The Mutiny Of 1797


In the course of February and March, 1797, Lord Howe received several

anonymous letters, enclosing petitions from the ships' companies of a

number of vessels of the Channel fleet, asking for increased pay and

better provisions. These letters, though coming from different quarters,

were apparently written by the same hand, and the authorities judging
br /> that they were so, and that they represented an agitation carried on by

one person, took but little notice of them.

A word to the wise is sufficient, but governments are not always wise,

or the Admiralty would at least have made inquiries as to the justice of

the demands made. Of this, however, they can hardly have been unaware,

for while the pay of the army and the militia had been increased, the

pay of the navy had remained the same from the time of Charles II., and

many abuses had sprung up in the administration of the commissariat

which bore very hardly upon the men. The greed of purveyors and the

corruption of commissioners provided them with food short in quantity

and often unfit to eat; while under the system then in vogue the ship's

purser was allowed to deduct two ounces in every pound of provisions

served out to the men and a similar proportion of grog and beer in lieu

of direct wages from the government.

It soon became evident, however, that the disaffection was far more

formidable than was at first supposed. On the return of the Channel

fleet into port a secret correspondence was arranged between all the

ships that composed it; and this ended in a unanimous agreement that no

ship should lift an anchor until a redress of grievances was obtained.

At this stage it was reported to Lord Spencer, the head of the

Admiralty, that a general conspiracy had been entered into to take

command of the fleet on April 16th; to test which on the 15th Lord

Bridport ordered the signal to prepare for sea. But instead of the men

proceeding to weigh anchor, they manned the rigging and gave three

cheers, as the signal for mutiny, and every other ship followed the


The officers of every ship exerted themselves to their utmost to bring

their men back to obedience; but all their endeavours were vain. The

fleet being now in the complete possession of the seamen, every ship's

company appointed two delegates, and Lord Howe's cabin was fixed upon as

their place of consultation. On the 17th an oath was administered to

every man in the fleet to support the cause in which they had engaged,

and ropes were reeved to the yard arms in every ship as signals of the

punishment that would be inflicted on those that betrayed it. Several

officers who had made themselves particularly obnoxious to their

respective crews were sent ashore.

In the meantime, though the admiral was restricted from putting to sea,

he retained the command of the fleet in every other respect; the

strictest discipline was maintained and the severest orders and

regulations were enacted by the delegates, enjoining the most respectful

attention to their officers, and threatening disobedience with rigorous


On the 18th two petitions, one to the Admiralty and the other to the

House of Commons, were drawn up and signed by the delegates. They were

both worded with the highest propriety of expression and respect. The

petition to parliament stated that the price of all articles necessary

for subsistence having advanced at least thirty per cent. since the

reign of Charles II., when the seamen's pay was settled as at present,

they requested that a proportionate relief might be granted to them. It

represented at the same time that, while their loyalty was equal to that

of the army, the pensions of Chelsea had been augmented to thirteen

pounds a year, but those of Greenwich still remained at seven. The

petition to the Admiralty contained a recital of the services rendered

by the petitioners and a warm declaration of their readiness to defend

their country, and set forth the low rate of their pay, and the

insufficiency of their allowance of provisions, demanding increase of

both, together with the liberty of going ashore while in harbour and the

continuance of pay to wounded seamen till cured and discharged.

Such, in the meanwhile, was the alarm of the public, and particularly of

the government, that it was judged necessary to transfer the board of

Admiralty to Portsmouth, in order to be nearer at hand to inspect the

transactions on board the fleet, and to consult on the readiest and most

likely means of quelling the discontent, the consequences of which might

prove ruinous to the nation by throwing open the Channel and all the

neighbouring seas to the uncontrolled dominion of the French fleets and


The first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer, accompanied by Lord Arden

and Admiral Young, repaired accordingly to Portsmouth, where they

directly proceeded to take into consideration the petition that had been

transmitted to the board. They authorised Lord Bridport to inform the

ships' companies that they would recommend the king to propose to

parliament an augmentation of pay to the seamen in the navy at the rate

of four shillings a month to petty officers and able seamen, three

shillings to ordinary seamen, and two shillings to landsmen. Seamen

wounded in action were also to continue in the receipt of their pay till

cured or declared unable to serve, when they should be allowed a pension

or admitted into Greenwich Hospital.

