Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Richard Parker, the Mutineer

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FOR the story of Richard Parker, I shall quote almost verbatim the account, which is very detailed, by Camden Pelham in Chronicles of Crime, London, 1840.

In the year 1797, when the threatening aspect of affairs abroad made the condition of the naval force a matter of vital importance to Britain, several alarming mutinies broke out among the various fleets stationed around the shores of the country. In April of the year mentioned, the seamen of the grand fleet lying at Portsmouth disowned the authority of their officers, seized upon the ships, hoisted the red flag, and declared their determination not to lift an anchor, or obey any orders whatsoever, until certain grievances of which they complained were redressed.

There is no denying or concealing the fact—the men had been ill-paid, ill-fed, shamefully neglected by the country, which depended upon them for its all, and, in many instances, harshly and brutally treated by their officers, and belly-pinched and plundered by their pursers. They behaved with exemplary moderation. The mutineers allowed all frigates with convoys to sail, in order not to injure the commerce of the country. The delegates of the vessels drew up and signed a petition to Parliament and another to the Admiralty; their language was respectful, and their demands were very far from exorbitant.

After some delay, satisfactory concessions were made to them by Government, and the men returned to their duty. But the spirit of insubordination had spread among other squadrons in the service, and about the middle of May, immediately after the Portsmouth fleet had sailed peaceably for the Bay of Biscay, the seamen of the large fleet lying at the Nore broke out also into open mutiny. The most conspicuous personage in the insurrection was one Richard Parker, a native of Exeter, privately baptized, in St. Mary Major parish, 24 April, 1767. His father was a baker in that parish, and had his shop near the turnstile. It was afterwards burnt down. He rented it of the dean and chapter, from 1761 to 1793, and acquired a little land near to Exeter as his own. Young Parker received a good education, and at the age of twelve went to sea. He served in the Royal Navy as midshipman and master's mate. But he threw up his profession on his marriage with Anne McHardy, a young woman resident in Exeter, but of Scottish origin, a member of a respectable family in Aberdeen.

This connexion led Parker to remove to Scotland, where he embarked in some mercantile speculations that proved unsuccessful. The issue was that before long he found himself in embarrassed circumstances, and unable to maintain his wife and two children. In Edinburgh, where these difficulties arose, he had no friends to whom he could apply for assistance, and in a moment of desperation he took the King's bounty, and became a common sailor on board a tender at Leith. When he announced to his wife the steps he had taken, she hastened to Aberdeen in great distress to procure from her brother the means of hiring two seamen as substitutes for her husband. But when she returned with the money from Aberdeen it was too
Richard Parker - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg

Richard Parker
who was executed on board the Sandwich off Sheernets on Friday June 30th, 1797
pursuant to the sentence of a Court Martial for having been the Principal
in a most daring Mutiny on board several of his Majesty's Ships at the
Nore which created a dreadful alarm through the whole Nation.

late, for the tender had just sailed with her husband on board. Her grief was aggravated at this time by the loss of one of her children. Parker's sufferings were shown to be equally acute by his conduct when the vessel sailed, crying out that he saw the body of his child floating upon the waves; he leaped overboard, and was with difficulty rescued and restored to life.

