Poor Parker

DESCRIPTION: The singer laments, "Ye gods above, protect us widows!" She recalls her husband [Richard] Parker, "hanged for mutiny." She recalls how she was not allowed to his execution, and how she and friends dug up his grave and gave him a decent burial
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: before 1824 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 28(42))
KEYWORDS: ship navy mutiny punishment execution husband wife burial mourning
1797 - Nore mutiny, ending in the execution of Richard Parker and others
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South),Scotland) US(Ro,SE)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Reeves-Circle 29, "The Death of Parker" (1 text)
BrownII 117, Poor Parker"" (1 text)
BrownSchinhanIV 117, "Poor Parker" (1 excerpt, 1 tune)
Hubbard, #136, "Parker" (1 text, 1 tune)
Logan, pp. 58-64, "Death of Parker" (1 text)
Palmer-Sea 75, "President Parker" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 282, "The Death of Parker" (1 text, immediately following an anti-Parker song)

ST BrII117 (Partial)
Roud #1032
Bodleian, 2806 c.18(83), "The Death of Parker," Angus (Newcastle), before 1826; also Harding B 28(42), "Parker's Widow," W. Armstrong (Liverpool), 1820-1824 (barely legible); Harding B 25(490) (only a few words legible but probably this); Johnson Ballads 2447 (semi-legible); Harding B 11(843); Harding B 11(840)=Harding B 11(841), "The Death of Parker," H. Such (London), 1863-1885; Harding B 11(844), "The Death of Parker," J Harkness (Preston), 1840-1866; 2806 c.16(207)=Harding B 11(3301), J. Walker (Durham); 2806 c.13(245) (only partly legible)
NOTES [4201 words]: Living conditions in sailing ships were rarely pleasant, but conditions in the British Navy in the late eighteenth century were particularly bad. Sailor's food, supplied by dishonest contractors (M/D, p. 45), was often insufficient and rotten (M/D, p. 43), and they were all but imprisoned on their ships. Plus, the sailors (most of them, of course, recruited by press gangs; Dugan, p. 58) were held in service for very long periods. Many were beaten mercilessly for bad reasons or none -- or, perhaps, "to encourage the others"; cruel officers were one of their chief causes of complaint (M/D, pp. 55-61).
Theoretically, rations were supposed to be adequate and fresh food offered when possible. But the Navy farmed out these services, and the contractors were generally corrupt and supplied bad food in inadequate quantities; Dugan, pp. 56-57. Even if the contractors had been entirely honest, it would have been hard for them to do their work well, because they, like the sailors, were not getting paid what they were owed; Dugan, p. 67.
Nor could the men hope to buy anything to improve their conditions; pay hadn't been raised for over a century (Guttridge, p. 46), and even those pitiful amounts often went unpaid; Dugan, p. 35, says that the total arrears as of the end of 1796 exceeded 1.4 million pounds -- a figure that could be multiplied by a factor of a hundred or so to reach modern dollars. M/D, p. 18, cites a source claiming some sailors had not been paid for decades, although no proof was offered.
And all this at a time when the British economy was teetering on the brink of collapse and revolution may have been in the air (Dugan, pp. 29-31); many of those sailors had families back home who were in extreme distress (Dugan, p. 66).
Dissatisfaction with naval policy was enough that, when the windows at Number Ten Downing Street were broken, the general feeling was that it was in response to the heavy demands of the press gang, though Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger brushed it off as "a single pebble" (Wilson, p. 278).
To top it all off, Britain was already war-weary from the contest with France, and was so broke that payment in specie had been halted in many cases (M/D, p. 6). The nation had little energy for reform -- especially since the Navy was considered to be doing a rather poor job (M/D, p. 4); why try to reform a service that was so wrong-headed? The fact that this was the fault of the antique senior officers, not the seamen, does not seem to have crossed Parliament's mind.
M/D, p. 246, note how Nelson repeatedly warned of problems with pay -- but, in 1797, no one cared about Nelson.
