inevitably problems remained but the seamen of this period experienced a far better service than they had ever before.
As well as the victualling difficulties Willoughby was faced with the need to fully man a fleet of vessels and like his predecessors resorted to pressed men, but there was much competition from other channel ports and the men themselves were becoming quite adept at evasion. It had not been too difficult to obtain men during the Dutch Wars but the constant demands and the failure to make payments to them encouraged desertion and mutiny. Willoughby combined the resolution of these issues with handling 'prizes, prisoners and pestilence', the movement of intelligence, contracts and accounts between Portsmouth and London and the purchase and storage of a vast range of products. Throughout the eight years spent in charge at Portsmouth Dockyard Willoughby consulted his fellow Commissioners on all matters though where speed was critical he would have no qualms about making decisions himself.
In 1653, Willoughby's wife Sarah had brought their children Sarah, Nehemiah and William from New England to join him but she died shortly thereafter. In 1659, Francis married his third wife Margaret Locke, with whom he (probably) had four children but only Francis, Nathaniel and Susannah are referred to in later documents. Also in 1659, the Mayor, Alderman and Burgesses of Portsmouth chose Francis Willoughby to be Member of Parliament for Portsmouth (curiously, in his Extracts from the Portsmouth Records, Robert East refers to him as Viscount Willoughby, but there is no record of such a title). The parliament was however short lived being dissolved in April 1659.
The last record of Francis Willoughby in his role as Commissioner appears in documents dated April 1660, after which he retired to London to follow his former occupation as a merchant. Two years later he was granted permission to take his family back to New England where he resumed his commercial and political life in Charlesworth and where, in 1665, he was elected Deputy Governor. He died, greatly mourned, on April 3rd 1671 after what can only be described as a highly eventful life.
AJ Marsh is inclined to endow Francis Willoughby with the title of 'Father of the Dockyard' in Portsmouth and in view of his eight years in the post of Commissioner there is no doubt he earned the epithet. This however would be to ignore the invaluable work done by his predecessors, each equally dedicated and competent. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to refer to all three as the 'Fathers of the Dockyard'.
"Portsmouth Parish Church" by Henry T. Lilley & Alfred T. Everitt
"The Navy and Portsmouth under the Commonwealth" by A.J. Marsh
"The Calendars of State Papers, Domestic 1649-1660"
"Family Histories and Genealogies" by EE and EM Salisbury