To this notification the seamen replied by requesting that the

long-established distinctions in the navy, of able and ordinary seamen,

should be retained; the pay of the former to be raised to one shilling a

day, and that of petty officers and ordinary seamen in the usual

proportion; they also requested that the pay of the marines while on

board should be the same as of ordinary seamen, and that the pensions

of Greenwich Hospital should be increased to ten pounds.

On April 20th the lords of the Admiralty notified to Lord Bridport their

compliance with the demands of the seamen, directing him to make it

known through the fleet, and to require, in consequence, an immediate

return of the people to their duty, on pain of forfeiting their right to

smart-money, to pensions from the chest of Chatham, and to an admission

into Greenwich Hospital, and of being made responsible for the

consequences that might ensue from the continuance of their

disobedience. They were informed, at the same time, that an unqualified

pardon for all that had taken place would be granted to every ship's

company that should, within one hour of these resolutions being

communicated to them, submit to their officers and cease to hold farther

intercourse with those who remained in a state of mutiny.

On the 21st, Admirals Gardner, Colpoys and Poole went on board the

Royal Charlotte in order to confer with the delegates, who explicitly

informed them that it was the determination of the crews to agree to

nothing that should not be sanctioned by parliament and guaranteed by

the king's proclamation. Admiral Gardner was so irritated by this

declaration that he seized one of the delegates by the collar, and swore

he would have them all hanged, with every fifth man throughout the

fleet. This behaviour of the admiral so exasperated the ship's company

that it was with difficulty he escaped with his life.

The delegates from the Royal George returned immediately to their ship

and informed their crew of what had happened; after some consultation

they resolved to summon all the delegates on board their ship. This was

forthwith done by hoisting the red, a signal that struck terror through

the fleet, as it was not generally understood; the officers in

particular being apprehensive that some fatal designs were in agitation.

The crew now proceeded to load their guns, to order the watch to be kept

as at sea, and to put everything in a state of defence.

On the following day the ships' crews directed two letters to be

written, one to the lords of the Admiralty, to acquaint them with the

motives for their conduct on the preceding day, and another to Lord

Bridport, in which they styled him their father and their friend, and

assured him of their respect and attachment. This induced him to return

to his ship the next day, the 23rd, and to rehoist his flag, which he

had struck during the confusion on the 21st. After a short and pathetic

address to the crew he informed them that he had brought with him a

redress of all their grievances and the king's pardon for what had

passed. After some deliberation these offers were accepted and every man

returned to his duty.

From April 23rd to May 7th the fleet remained in due subordination; but

on that day a fresh mutiny broke out. The seamen, from whatever cause it

arose, had conceived a mistrust of government, and apprehending a

violation of the promises made to them, renewed their former menaces. As

soon as this alarming intelligence arrived, government dispatched with

all speed a person of the highest weight and authority to quell this

unexpected tumult. This was Lord Howe, an officer long held in the first

degree of respect and esteem in the British navy, and personally beloved

by all that had served under him for his humane disposition as well as

for his many great qualities. His presence and exhortations wrought the

desired effect, and happily dissipated the suspicions that were

beginning to prevail.

Conformably to the expectation of the public, the House of Commons on

May 8th took into consideration the estimates laid before it by the

ministry, for the purpose of augmenting the pay, and the Bill, as soon

as it was framed, went through the necessary formalities without delay,

and immediately received the royal assent by commission.

The suppression of the disturbances among the seamen at Portsmouth,

without recurring to violent measures, and by granting their petitions,

occasioned universal satisfaction, and it was hoped that no farther

complaints would arise. These reasonable expectations were, however,

wholly disappointed by a fresh mutiny that broke out at the Nore on May


The crews on that day took possession of their respective ships, elected

delegates to preside over them, and to draw up a statement of their

demands and transmit them to the lords of the Admiralty. These demands

went much farther than those of the seamen at Portsmouth and Plymouth,

and were not met with the same indulgence. On June 6th, in the morning,

the fleet at the Nore was joined by the Agamemnon, Leopard,

Ardent, and Isis men-of-war, together with the Ranger sloop, which

ships had deserted from the fleet under Admiral Duncan.