The result of all this, in 1797, was a series of mutinies -- at a time when Britain's very independence depended on the fleet holding off a invasion; Britain's land allies had been defeated by Revolutionary France, and the French were looking across the channel to eliminate their chief rival.
There had been several recent mutinies -- on Culloden and Windsor Castle in 1794, and of course on the Bounty in 1789 (M/D, p. 8), plus the dreadful case of the Hermione (for which see "Captain James (The Captain's Apprentice)"), but those had been treated as individual acts. The events of 1797-1798 were different. The sailors wrote to the Admiralty, and to their former commander Admiral Howe (M/D, pp. 21-25), begging for relief. When there was no response, they tried Parliament (M/D, p. 27). Still nothing. When orders came for the fleet to sail, the sailors refused (M/D, p. 32).
M/D, p. 245, declare that "There can be no doubt, to any fair mind, that the mutinies, especially that at Spithead, were thoroughly justified."
The first mutiny (April 16-May 14, 1797) took place at Spithead, the fleet base outside Portsmouth; Keegan, p. 38, describes it as "a strike (for better pay and conditions) rather than a rebellion," and most other authorities agree -- the delegates who organized it decided that officers would be obeyed and all orders respected except those for going to sea (Dugan, p. 92; Guttridge, p. 50; M/D, pp. 36-37). Even Wilson, who does his best to sweep the whole thing under the rug (he never so much as mentions the brutal treatment meted out to the ringleaders of the Nore revolt), admits that "order, maintained by the mutineers, was perfect. No seaman was permitted to go on shore without what was called 'a Liberty Ticket,' and the very idea of handing over even a single vessel to France was suppressed by the seamen themselves with resolute determination" (pp. 278-279).
The sailors in fact hung ropes from the yardarms, by orders of their delegates, to hang sailors who violated discipline (M/D, p. 39). The delegates even ordered several ships which had been designated for convoy escort, which wanted to stay in Spithead, to sail and do their duty (M/D, p. 40). There was on incident in which several sailors were killed, but the officer involved fired first, and the delegates ordered him to be spared (M/D, pp. 83-84).
As Stokesbury says on p. 188, "This was not red revolution, as had happened across the Channel... this was simply a desperate reaction by men who had been pushed farther than humanity and decency could stand. The sailors were ready to fight the French if they came out, but they had finally had enough of rotten conditions, meager pay and rations, and officers who were often martinets and occasionally brutes.... It was in fact less of a mutiny than it was a sit-down strike."
The Spithead mutiny temporarily ended, after repeated attempts to browbeat the determined sailors, when pardons were offered and more money promised (Dugan, p. 104, describes about a 15% pay raise).
The pardons came quickly (Dugan, p. 112, Guttridge, p. 53; M/D, p. 51, note that First Lord of the Admiralty Spencer himself brought the request to King George III). But it took parliament weeks to vote the funds (M/D, p. 70), and in that time, the mutiny heated up again (Dugan, p. 112) as sailors sought better food and less brutal officers.
Many officers were forced from their ships (Dugan, pp. 138-139; M/D, p. 89), and an admiral imprisoned in his cabin (Guttridge, p. 58; Dugan, p. 142; Davies, pp. 53-54; M/D, p. 81). Real trouble seemed likely if the government did not act (M/D, p. 92); there were moves on some ships to court-martial certain officers.
It is ironic to note that the Spithead strike was settled largely by the actions of Richard Howe (1726-1799), who previously had been co-commander with his brother William during the revolt of the American colonies; he was hauled out of retirement to deal with the Spithead problem (Dugan, p. 148). It was the last act 58 years of service to king and country. The Spithead outcome demonstrated fully his sympathy with ordinary people against the government of George III; even went so far as to set aside the bad officers (Guttridge, p. 58). Howe showed no respect for rank in the weeding process; those pushed aside included a Vice Admiral (John Colpoys, MP, KG, and former First Sea Lord), four captains, and 102 junior officers (Dugan, pp. 168-169), an average of somewhat more than two officers per ship. Some of the officers were re-employed, and all continued to be paid (M/D, p. 112), but Colpoys would never go to sea again (M/D, p. 97).