In the early days of May, 1797, Parker reached the Nore, a point of land dividing the mouth of the Thames and the Medway. Probably on account of his former experience as a seaman, he was drafted on board the Sandwich, the guardship that bore the flag of Admiral Buckner, the Port Admiral. The mutinous spirit which afterwards broke out certainly existed on board the Nore squadron before Parker's arrival. Communications were kept up in secret between the various crews, and the mischief was gradually drawing to a head. But though he did not originate the feeling of insubordination, the ardent temper, boldness, and superior intelligence of Parker soon became known to his comrades, and he became a prominent man among them. Their plans being at last matured, the seamen rose simultaneously against their officers, and deprived them of their arms, as well as of all command in the ships, though behaving respectfully to them in all other ways. Each vessel was put under the government of a committee of twelve men, and, to represent the whole body of seamen, every man-of-war appointed two delegates and each gunboat one to act for the common good. Of these delegates Richard Parker was chosen president, and in an unhappy hour for himself he accepted the office. The representative body drew up a list of grievances, of which they demanded the removal, offering return immediately after to their duty. The demands were for increased pay, better and more abundant food, a more equal division of prize-money, liberty to go on shore, and prompt payment of arrears. A committee of naval inquiry subsequently granted almost all their demands, thereby acknowledging their justice. Parker signed these documents, and they were published over the whole kingdom with his name attached, as well as presented to Port Admiral Buckner, through whom they were sent to the Government. When these proceedings commenced the mutineers were suffered to go on shore, and they paraded the streets of Sheerness, where lay a part of the fleet, with music and the red flag flying.

But on the 22nd of May, troops were sent to Sheerness to put a stop to these demonstrations. Being thus confined to their ships, the mutineers, having come to no agreement with Admiral Buckner, began to take more decisive measures for extorting compliance with their demands, as well as for securing their own safety. The vessels at Sheerness moved down to the Nore, and the combined force of the insurgents, which consisted of twenty-five sail, proceeded to block up the Thames, by refusing a free passage, up or down, to the London trade. Foreign vessels, and a few small craft, were suffered to go by, after having received a passport, signed by Richard Parker, as president of the delegates.

In a day or two the mutineers had an immense number of vessels under detention. The mode in which they kept them was as follows: The ships of war were ranged in a line, at considerable distances from each other, and in the interspaces were placed the merchant vessels, having the broadsides of the men-of-war pointed to them. The appearance of the whole assemblage is described as having been at once grand and appalling. The red flag floated from the mast-head of every one of the mutineer ships.

The Government, however, though unable at the moment to quell the mutiny by force, remained firm in their demand of "unconditional surrender as a necessary preliminary to any intercourse." This was, perhaps, the best line of conduct that could have been adopted. The seamen, to their great honour, never seemed to think of assuming an offensive attitude, and were thereby left in quiet to meditate on the dangerous position in which they stood in hostility to their own country. Disunion began to manifest itself, and Parker's efforts to revive the cooling ardour of the mutineers resulted in rousing particular hostility against himself.

Meanwhile, formidable preparations had been made by the Government for the protection of the coast against a boat attack by the mutineers, and to prevent the fleet advancing up the Thames and menacing London. All the buoys and beacons in the three channels giving entrance to the Thames had been removed. Batteries with furnaces for red-hot shot were constructed at several points. Sheerness was filled with troops, and at more distant places outposts were established to prevent the landing of parties of the mutineers. Two ships of the line, some frigates, and between twenty and thirty gunboats lying higher up the river were fitted out in great haste, to co-operate, in the event of an attack by the mutinous fleet, with the squadron from Spithead, that had been summoned. Alarm and perplexity disorganized the council of the mutineers. The supply of provisions had for some time been running short.

A price had been set on Parker's head—£500. It was thought that he might attempt to escape, and therefore a description of him was published: "Richard Parker is about thirty years of age, wears his own hair, which is black, untied, though not cropt; about five feet nine or ten inches high; has a rather prominent nose, dark eyes and complexion, and thin visage; is generally slovenly dressed, in a plain blue half-worn coat and a whitish or light coloured waistcoat and half-boots."

But Parker made no attempt to escape. The mutineering vessels held together till the 3Oth May, when the Clyde frigate was carried off by a combination of its officers and some of the seamen, and was followed by the S. Fiorenzo. These vessels were fired upon by the mutineers, but escaped up the river. The loss was, however, more than counterbalanced by the arrival of eight ships from the mutinous fleet of Admiral Duncan, anchored in Yarmouth Roads.

On the 4th June, the King's birthday, the Nore fleet showed that their loyalty to their Sovereign was undisturbed by firing a general salute.