The principal person at the head of this mutiny was one Richard Parker,

a man of good natural parts and some education, and of a remarkably bold

and resolute character. Admiral Buckner, the commanding officer at the

Nore, was directed by the lords of the Admiralty to inform the seamen

that their demands were totally inconsistent with the good order and

regulations necessary to be observed in the navy, and could not for that

reason be complied with; but that on returning to their duty they would

receive the king's pardon for their breach of obedience. To this offer

Parker replied by a declaration that the seamen had unanimously

determined to keep possession of the fleet until the lords of the

Admiralty had repaired to the Nore and redressed the grievances which

had been laid before them.

In order to put an end with all possible expedition to a mutiny that

appeared so dangerous, Lord Spencer, Lord Arden and Admiral Young

hastened immediately to Sheerness and held a board, at which Parker and

the other delegates attended; but their behaviour was so audacious that

the lords of the Admiralty returned to town without the least success.

The principal article of complaint on the part of the mutineers was the

unequal distribution of prize-money, for the omission of which they much

blamed their fellow-seamen at Portsmouth. On the return of the lords of

the Admiralty from Sheerness a proclamation was issued offering His

Majesty's pardon to all such of the mutineers as should immediately

return to their duty; intimating at the same time Admiral Buckner was

the proper person to be applied to on such an occasion. All the buoys,

by the order of government, were removed from the mouth of the Thames

and the neighbouring coast; from which precaution any ships that might

attempt to get away would be in danger of running aground. Great

preparations were also made at Sheerness against an attack from the

mutinous ships, which had manifested some strong indications of an

intention to bombard that place; and furnaces and hot balls were kept


Emboldened by the strength of men and shipping in their hands, and

resolved to persevere in their demand till they had exhorted a

compliance, the mutineers proceeded to secure a sufficiency of

provisions for that purpose by seizing two vessels laden with stores,

and sent notice ashore that they intended to block up the Thames and cut

off all communication between London and the sea in order to force

government to a speedy accession to their terms. They began the

execution of this menace by mooring four of their vessels across the

mouth of the river and stopping several ships that were coming from the


These transactions, while they excited the greatest alarm in the nation,

were violently reprobated by the seamen belonging to the two divisions

of the fleet lying at Portsmouth and at Plymouth. Each of them addressed

an admonition to their fellow-seamen at the Nore, warmly condemning

their proceedings as a scandal to the name of British seamen, and

exhorting them to be content with the indulgence already granted by

government, and to return to their duty without insisting on more

concessions than had been demanded by the rest of the navy.

But these warnings proved ineffectual. The reinforcement of the four

ships lately arrived, and the expectation of being joined by others,

induced them to persist in their demands. The committee of delegates on

board the Sandwich came to a determination to commission Lord

Northesk, whom they had kept in confinement in the Montague, of which

he was commander, to repair to the king in the name of the fleet, and

to acquaint him with the conditions on which they were willing to

deliver up the ships. The petition which he was charged to lay before

the king was highly respectful and loyal to him, but very severe on his

ministers, and they required an entire compliance with every one of

their demands, threatening on the refusal of any to put immediately to

sea. Lord Northesk readily undertook to be the bearer of their petition,

but told them that from the unreasonableness of their demands he could

not flatter them with the hope of success. Confiding in him, they said,

as the seamen's friend, they had entrusted him with this mission on

pledging his honour to return with a clear and positive answer within

fifty-four hours.

Lord Northesk departed accordingly for London, and was introduced by

Lord Spencer to the king. But no answer being returned to the message,

and information being brought to the fleet that the nation at large

highly disapproved of their proceedings, great divisions took place

among the delegates, and several of the ships deserted the others--not,

however, without much contest and bloodshed. The mutineers, despairing

now of accomplishing their designs, struck the red flag, which they had

hoisted as the signals of mutiny, and restored a free passage to the

trade of the metropolis. Every ship was now left at its own command, and

they all gradually returned to obedience, though on board of some

violent struggles happened between the mutineers and the loyal parties.

The principal conductor of the mutiny, Richard Parker, was seized and

imprisoned, and after a solemn trial that lasted three days on board of

the Neptune, was sentenced to death. He suffered with great coolness

and intrepidity, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and

expressing his hope that mercy might be extended to his associates. But

it was judged necessary to make public examples of the principal and

most guilty, who were accordingly tried, and after full proof of their

criminality, condemned and executed. Others remained under sentence of

death till after the great victory obtained over the Dutch fleet at

Camperdown by Admiral Duncan, when His Majesty issued a general pardon.