The promise of pardon for the mutineers seems to have been kept without any reservations. M/D, p. 118, report that there seem to have been no instances of retribution over Spithead; several of the fleet Delegates were in fact promoted. One even became a midshipman within a year.
To the greatest extent possible, news of Spithead was kept quiet -- both to keep the French from acting and to prevent more widespread rebellion (Dugan, p. 130). Spithead, after all, wasn't the only fleet base in Britain. But not even the vigilance of the leading admirals could entirely silence the news (Woodman, p. 112). So the Spithead strike inspired the Nore mutiny (May 10-June 16). M/D, p. 126, suggest that the Nore mutiny was a sort of sympathy strike to make sure the Admiralty got the point. But it escalated (in part, perhaps, because the Nore sailors did not get to do anything about bad officers).
The ships at the Nore, and many of those at Yarmouth, wanted the same terms ("We just want the same treatment as the Spithead people," an envoy told Howe -- Dugan, p. 172), including the right to dispose of officers (Guttridge, p. 69), and didn't get them, and what they got, they got slowly. Nor was it clear that the sailors at the Nore were covered by the Spithead pardon (indeed, it was eventually decided that they were not; Dugan, p. 212; Guttridge, p. 66). Left dangling in the wind, the Nore mutineers kept increasing their demands, including even calling for change in the Articles of War (Guttridge, p. 64; Cordingly, p. 38), which was patently out of the question.
Perhaps if there had been a Howe to deal with the Nore mutineers, things might have gone better. Even a sense of unit cohesion might have helped, since it would have promoted a greater sense of "family" between officers and men -- but there was none; the Nore was simply a place where a lot of ships gathered (M/D, p. 125). The men at the Nore were a very mixed lot. Many of the sailors there -- including Richard Parker, the titular leader of the coming mutiny -- were "quota men." With the navy being manned so heavily, it was almost impossible to impress enough sailors, so officials in all parts of Britain had to supply a certain quota of landsmen; they found them sweeping the streets and alleys and by paying bounties. Often the men they got were marginally fit -- older and unused to sea conditions. And more than a few were radicals; Thomas Payne's The Rights of Man was very popular at this time (Dugan, p. 63). Valentine Joyce, the leader of the Spithead protestors, was one such; he had been a Belfast tobacco seller before serving a sentence for sedition.
This lack of unity was due to the fact that the Nore (near the mouth of the Thames off the Isle of Sheppey) wasn't a fleet base the way Portsmouth was; it was a rendezvous point (Dugan, pp. 177, 227). It was not, in modern terms, a "home port" for any of the ships stationed there, and the docking facilities were limited (Herman, p. 351). The ships located there were mostly in transit, on their way to join some other fleet. The ships there were there, essentially, by chance. There was no competent admiral to convey their demands, either. So they mutinied.
M/D, p. 252, say, "It is difficult to feel the same way about the people at the Nore [as about those at Spithead]. One's sympathy they have, but less of one's admiration and respect. It was, from the beginning, a muddle-headed affair. One can see no error in their action as long as it constituted a sympathetic strike in favour of their brethren at Spithead; but their behavior after they knew that the mutiny there was settled... partakes of the wild and foolish. One may, indeed one does, feel very much for them; there were still many wrongs which they suffered.... One may even grant that there was just cause for another mutiny; their conduct of it is what provokes criticism. To begin with, there was hardly any preliminary organization...."
The Nore revolt was a more thorough mutiny than at Spithead; the men were rowdier and more officers were set aside (M/D, p. 135). Strangely, the mutineers seem to have had no specific demands at first (M/D, p. 136).