On the 6th June two more ships deserted under the fire of the whole fleet, but the same evening four more arrived from Admiral Duncan's fleet. On this day Lord Northesk, having been summoned on board the Sandwich, found the council, comprising sixty delegates, sitting in the state cabin, with Parker at its head. After receiving a letter containing proposals of accommodation to which the unfortunate Parker still put his name as president, Lord Northesk left, charged to deliver this letter to the King. The answer was a refusal to all concessions till the mutineers had surrendered unconditionally. Disunion thereupon became more accentuated, and on 10 June, Parker was compelled to shift his flag to the Montague and the council removed with him.

On the same day the merchantmen were permitted by common consent to pass up the river, and such a multitude of ships certainly had never before entered a port by one tide.

Fresh desertions now occurred every day, and all hope of concerted action was ended by stormy discussions, in which contradictory suggestions were made with such heat as to lead in many instances to acts of violence. Upon ship after ship the red flag was hauled down and replaced by one that was white, signifying submission. On the 12th only seven ships had the red flag flying. Such was the confusion, every crew being divided into two hostile parties, that five ships were taken up the Thames by those in favour of surrender, aided by their opponents under the belief that an attack was about to be made on the shore defences. The discovery by the latter that they were betrayed aroused terrible strife. The deck of the Iris frigate became a battlefield; one party in the fore, the others in the after-part, turned the great guns against each other, and fought till the mutineers were worsted.

By the 16th the mutiny had terminated, every ship having been restored to the command of its officers. A party of soldiers went on board the Sandwich to which Parker had returned, and to them the officers surrendered the delegates of the ship, namely a man named Davies and Richard Parker.

Richard Parker, to whom the title of admiral had been accorded by the fleet and by the public during the whole of this affair, was the undoubted ringleader, and was the individual on whom all eyes were turned as the chief of the mutineers. He was brought to trial on the 22nd of June, after having been confined during the interval in the Black-hole of Sheerness garrison. Ten officers, under the presidency of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley, Bart., composed the court-martial, which sat on board the Neptune, off Greenhithe. The prisoner conducted his own defence, exhibiting great presence of mind, and preserving a respectful and manly deference throughout towards his judges.

The prosecution on the part of the Crown lasted two days, and on the 26th, Parker called witnesses in his favour, and read a long and able defence which he had previously prepared. The line of argument adopted by him was—that the situation he had held had been in a measure forced upon him; that he had consented to assume it chiefly from the hope of restraining the men from excesses; that he had restrained them in various instances; that he might have taken all the ships to sea, or to an enemy's port, had his motives been disloyal, etc. Parker unquestionably spoke the truth on many of these points. Throughout the whole affair, the injury done to property was trifling, the taking of some flour from a vessel being the chief act of the kind. But he had indubitably been the head of the mutineers. It was proved that he went from ship to ship giving orders and encouraging the men to stand out, and that his orders were given as though he were actually admiral of the fleet. Nothing could save him. He was sentenced to death. When his doom was pronounced, he rose, and said, in firm tones, "I shall submit to your sentence with all due respect, being confident in the innocency of my intentions, and that God will receive me unto His favour; and I sincerely hope that my death will be the means of restoring tranquillity to the Navy, and that those men who have been implicated in the business may be reinstated in their former situations, and again be serviceable to their country."

On the morning of the 3Oth of June, the yellow flag, the signal of death, was hoisted on board the Sandwich, where Richard Parker lay, and where he was to meet his fate. The whole fleet was ranged a little below Sheerness, in sight of the Sandwich, and the crew of every ship was piped to the forecastle. Parker was awakened from a sound sleep on that morning, and after being shaved, he dressed himself in a suit of deep mourning. He mentioned to his attendants that he had made a will, leaving to his wife some property in Devonshire that belonged to him. On coming to the deck, he was pale, but perfectly composed, and drank a glass of wine "to the salvation of his soul, and forgiveness of all his enemies!" He said nothing to his mates on the forecastle but "Good-bye to you!" and expressed a hope that "his death would be deemed sufficient atonement, and save the lives of others."

