Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parker, William (1781-1866)

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PARKER, Sir WILLIAM (1781–1866), admiral of the fleet, born 1 Dec. 1781, was the third son of George Parker of Almington, Staffordshire, the second son of Sir Thomas Parker [q. v.], lord chief baron of the exchequer, and first cousin of John Jervis, first earl of St. Vincent [q. v.], who married Martha Parker, George Parker's sister. William Parker entered the navy in February 1793 as ‘captain's servant’ on board the Orion, with Captain John Thomas Duckworth [q. v.] After a voyage to the West Indies in the squadron under Rear-admiral Gardner, his ship was attached to the Channel fleet under Lord Howe, and took part in the battle of 1 June 1794. In March 1795 young Parker followed Duckworth to the Leviathan, and again went to the West Indies, where, in October 1796, he was appointed by Duckworth, while in temporary command of the station, acting lieutenant of the Magicienne, a frigate employed during the next eighteen months in active and successful cruising. In May 1798 he was appointed to the Queen, flagship of Sir Hyde Parker (1739–1807) [q. v.], but still as an acting lieutenant; he was not confirmed in the rank till March 1799. On 1 May 1799 he was appointed by Sir Hyde acting captain of the Volage of 24 guns, in which during the next few months he cruised with signal success in the Gulf of Mexico and on the coast of Cuba. His commission as commander was confirmed on 10 Oct., but he had previously been moved into the Stork sloop, in which in the following year he returned to England; and, after nearly a year in the North Sea, or attached to the fleet off Brest, he was advanced to post rank on 9 Oct. 1801.

In March 1802 he was appointed to the Alarm, one of the few ships kept in commission during the peace; and in November he was moved to the Amazon of 38 guns, which he commanded for upwards of eleven years. During the first part of this time the Amazon was attached to the fleet off Toulon, under Lord Nelson, whom in 1805 she accompanied in the celebrated chase of Villeneuve to the West Indies. She was afterwards detached on a cruise to the westward, and was still absent when Nelson sailed from Portsmouth to fight the battle of Trafalgar. In the following December the Amazon was attached to the squadron under Sir John Borlase Warren [q. v.], which on 14 March 1806 fell in with and captured the French Marengo and Belle Poule. The Belle Poule was actually brought to action by the Amazon, and struck to her; and Warren publicly expressed his high appreciation of Parker's conduct. During the following years the Amazon was employed for the most part on the coast of Spain and Portugal, almost constantly on the move; the work was very harassing, and gave no opportunities for distinction. In May 1810 the frigate was sent home for a thorough refit, and on her arrival in Plymouth Sound Parker obtained three months' leave of absence. On 10 June he married Frances Anne, youngest daughter of Sir Theophilus Biddulph. At the close of the three months he rejoined the ship, and sailed again for the coast of Spain. During 1811 the Amazon was attached to the fleet off Brest and in the Channel. By the beginning of 1812 she was quite worn out, and was paid off on 16 Jan.

Parker was now glad to have a spell on shore. The great opportunities, he believed, were at an end, and the war was not likely to last much longer. He had acquired a competent fortune; he bought a place—Shenstone Lodge—near Lichfield, and there, for the next fifteen years, led the life of a country gentleman—hunting, shooting, and entertaining his friends—taking little part in politics; and, though a deputy-lieutenant of the county, seldom interfering in the business. On 4 June 1815 he was nominated a C.B. In 1827 he was offered the command at the Cape of Good Hope, with a commodore's broad pennant. He replied that his uncle had always maintained that no one ought to serve as a flag officer who had not commanded a ship of the line; and that, in obedience to this precept, he would much prefer an appointment as captain. He was accordingly appointed to the Warspite, in which he went out to the Mediterranean, and acted during 1828 as senior officer on the coast of Greece. In September Sir Edward Codrington [q. v.] hoisted his flag on board the Warspite for a passage to England, and in December Parker was appointed to command the royal yacht Prince Regent.

On 22 July 1830 he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and in April 1831 was appointed second in command of the Channel squadron, under Sir Edward Codrington, with his flag in the Prince Regent, of 120 guns. In September he was detached on an independent command to the Tagus, where, with his flag in the Asia, he remained till June 1834, protecting British interests during the bitter civil war then raging, with a tact and success which were acknowledged by his being nominated a K.C.B. on 16 July. In July he returned to England, and was immediately appointed one of the lords of the admiralty under Lord Auckland. On the change of ministry in December he went out of office, but in April 1835 was reappointed, Lord Auckland being again the first lord. He remained at the admiralty for six years, and left it on 12 May 1841, only on his appointment as commander-in-chief in China, where the troubled state of affairs demanded the presence of an officer in whom the government had full confidence.