And, somehow, two days after the mutiny began, the disobedient crews put themselves in the hands of Richard Parker. Dugan, p. 187, tells of him being chosen delegate from Sandwich; later he was made "President of the Delegates of the Whole Fleet"; p. 198. He was an unusual man even in this mixed-up flotilla.
Our data about his personal life is limited. Cordingly, p. 36, guesses his birth data as 1764, based on the fact that he was said to be 33 at the time of his death. But M/D, p. 269, states that he was born in Exeter in April 1767.
Parker had actually served at one time as a junior ship's officer, but had been cashiered for what Guttridge, p. 62, calls an "obscure infraction" and Cordingly, p. 37, labels "immoral conduct." M/D, in their notes on his life on p. 269, list no details on what happened. Whatever it was, he sent to serve belowdecks; Guttridge, p. 62, says that "in 1784 [he] was discharged for either disobedience or nervous disorder, perhaps both." Here again, however, there is uncertainty; Dugan, p. 198, says he was discharged in 1794 for rheumatism; Cordingly, p. 37, simply says he was sick. M/D, p. 269 says that he was "discharged sick." Perhaps he suffered from mental illness; M/D, p. 122, describe what sounds like a suicide attempt. Having married (perhaps 1791; M/D, p. 269) and gone into farming, he ended up in debtor's prison (Dugan, p. 198).
Even though he was a "political," as we might say these days, he had sea experience, so he was accepted back into the navy -- to meet the quota. At least he knew his way around the ship. His enlistment bounty was used to pay his debts (Cordingly, p. 37).
We have little evidence as to his motivations. Davies, p. 54, calls him "a misguided man, who was undoubtedly a demagogue more interested in leading a rebellion than in correcting genuine wrongs." Dugan, p. 199, thinks he was given his position at the head of the mutiny because he was an intelligent, educated man; because he had that history of being court-martialed for insubordination (something that would have earned him respect from the ranks) -- and because he wanted the job (although he would later deny this; M/D, p. 135). Despite his later role, he seems to have been surprised at the outbreak of the mutiny (M/D, pp. 134-135). M/D, p. 135, conclude that he was not a good leader; he could not dominate others.
The Nore mutiny was organized under the Admiralty's nose, with sailors on the depot ship Sandwich preparing an oath and a series of demands, then convincing other ships to sign on (Dugan, pp. 179-181). Unlike Spithead, it was not a "respectable mutiny"; even at the very start, there were instances of British ships firing on other British ships (Dugan, p. 185). And the Admiralty was far less patient, calling up soldiers very quickly (M/D, p. 147).
The rebellion even affected the ships at sea watching the Dutch; Admiral Duncan's fleet, based at Yarmouth, was also afflicted by insubordination (M/D, pp. 171-181). Some of these went to the Nore to reinforce the "Floating Republic" (M/D, pp. 182-183). Parker at one point had 13 ships of the line (Dugan, p. 262), plus lesser vessels, under his command. (Though ships joined the rebellion and gave it up at odd intervals; by the end, only two ships were still under delegate control.) Many ships were "half in" from the start -- e.g. Circe, watching the Dutch fleet in the Texel, had a mutinous crew on the gun deck, but held to her duty because her officers and a few loyal sailors controlled her helm and sails; Dugan, pp. 255-256.
This time, the Admiralty took a hard line, saying all grievances had been addressed (Dugan, p. 227). Naturally the mutineers did not accept this brush-off, and continued their strike.
But the Nore simply could not support such an action; the facilities weren't there. The mutineers eventually found themselves starved out. They blockaded London (Guttridge, p. 68), although they let fresh food through (Dugan, p. 264; M/D, p. 251, offers this as evidence that the sailors were not revolutionaries, since they could have done more). The Admiralty cut off supplies in return (Dugan, p. 237), which had not been done at Spithead (M/D, pp. 161-162; M/D, p. 186, says that the government blockaded the ships first rather than the reverse). To make their problem worse, many of the ships in the rebellious fleet had been poorly supplied to begin with; water and candles were in short supply (Dugan, p. 262), and some ships were low on wood for the stoves. On at least one ship, water was not only rationed but closely guarded (M/D, p. 219).