He was strung up to the yard-arm at half-past nine o'clock. A dead silence reigned among the crews around during the execution. When cold, his body was taken down, put in a shell, and interred within an hour or two after his death in the new naval burying ground at Sheerness. A remarkable and pathetic sequel to the account has served as the basis of a popular ballad still sung.

Richard Parker's unfortunate wife had not left Scotland, when the news reached her ears that the Nore fleet had mutinied, and that the ringleader was one Richard Parker. She could not doubt that this was her husband, and immediately took a place in the mail for London, to save him if possible. On her arrival, she heard that Parker had been tried, but the result was not known. Being able to think of no way but petitioning the King, she gave a person a guinea to draw up a paper, praying that her husband's life might be spared. She attempted to make her way with this into His Majesty's presence, but was obliged finally to hand it to a lord-in-waiting, who gave her the cruel intelligence that all applications for mercy would be attended to, except for Parker. The distracted woman then took coach for Rochester, where she got on board a King's ship, and learnt that Parker was to be executed next day. She sat up, in a condition of unspeakable wretchedness, the whole of that night, and at four o'clock in the morning went to the riverside to hire a boat to take her to the Sandwich, that she might at least bid her poor husband farewell. Her feelings had been deeply wrung by hearing every person she met talking on the subject of her distress, and now the first water-man to whom she spoke refused to take her as a single passenger. "The brave Admiral Parker is to die to-day," he said, "and I can get any sum I choose to ask for carrying over a party."

Finally, the wretched wife was glad to go on board a Sheerness market boat, but no boat was allowed to run up alongside of the Sandwich. In her desperation she called on Parker by name, and prevailed on the boat people, moved by the sight of her distress, to attempt to approach, but they were stopped by a sentinel who threatened to fire at them, unless they withdrew.

O Parker was the truest husband,
   Best of friends, whom I love dear;
Yet when he was a-called to suffer,
  To him I might not then draw near.
Again I ask'd, again I pleaded,
  Three times entreating,—all in vain;
They even that request refused me,
  And ordered me ashore again.

As the hour drew nigh, she saw her husband appear on deck walking between two clergymen. She called to him, and he heard her voice, for he exclaimed, "There is my dear wife from Scotland."

Then, happily, she fainted, and did not recover till some time after she was taken ashore. By this time all was over, but the poor woman could not believe it so. She hired another boat, and again reached the Sandwich. Her exclamation from the boat must have startled all who heard it. "Pass the word," she cried in her delusion, "for Richard Parker!"

The ballad says:—

The yellow flag I saw was flying,
A signal for my love to die;
The gun was fir'd, as was requir'd,
To hang him on the yard-arm high.
The boatswain did his best endeavour,
I on the shore was put straightway,
And there I tarried, watching, weeping,
My husband's corpse to bear away.

On reaching the Sandwich she was informed that all was over, and that the body of her husband had just been taken ashore for burial. She immediately caused herself to be rowed ashore again, and proceeded to the cemetery, but found that the ceremony was over and the gate was locked. She then went to the Admiral and sought the key, but it was refused to her. Excited almost to madness by the information given her that probably the surgeons would disinter the body that night and cut it up, she waited around the churchyard till dusk, and then clambering over the wall, readily found her husband's grave. The shell was not buried deep, and she was not long in scraping away the loose earth that intervened between her and the object of her search. She tore off the lid with her nails and teeth, and then clasped the hand of her husband, cold in death, and no more able to return the pressure.

Her determination to possess the body next forced her to quit the cemetery and seek the assistance of two women, who, in their turn, got several men to undertake the task of lifting the body. This was accomplished successfully, and at 3 a.m. the shell containing the corpse was placed in a van and conveyed to Rochester, where, for the sum of six guineas, the widow procured another wagon to carry it to London. On the road they met hundreds of people all inquiring about, and talking of, the fate of "Admiral Parker."

