“Poor Parker”


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


For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note.

Living conditions in sailing ships were rarely pleasant, but conditions in the British Navy in the eighteenth century were particularly bad; 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. To top it all off, the sailors (most of them, of course, recruited by press gangs; Dugan, p. 58) were held in service for very long periods. 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).

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.

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). 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 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). But it took parliament weeks to vote the funds, and in that time, the mutiny heated up again (Dugan, p. 112) as sailors ought better food and less brutal officers. (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.)

Many officers were forced from their ships (Dugan, pp. 138-139), and an admiral imprisoned in his cabin (Guttridge, p. 58; Dugan, p. 142; Davies, pp. 53-54).

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.

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). Not every ship had been given the same rewards as the Spithead strikers (e.g. only those at Spithead got deal with 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), 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. Spithead hosted an actual organized fleet, but the Nore was simply a place where a lot of ships gathered (Dugan, pp. 177, 227). 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.

Adding to the complexity was 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. 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. There was no unit cohesion. There was no competent admiral to convey their demands, either. So they mutinied.

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. He was about 30, a quota man, and seemingly a troublemaker; Davies, p. 54, calls him "a misguided man, who was undoubtedly a demagogue more interested in leading a rebellion than in correcting genuine wrongs." He had actually served at one time as a junior ship's officer, but had been cashiered and sent to serve belowdecks; Guttridge, p. 62, says that "in 1784 [he] was discharged for either disobedience or nervous disorder, perhaps both." This appears to be an error, though; Dugan says he was discharged in 1794 for rheumatism (p. 198). Having married (in 1791?) and gone into farming, he ended up in debtor's prison (Dugan, p. 198). But even though he was a "political," as we might say these days, he had sea experience, so he was accepted -- to meet the quota. At least he knew his way around the ship. 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.

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).

Parker at one point had 13 ships of the line (Dugan, p. 262), plus auxiliaries, 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. And, 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; Dugan, p. 264, noted that they let fresh food through) and the Admiralty cut off supplies in return (Dugan, p. 237). 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.

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.

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.

Gradually ships started slipping away from the Nore assembly (Guttridge, p. 67). Even some of the delegates gave up (Dugan, p. 269). Parker himself gave up while half a dozen ships were still holding out.

The government didn't take any of that into account. Nor did they accept that this was another strike for better conditions -- at every stage, the ships had protested their loyalty to the crown, but they were treated as rebels pure and simple. And Parker was the official scapegoat.

What followed reflected very badly on Georgian justice. 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. 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).

Despite the unfairness of the proceedings, the verdict 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).

There was, of course, no possibility of appeal, save to the King, who had 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.

Dugan's version of events is extremely anti-George and pro-Parker, but even knowing that, reading his summary of the trial, I can't help but think that Parker would have been set free by a jury of the time. An honest military trial today would probably result in a bad conduct discharge and related penalties.

Logan seems to agree 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]." James, who is even less sympathetic (he accuses even the leaders of the Spithead mutiny of being "political animals," as if soldiers and sailors had no purpose except to be killed for their country), says on p. 315 that 59 men were hanged.

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. Her only communication with him after his condemnation was a letter he wrote (Dugan, pp. 351-352).

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. 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, soon after, the _Sandwich_, where Parker has been President of the fleet, was broken up soon after (Dugan, p. 363).

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.

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.


Davies: David Davies, _A Brief History of Fighting Ships: Ships of the Line and Napoleonic sea battle 1793-1815_, Carroll & Graf, 1996, 2002

Dugan: James Dugan, _The Great Mutiny_, G. P. Putnam, 1965

Firth: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books)

Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, _Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection_, Naval Institute Press, 1992 (I use the 2002 Berkley edition)

Herman: Arthur Herman, _To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World_, 2004 (I use the 2005 Harper Perennial edition)

James: Lawrence James, _Warrior Race: A History of the British at War_ (Abacus, 2001)

Keegan: John Keegan, _The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare_, Penguin, 1988, 1990

Logan: Logan's _Pedlar's Pack_; see the Ballad Index bibliography for this book.

Wilson: P. W. Wilson, _William Pitt, the Younger_, Doubleday Doran, 1930

Woodman: Richard Woodman, _A Brief History of Mutiny_, Carroll & Graf, 2005 - RBW

Historical references

  • 1797 - Nore mutiny, ending in the execution of Richard Parker and others


  • 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)


  1. BrownII 117, Poor Parker"" (1 text)
  2. Logan, pp. 58-64, "Death of Parker" (1 text)
  3. 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)
  4. Roud #1032
  5. BI, BrII117


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1824 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 28(42))
Found in: Britain(England(South),Scotland) US(SE)