Parker, by the time the embargo started, found himself in an impossible situation. The authorities didn't trust him -- but several of his rebellious ships were wavering; many wanted to return to government authority. Parker at one point asked the men of the Sandwich if they wished to give in, and they did (Dugan, p. 243) -- and the fleet delegates responded by inducing a system where they elected a new Fleet President every day! (Dugan, pp. 243-244). If Parker gave in, he would be set aside. Dugan thinks he wanted to take the pardon but could not.
Meanwhile, Parliament was working on an act which would treat every sailor on a mutinous ship as a pirate (M/D, p. 192). This even though the sailors continued to cheer the King at every chance -- despite the fact that the King involved was George III! With this sort of behavior going on, there was obviously little hope of compromise.
The situation was turning into a race against time, though the mutineers had no way of knowing it: Would William Pitt's government fall, or would the mutineers starve? Voices against Pitt were numerous (Dugan, pp. 259-261), and bond prices were at record lows (Dugan, p. 265), but George III sustained his Prime Minister and the government held on by the skin of its teeth.
The mutineers were also having troublemaking and implementing plans. They considered fleeing in their ships (M/D, pp. 207-208), but they could not agree on a destination (most were still too patriotic to surrender to France), and besides, they had no navigators. Increasingly, the leaders were clamping down on the rank and file -- in the early days of the mutiny, most of the punishments handed out by the delegates were for drunkenness or other genuine faults. By the end, the usual crime was "perjury," i.e. questioning their leaders (M/D, p. 218).
Gradually ships started slipping away from the Nore assembly (Guttridge, p. 67), though some were fired on as they sailed (M/D, p. 220). Parker tried to prevent bloodshed, but was ignored (M/D, p.. 220-221). Having failed to get the sailors to listen, Parker then followed their will and manned a gun himself, seemingly working it in a frenzy (M/D, p. 221).
The attempts to halt the exodus failed. Even some of the delegates gave up (Dugan, p. 269). There was a scramble to obtain terms of surrender (M/D, p. 225). Not that terms were given; the instructions given to the admirals on that spot said that "no encouragement" could be given to "any proposition short of unconditional submission" (M/D, p. 227). Parker himself gave up while half a dozen ships were still holding out. He seems to have made no attempt to escape the government's reach (M/D, pp. 232-233).
The government didn't take any of that into account. As far as they were concerned, it was mutiny, and someone had to be punished. And Parker was the official scapegoat.
What followed reflected badly on Georgian justice. M/D, p. 238, are sure that any court would have condemned Parker to death, but the Admiralty didn't risk it. M/D, p. 239, consider Parker's trial fair, but Dugan strongly dissents, noting in particular the following: Parker was charged with civil offenses, but was treated as a mutineer and subjected to court-martial rather than set him before a jury (which might acquit him). The officers trying him clearly had conflicts of interest. He had no lawyer. He was denied access to evidence -- including even the transcripts of the trial. He was given only a week to prepare his defence (Dugan, p. 329), and was in a dark prison when not in court (M/D, p. 235). All he could do was operate by memory. And the prosecution had assembled an absurd case; many of the witnesses called had absolutely nothing to say, since they had never met or dealt with Parker (Dugan, pp. 332-333).
The verdict, naturally, was just what was expected:
"The court has heard witnesses... [and] is of the opinion that the whole of the charges were fully proved against Richard Parker.
"The court, therefore have determined that the said Richard Parker shall suffer death, and that he be accordingly hanged by the neck until dead on such day, and on board such ship, as the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty shall appoint" (Dugan, p. 348).
Dugan's version of events is extremely anti-George and pro-Parker, but he gives the impression that, had Parker been granted a fair trial (which of course was unlikely), he would have been allowed to live by a jury of the time. An honest military trial today would probably result in a bad conduct discharge and related penalties. He was disobedient -- but he was not treasonous.
