My thanks to Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison for letting me post this copy of their version of the broadside ballad The Death of Parker.
Parker was the leader of the Nore Mutiny.
The year 1797 saw two important mutinies in the British Navy that between them put the wind up the British ruling classes – who naturally feared the French led by Napoleon might invade, or that another revolution might arise on home soil.
From what I read, poor pay and conditions were behind both mutinies – in particular, the sailor’s pay had been fixed for nearly a century and a half and by the late 18th century was worth very little.
The first mutiny, at Spithead near Portsmouth, went on for about a month until the Navy met the men’s main demands. However, the Admiralty of the time made a fatal mistake in restricting the new pay and conditions to the ships that had been involved at Spithead – and the natural result was a second mutiny among ships stationed on the Thames.
This second mutiny was a somewhat different affair. The ships were scattered along the Nore, a sandbank in the Thames Estuary, and were more difficult to organise than they had been at Spithead.
However, they did establish what was called the ‘Floating Republic‘ made up of no less than 28 ships, and elected a leader, Richard Parker.
Parker was an interesting figure. He had been a naval officer and had risen to the rank of master’s mate, before a dispute with a fellow officer led to a court martial and the loss of his commission in 1793. He then became a manufacturer of golf balls, went bankrupt and finally rejoined the Navy as a crewman – though it is said he was so reluctant to do so that he attempted to jump into the sea on boarding his ship.
No doubt Parker was chosen for the role for many reasons, but perhaps the most important would have been his ability as a navigator. Others might well have been his knowledge of how the Navy did its business at the time, and the fact that while he was clearly on the side of the sailors he would be difficult to dismiss as a typically uneducated if rebellious crewman.
The mutineers made demands for improved pay and conditions to match those won at Spithead, and for pardons for the mutineers and their leaders.
Then, as the mutinying ships briefly blockaded the Thames and the Port of London, the game changed. The mutineers demanded that peace should be made with the French – something that must have seemed close to unthinkable to Royalist rulers on this side of the Channel.
Most historical sources tend to take one side or another, and I’m naturally skeptical about some of the things that are said of Parker, including that he was a supporter of the revolution in France, as earlier he had enjoyed a largely successful career in the Navy.
However, what seems to have happened next was that the mutineers were denied supplies, and sea marks were removed from Thames Estuary’s complicated channels.
This would have made it nearly impossible to sail safely out to sea using the navigational tools available at the time. Having sailed the Thames, I’d say this would have caused havoc among other vessels using the estuary, and it would be interesting to know what fishermen and others thought of this move.
Things became desperate and Parker gave the command for the mutineers to hoist anchor and attempt to sail out of the estuary, no ship moved. Parker and 28 other mutineers were captured and hanged. Most of the mutineers were not punished, however, I guess because they were not seen as strongly political, and in any case were needed to crew the ships now back under Admiralty control.
But the story doesn’t end there. Parker was buried in a shallow grave, much to the outrage of his wife. With the help of women friends she dug him up by night and carried him to a church in London, where he was given a more conventional burial.
It’s said that a guard of some kind passed by while the women were moving Parker- and that they hid him by sitting on him and covering him with their skirts.