Parker assumed command of the squadron at Hong Kong on 10 Aug.; and, after capturing Amoy, Ningpo, Woosung, and Shanghai, brought matters to a successful issue by seizing Chin-kiang-foo and closing the entrance of the Grand Canal on 21 July 1842. The Chinese were immediately brought to terms, and peace was concluded at Nankin on 27 Aug. Parker's share in this happy result was rewarded by a G.C.B. on 18 May 1843, by a good-service pension of 300l. a year on 26 April 1844, and by a baronetcy on his return to England on 18 Dec. 1844. He had attained the rank of vice-admiral on 23 Nov. 1841, and in February 1845 was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, the 120-gun ship Hibernia, which was laid down in 1792, and is still, in 1895, afloat as a receiving ship in Malta harbour, being commissioned as his flagship. In May 1846 it was thought advisable, both as a concentration of force and on account of Parker's long experience of Portugal and Portuguese politics, to appoint him also to the command of the Channel fleet. This brought him from Smyrna and Constantinople to Cork, where he arrived on 13 July, to receive a very pressing invitation from Lord Auckland to join the board of admiralty as first sea lord. Parker felt obliged to decline; his health, he thought, would not stand the work, and his eyes threatened to give out if pressed by candle-light. In the course of the next few months the squadron visited Lisbon, Lagos, Cadiz, Tetuan, and Gibraltar; and while many of the ships remaining in the Mediterranean wintered at Athens, the Hibernia, with several more, was at anchor in the Tagus, and continued there during the first half of 1847. Parker then returned to the Mediterranean, where the turmoil of revolutions kept him busily occupied during 1848 and the following years. The difficulties he had to contend with were, however, mostly diplomatic; and though his correspondence is an interesting commentary on the troubled state of affairs, it contains little of personal moment. His actual share in the diplomacy or politics of the period was small; what he had to do was to keep an effective force, and to let it be known all along the coast that the English interests were adequately protected. It was at this time that the Mediterranean fleet, always the standard of naval drill, attained a perfection which had never been equalled, and which for many years afterwards—as long as battleships had masts and yards—was referred to as what ‘was done in old Billy Parker's time.’

In September 1849 Parker moved his flag to the Queen. On 29 April 1851 he attained the rank of admiral, but was continued in the command till March 1852, when he was relieved by Rear-admiral James Whitley Deans Dundas [q. v.], and returned to England. He struck his flag at Spithead on 28 April. In July he was nominated chairman of a committee to inquire into the manning of the navy, which the recent repeal of the navigation laws had made a question of vital importance. It was out of the recommendations of this committee that the existing system of continuous service came into being, though at first, and for many years, only partially and tentatively. From May 1854 to May 1857 Parker was commander-in-chief at Devonport, and during this time was repeatedly consulted confidentially by the successive first lords of the admiralty. Among other points on which he was privately consulted were Lord Dundonald's plan for the destruction of the enemy's fleet, regulations for men professing to be Roman catholics to attend mass, and the conduct of the second China war. After his retirement he lived principally at Shenstone Lodge. On 20 May 1862 he was appointed rear-admiral of the United Kingdom, and on 27 April 1863 was promoted to be admiral of the fleet. He died of a sharp attack of bronchitis on 13 Nov. 1866. He was buried privately in his parish churchyard, but a handsome monument to his memory was erected, by subscription, in Lichfield Cathedral. By his wife, who survived him for five years, he had issue two sons and six daughters. A portrait by Drummond, another by Severn, and a picture of the Amazon engaging the Belle Poule, by Pocock, were lent to the Naval exhibition of 1891 by Sir W. Biddulph Parker, his eldest son.

No officer of Parker's day made so deep an impression on the navy, by reason, not of extraordinary talent, but of exceptional fixity of purpose. In his youth he was considered by St. Vincent and by Nelson as a first-rate officer. As an admiral—in Portugal, in China, in the Mediterranean—his conduct was distinguished by skill and tact. But it was as a disciplinarian that his name was best known, not only in his own time, but to the generation which followed him; strict, but not harsh, with a fervent sense of religion and zeal for the service, ever bearing in mind the example of his great uncle, he made everything bend to his idea of what was right. Some of his ideas appeared capricious. He disliked smoking, for instance, and took care that no officer should remain in the flagship who was guilty of the habit. He liked to see those around him wear the sloping cap-peaks which are now regulation, but were then a fancy of his own; and for many years after he had struck his flag in the Mediterranean these were always spoken of as ‘promotion-peaks.’ A physical and family peculiarity is perhaps of greater interest—the extreme longevity of himself and his lineal ancestors, who for five successive generations attained the average age of eighty-six.

[The life of Parker, with a history of the navy of his time, has been written at great length by Admiral Sir Augustus Phillimore, who was for several years Parker's flag-lieutenant in the Mediterranean, and on terms of intimate friendship with him to the last. An abridged edition, still a bulky volume, has been published under the title of The Last of Nelson's Captains.]

J. K. L.