The rude ballad thus relates the carrying away of the body:—

At dead of night, when all was quiet,
   And many thousands fast asleep,
I, by two female friends attended,
   Into the burial-ground did creep.
Our trembling hands did serve as shovels
   With which the mold we moved away,
And then the body of my husband
   Was carried off without delay.

At 11 p.m. the van reached London, but there the poor widow had no private house or friends to go to, and was constrained to stop at the "Hoofs and Horseshoe" on Tower Hill, which was full of people. Mrs. Parker got the body into her room, and sat down beside it; but the secret could not long be kept in such a place, more particularly as the news of the exhumation had been brought by express that day to London.

An immense crowd assembled about the house, anxious to see the body of Parker, but this the widow would not permit.

The Lord Mayor heard of the affair, and came to ask the widow what she intended to do with her husband's remains. She replied, "To inter them decently at Exeter or in Scotland." The Lord Mayor assured her that the body would not be taken from her, and eventually prevailed on her to consent to its being decently buried in London. Arrangements were made with this view, and in the interim it was taken to Aldgate Workhouse, on account of the crowds attracted by it, which caused some fears lest "Admiral Parker's remains should provoke a civil war."

Finally, the corpse was buried in Whitechapel Churchyard, and Mrs. Parker, who had in person seen her husband consigned to the grave, gave a certificate that all had been done to her satisfaction. But, though strictly questioned as to her accomplices in the exhuming and carrying away of the body, she firmly refused to disclose the names.

Parker had, as he said, made a will, leaving to his wife the little property he had near Exeter. This she enjoyed for a number of years, but ultimately lost it through a lawsuit with Parker's sisters, who claimed that it was theirs by right. She was thrown into great distress, and, becoming almost blind, was obliged to solicit assistance from the charitable. King William IV gave her at one time £10, and at another £20.

In 1836 the forlorn and miserable condition of poor Parker's widow was made known to the London magistrates, and a temporary refuge was provided for her. But temporary assistance was of little avail to one whose physical infirmities rendered her incapable of any longer helping herself. When Camden Pelham wrote in 1840, she was aged seventy, blind, and friendless; but time and affliction had not quenched her affection for the partner of her early days. However, in 1828, John C. Parker, the son of the mutineer, obtained a verdict against his aunts for the possession of the little estate of Shute that had belonged to his father's elder brother. The question turned on the legitimacy of the plaintiff, which was proved by his mother, a woman who then exhibited the remains of uncommon beauty, and who was able to prove that she had married Richard Parker in 1793.

Then farewell, Parker, best beloved,
    That was once the Navy's pride,
And since we might not die together,
    We separate henceforth abide.
His sorrows now are past and over,
    Now he resteth free from pain—
Grant, O God, his soul may enter
    Where one day we meet again.[1]

The melody to which the ballad of the "Death of Parker" is set is much more ancient, by two centuries at the least, than the ballad itself. It is plaintive and very beautiful, and the words are admirably fitted to the dainty and tender air.

Richard Parker was a remarkably fine man. The brilliancy and expression of his eyes were of such a nature as caused one of the witnesses, while under examination, to break down, and quail beneath his glance, and shrink abashed, incapacitated from giving further testimony.

Douglas Jerrold wrote a drama upon the theme of the "Mutiny at the Nore." But it is a mere travesty of history. The true pathos and beauty of the story of the devoted wife were completely put aside for vulgar melodramatic incidents.

For authorities, the Annual Register for 1797; The Chronicles of Crime, by Camden Pelham, London, 1840; The Mutiny at Spithead and the Nore, London, 1842; "Richard Parker, of Exeter, and the Mutiny of the Nore," by S. T. Whiteford, in Notes and Gleanings, Exeter, 1888.

  1. The ballad, with its melody, is given in Songs of the West, 2nd ed., 1905.