From East Cowes to St. Petersburg

The Story of Joseph Noy :
Peter the Great’s English Master Shipbuilder.

In 1753, in an ordinary churchyard in Deptford, London, a memorial was erected to a Joseph Noy, on which was written the words "many years Master-Shipbuilder to the Czar Peter the Great." How did an unknown Portsmouth shipbuilder come to be one of the most important of the shipbuilders that contributed to the pre-eminence of Peter the Great's Russian navy in the Baltic?

18th century view of Cowes from the sea by Tomkins.

Joseph Noy (or Ney or Nye as he was called in England) was probably born in Hampshire, England. He seems to have served his apprenticeship in the Royal Naval dockyard at Portsmouth and was finally discharged in 1692. In 1695, he entered into a contract with the Navy Board, the body responsible for the construction of naval warships, to build a 5th Rate ship, the Poole. He set up his shipyard at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England, not far from Portsmouth.

After completing the Poole in 1696, the Navy Board offered him a contract to build a 4th Rate ship, the Jersey. The building of this ship presented him with a number of problems. Several of his workers were impressed by naval warships and merchantmen that used the anchorage at Cowes. In addition, the timber required for building the ship was brought in coasting vessels, called hoys, from Arundel and Shoreham in Sussex. The crews of these hoys, usually a master, a man and a boy, were also being impressed as well as captured by privateers that cruised around the English Channel.

Map of Cowes, John Andrews, 1769.

However, by 1698, Noy had run into financial difficulties and, during the week following Peter the Great’s arrival in London, Noy left East Cowes and went to London. Whether this is a coincidence, or whether he knew of the Czar's intention to recruit shipbuilders, we do not know. What is clear is that he left Cowes owing some of his shipwrights money. They stopped work and followed Noy to London, eager to get the arrears of pay that he owed them. They were so dissatisfied that they decided to take out a Commission of Bankruptcy against him. His partner, George Moore, and a merchant from Portsmouth, Thomas Barton, were left to sort out the shipwrights and soon work started again on the Jersey, which was completed way behind schedule in November 1698, almost a year and a half late!

Noy, meanwhile, had found his way into Peter's service in London. In Peters' accounts, he is mentioned twice with Peter paying him the large sum of £100 on one occasion. He is the only shipbuilder mentioned in the accounts, leading to speculation that Noy may have been the English shipbuilder that showed Peter the English system of shipbuilding.

In June 1698, Noy sailed to Archangel and finally joined the only other English shipbuilder in Russian service at that time, John Deane. Deane was the son of the famous English shipwright, Sir Anthony Deane, and it would seem that both Deane and Noy had been recommended to Peter by Lord Carmarthen, the man who had designed the 'yacht' Royal Transport, which had been given to Peter as a present in 1697. Carmarthen had received the monopoly on the importation of tobacco into Russia, and had acted as Peter’s host during his stay in England.

The two set to work in Voronezh, building ships-of-the-line for Peter in the English style. Peter had become convinced that the English way of shipbuilding was superior to the Dutch way, and was consciously encouraging this system. In a letter of 1698, that he wrote from Voronezh, Noy wrote the Czar’s preference for the English manner of shipbuilding: “I am Likewise Setting up of another of 54 guns after our English fassion which his Majie most admires & is ever praissing of our navy.” The Dutch shipbuilders tended to build their ships using their own intimate, personal knowledge, using traditional techniques and "rule-of-thumb" measurements. The English system was based much more on scientific principles of mathematics and paper-based ship design. Relying on a carefully drawn plan with precise measurements, any shipbuilder could produce a ship to those specifications. It therefore did not rely so much on the expertise or whim of the shipbuilder. More importantly for Peter, it meant that Russian shipbuilders could be trained much more easily and work from plans. Peter himself had been trained in these ways and could not only build fine ships, but also he was able to draw up designs for a ship on paper. His keen interest in the English system was illustrated in the wages he paid his shipbuilders. While Noy and Cozens, another English shipbuilder, were paid wages of about 1000 roubles, the highest paid Dutch shipwright was not even paid as much as the lowest English shipwright, John Terpley.

