The Death of Richard Parker, leader of the Nore Mutiny

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.

There are various accounts and scraps of historical information here, here, here and here. The engraving of the scene shortly before Parker was hung is from the Wikipedia.

Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison sing Barking Town

Annie Dearman and Steve Harrison performed this charming song of the East Coast fishery at the Frittenden Old Fashioned Night Out day of singing and dancing on the 31st March.

The words come from an old printed ballad – a ‘broadside‘ – made to be sold by street hawkers and around markets, fairs and doubtless pubs also.

Although there’s no indication of what the tune should be, the lyrics leave not doubt that the printer meant it to be sung to the tune used for the better known song Swansea Town.

Barking’s a very different place today, but in the first half of the 19th century it was a centre for the trawling trade, and only began to decline as a fishing port after about 1860.

This was partly because of the discovery of the ‘silver pits’ fisheries 70 miles off Spurn Point, after which most of the local fishing boat owners moved their home ports to Yarmouth, Hull or Grimsby.

However, another factor in the decline of trawling at Barking was was the development of the railway network, which made it quicker to transport fish from the new ports directly to London, and yet another was a dreadful storm off the Dutch Coast in December 1863 in which 60 Barking men drowned.

Annie comes from coastal Essex, and research by a family member has revealed that she might well have a family connection to the disaster off the coast of Holland and for her this knowledge has made this appealing little song seem very personal.

The story is that Edward Melvin (Annie’s great-great-grandfather), who was born between 1810 and 1820, lived near Barking Creek in the 1840 and 1850s; his father was a sailor and Melvin himself was a fisherman.

There are no records of Melvin’s death, but his wife (Elizabeth, nee Arnold) is listed as a fisherman’s wife in the 1861 census and as a widow in the 1871 census. Of the 60 who died, only about 15 men are named in press reports of the time – so it is therefore very possible that he was among those who were lost that day.

The Dream of Napoleon

Longwood House, St Helena. This is where Napoleon was imprisoned
by the British from 1815 until his death in 1821. Photo taken by Isaac
Newton and published by the Wikipedia

Thinking about South Georgia also led me to to muse on St Helena and also, perhaps inevitably, to Napoleon’s exile there.

And then I recalled the striking ballad about it, The Dream of Napoleon, shown below, with thanks to the Mudcat Cafe and the Digital Tradition.

I mean to learn this song some time so, if you’re sufficiently curious, please come back in a while, when you may find there’s an MP3 to download and listen to. It’s an interesting example of the broadside balladeer’s work, and once again underlines the point that not all of the English-speaking world saw Napoleon as a thoroughgoing baddie, or felt that the people of France were their enemies.

For more on St Helena, see the Wikipedia, and this tourism site.

The Dream of Napoleon

One night sad and languid I went to my bed
And had scarcely reclined on my pillow
Then a vision surprising came into my head
And methought I was crossing the billow;
I thought as my vessel sped over the deep
I beheld that rude rock that grows craggy and steep
Where the billows now seem to weep
O’er the grave of the once famed Napoleon

Methought as my vessel drew near to the land
I beheld clad in green his bold figure
With the trumpet of fame he had clasped in his hand
On his brow there shone valor and rigor
He says noble stranger you have ventured to me
From that land of your fathers who boast they are free
If so then a tale I will tell unto thee
‘Tis concerning that once famed Napoleon

You remember the day so immortal he cried
When we crossed o’er the Alps famed in story
With the legions of France whose sons were my pride
As I marched them to honor and glory
On the fields of Marien lo I tyranny hurled
Where the banners of France were to me first unfurled
As a standard of liberty all over the world
And a signal of fame cried Napoleon

Like a hero I’ve borne both the heat and the cold
I have marched to the trumpet and cymbal
But by dark deeds of treachery I now have been sold
Though monarchs before me have trembled
Ye princes and rulers their station demean
And like scorpions ye spit forth venom and spleen
But liberty all over the world shall be seen
As I woke from my dream cried Napoleon

Lyrics thanks to Mudcat Cafe’s DigiTrad pages.

Here’s a rather rough recording of my version – I hope you like it.

From Songs the Whalemen Sang, by Gale Huntington.

I gather one can buy a copy here.