There was, of course, no possibility of appeal, save to the King, who had the brains of a sea slug (remember that this is George III, who had already caused the American Revolution, and the Spithead Mutiny, and was about to witness the 1798 Rising in Ireland). George a very high standard of personal sexual morality and absolutely no sympathy for anyone who did not think him the infallible viceroy of God on earth.
Logan seems to agree with Dugan that the trial was a mockery, though his view is less pro-Parker than Dugan: "Parker appears from the evidence to have obtained scant justice; and there can be no doubt that, being an educated man, and rather ambitious of being an orator, he was made the mouthpiece and the tool of harsher natures, whom even in death he did not betray" (p. 62).
On the other hand, Davies, p. 55, says of the trials, "Out of about four hundred [ringleaders], most were pardoned, some were flogged or imprisoned and twenty-eight were hanged. This may be considered a moderate response by the government since, strictly speaking, all mutineers were subject to only one punishment, and that death. On the other hand, even if it had wanted to, the government could not have hanged the whole navy."
The number of executions cannot be considered precise. Dugan agrees that over 300 of the 400+ alleged ringleaders were pardoned, but cites estimates of the number hanged ranging from 24 to 36 -- though mostly toward the high end of that range. Guttridge, who has no sympathy for the mutineers, claims on p. 72 that "sixty mutineers were condemned to death, imprisonment, or flogging. Probably no more than two dozen were hanged, most of them from the Sandwich [Parker's ship]." M/D, p. 242, say 400 were tried, 59 sentenced to die, 29 actually executed.
Such were the ways of Georgian justice that Parker's wife was never officially told he was on trial, and she was denied a final meeting with him. According to Cordingly, pp. 39-41, she hired three different boats to try to reach him; all were turned back. Her only communication with him after his condemnation was a letter he wrote (Dugan, pp. 351-352). Her only sight of him after he went off on his final trip was of his body hanging from a yardarm (Cordingly, p. 36).
Parker was hanged June 30. At the scaffold, there was hesitation about allowing him a final speech. But he cried out to the crowd at the last, avoiding any political references and appealed for mercy for all the other leaders of the revolt (Dugan, p. 356), obviously to limited effect.
The song reportedly describes the disappearance of Parker's body fairly accurately. Ann Parker had asked for the body and been refused; mutineers were denied proper burial (Cordingly, p. 42). He was to be left in unconsecrated ground, but the widow and others stole the body and spirited it away. The authorities did catch up with her, but the church where the body was taken permitted a proper burial with appropriate ceremonies (Dugan, pp. 359-362).
Such was the navy's desire to wash away the memory of the Nore that the Sandwich, where Parker has been President of the fleet, was broken up soon after (Dugan, p. 363. Although it was pretty close to a hulk already, so breaking it up was not unreasonable).
Mrs. Parker outlived her husband by nearly half a century; Dugan (p. 458) reports that, in 1840, she was "seventy, blind, and friendless."
A French invasion during the period of the mutinies might well have succeeded, but the French were too confused to bring one about. England, utterly mismanaged by her government, survived by raw force and a great deal of luck. And, once her sailors were back on duty, they did well; ships from Yarmouth and the Nore helped win the great Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch (M/D, p. 243), halting fears of invasion for a time.
There were any number of broadsides about the Nore and Spithead mutinies (Firth, p. 277, prints "A New Song" about Spithead, and on .p 280 has "British Tars Rewarded" on the same theme; p. 281 has "Parker the Delegate," an anti-Parker song to the tune of "The Vicar of Bray"), but few found their way into tradition, this amazingly widespread song being the primary exception. Dugan, p. 362, indeed notes that those who sold anti-Parker broadsides were attacked in the streets and their song sheets scattered and destroyed. That may be the best comment of all on the state of affairs in Georgian England; the Nore mutiny brought England close to disaster, yet so much was the government disliked that the mutiny's hero became a martyr. - RBW
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