His respect for English shipbuilders was also apparent in his relationship with them. He was only too happy to spend time with them drinking, and often, especially at launches, reserved his table for them, and no others. Describing the fondness of Peter for his shipwrights,the British envoy in St.Petersburg reported that “The respect paid to them is more than they could pretend to in any other country though they were persons of quality, for they are the most carressed by the Czar and consequently by all the great men of the kingdom; they partake of his diversions, and on festival-days sit at his own table when persons of the best quality are bound to stand and wait;- in short the Czar omits nothing that can endear himself to them or that may engage them to continue in his service during life.” Another report to the British government echoed the envoy’s words, pointing out that “these people ye Czar flatters and caresses as much as possible; their Salaryes are large and punctually pay'd, they eat in private with him , they Sitt at his Table in the greatest assemblies, and he hardly goes anywhere or takes any diversion but some of them accompany him; by these caresses ye Czar means to captivate their affection so as to engage them not to quit him;…” . Another eye-witness said that Peter “always showed great respect to his shipbuilders; frequently on public occasions sitting amongst them and calling himself one of their fraternity." In letters to Noy he would finish off by asking him to "pay my Compliments to all our fellow Shipbuilders". No wonder the English shipbuilders were only too happy to stay in the Czar’s service.

Noy was kept busy in Voronezh building ships-of-the-line and was later joined by another Hampshire shipwright, Richard Cozens, after John Deane succumbed to the harsh Russian winter and died in Moscow in 1699. The two of them collaborated on a number of ships but most of these were abandoned when the war with the Turks in the south came to a close. In 1711, Nye and Cozens were transferred to work in the shipyards in and around St. Petersburg, where Peter was eagerly preparing a fleet to take on the Swedish navy for mastery of the Baltic.

Initially, Noy seems to have lived very close to the Admiralty Yard. In 1714, a Scottish traveller staying with Noy, remembers seeing the Czar “walking about the yard so early an hour & a very cold morning”. Peter sent a groom for Noy who rushed out and “brought his Majesty into the house, where he stayd about half an hour.” This incident shows the close social relationship between Noy and Peter but it also highlighted Peter’s close attention to detail that he paid to the building of all his ships. Peter had come to look over the ship Noy was building because “he wanted to give some directions about it." This close supervision of shipbuilding activities was characteristic of Peter’s intense interest in and love of his navy. When business had taken Peter away from Voronezh, he had still kept in close contact with Noy through letters.

Noy was mainly occupied in St. Petersburg in the building of ships-of-the-line, although he did start by building 20 barquentines, a style of ship he was not used to. He also built a few bomb-ships and frigates and even one ‘yacht’. Noy also acted as an instructor, teaching Russians the skills of shipbuilding in the English manner. A fellow Englishman, John Deane, described how a Russian shipwright would set up a ship next to the site where an English shipbuilder was building one. This way the Russian could copy the measurements and techniques of the Englishman.

Noy's signature.

To give the Russians the better insight, it is usual when an English master begins a ship, to order the Russian master to set up one of the same dimensions, near at hand; and the Russian must be indulged the liberty of observing and measuring the Englishman’s work.” This certainly paid off because several fine Russian Master shipwrights, such as Sklyaev and Vereschagin, emerged during this time.

By 1719, the British government felt the English shipbuilders had effectively helped to create for the Czar a powerful navy, made up of ships that rivalled English ships, and this navy could present a potential threat to England in the future. In 1715, a British Admiral, Sir John Norris, pointed out to his superiors that “It is not reasonable that you should beleive that his Nation by the help of some English builders should have made the Improvement we find. he has three new sixty Gun ships built by them at Petersburgh that are in every way equal to the best of that Rank in our Country and are handsomely finished." James Jefferyes, the British envoy in St. Petersburg, pointed out that, because of the elevated status and high salaries that the English shipbuilders received from Peter the Great, it would be very difficult to persuade them to return to England.

“… but I entreat their excellencies to consider the difficulty I am like to meet with from the ship-builders. These are people who have taken their all with them into this country, who have no lands or tenements and consequently nothing to loose in Great Britain; they are come to this country with their families to seek their fortunes and have in some respects found the same, for their sallaries are considerable, two of them having 2000 rubles each p. annum, and the other three 800 each, besides presents upon occasion and other advantages.” The ships that Noy and the others had built were described “as good and as well built as any Europe can afford." As far as the balance of power in the Baltic was concerned, the British government was becoming increasingly concerned about the intentions of its former protégée, Peter the Great, but more especially they were worried about the quality and rapid growth of his fast expanding navy. In 1719, driven on by this anxiety, the British Parliament was moved to legislate against English people going abroad to work for foreign powers and passed an Act of Parliament “to prevent the inconveniencies arising from seducing artificers in the manufactures of Great Britain into foreign parts.” Shortly after this, while reprimanding the British envoy, Jefferyes, for issuing without permission the proclamation recalling English subjects, Baron Shapirov explained how ineffectual this move would be since “this Step is now too late,the Czars own subjects being able to build Ships, and within time accustome themselves to the Sea likewise”. Indeed, thanks to Noy and the others, many Russians had been taught the English style of shipbuilding and thus the foundations of an independent, native shipbuilding industry had been established. It was too late to attempt any ‘damage limitation’. In fact, the situation had become so crucial by 1719 that Noy, Cozens and Davenport, sympathising with Britain's apprehensions, agreed to return to England, even though they had only been offered half the salary they were earning in Russia. However, Brown and Ramsey both refused the terms offered unless they received the same salary as they had in St. Petersburg! It would seem that none of them did return for they were still building ships in Russia until the end of the 1720's.

On 10th June 1723, Noy Cozens and Brown were made 'captains-commodore' by Peter the Great in recognition of their work and of the high esteem in which he held them. Indeed, according to Peter's newly-established Table of Ranks, the rank of captain-commodore (kapitan-komandir) also conferred nobility upon the title holder. This was confirmed by Catherine in November 1725, where it was stated that "We do Expect from him the Continuation of his faithfull Service as becomes an honest Officer". Catherine was hoping to retain the services of Noy, who may have been thinking of returning to England, on the death of Peter. Peter’s high regard for Noy was also highlighted in the funeral ceremony of 1725. Noy had risen to such heights that he was given a privileged position in Peter’s funeral procession, where he was one of the key people around Peter's coffin. Noy held one of the strings of the canopy, while others held the coffin drape. They were immediately followed by Catherine and Menshikov.

While in Russia, Noy seems to have lived a relatively inconspicuous life, going about his shipbuilding business and never losing the favour of Peter the Great, unlike some other foreigners. However, once in a while, through no desire of his own, Noy was caught up in controversy. After Peter’s death, Noy became involved in a dispute over who was going to finish off the ship, Peter I and II, a ship which Peter the Great had started in 1723. The question was whether native Russian shipwrights or Noy and Brown should finish off this prestigious ship. Years before this, Noy had also been involved in a quarrel back in Voronezh with the Dutch Admiral, Norwegian-born Cruys. Failing a resolution, it finally had to be settled by Peter himself.

Noy remained in Russia until at least the late 1730's, for in 1737, he was rewarded for “his long and faithfull Services” of forty years as a shipbuilder by the Czarina with a pension of 500 roubles a year. Noy was by now sixty eight and he was becoming unable to do his job properly because of old age and illness. He petitioned Catherine to be allowed to return to England, which she allowed. He spent the last years of his life with his wife in Deptford, where he had originally met up with his employer, Peter the Great. He died in 1753 and was buried in St. Nicholas’s church, Deptford.

Noy was the first English shipbuilder to be recruited by Peter the Great and served in Russia for about forty years as a shipbuilder. He had spent much of his working life in the company of a man, who could, at one moment, be severely ruthless and authoritarian, while, at other times, he could be found drinking heavily with his shipwrights, ignoring ceremony, rank and propriety. Noy had served as technician, instructor, advisor and friend to Peter the Great. Along with Cozens and Browne, he was held in high esteem as one of the most important of the foreign shipbuilders.

Historians have rightly concluded that “Peter was the impetus behind the creation of the navy.” And, if Peter the Great can be said to have established a Russian shipbuilding industry and laid the foundations of the modern Russian Navy, then it is, in part, the result of the maritime vision and shipbuilding energy of this remarkable Shipwright Czar. But it is also thanks, in no small part, to the English shipbuilders, like Joseph Noy, and the English-inspired ships that they built, that he also now commands such a reputation among historians.

Any information on Noy or Cozens, especially from Russian Archives, will be greatly appreciated.

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