Backwaters of History No.6 – English Naval Mutinies 1797

There are two old, historic and important roads leading out of London, known now-a-days as the A2 and A3 and leading to Dover and Portsmouth respectively. In the late 18th century these were loose surfaced highways, infested by highwaymen and toll gate keepers.

During April, May and June of the year 1797 there was much thundering of horses hooves, rumbling of carriage wheels and creaking of wide flung turnpike gates on these two roads. There was a dashing hither and thither between Whitehall and Portsmouth and Sheerness. Steaming horses were urged on by whip and spur to break speed records. Terrific consternation—the British navy was on strike—right bang in the middle of a war.

Napoleon was threatening to invade England. Part of the fleet were at anchor at Plymouth, at Spithead, at Yarmouth and at The Nore, all in readiness to attack the French fleet if it emerged from Brest.

In March and April the seamen of the Spithead fleet sent a number of petitions to the Admiralty, to Admiral Lord Howe, to Parliament, to Charles James Fox and to the king. The sailors had many grievances.

The main grievance was pay. Rates of pay that were set during the reign of Charles II still prevailed in the reign of George III, about 130 years after, despite great increases in prices. From a sailor’s meagre pay there were many stoppages and most men’s pay was months and months in arrears. Now they asked for a rise and regular pay.

They also wanted an increase in the quantity and even more important, an improvement in the quality of their food. The food they received was maggotty, rotten and mostly inedible. Any little extra they requested was charged to them at extortionate rates and supplies of the sick was embezzled by officers. They wanted proper care for the sick and pay when wounded.

Seamen were kept to their ships for years without shore leave. Conditions were so vile that the Admiralty was afraid to grant shore leave knowing that the men would not return to the sea. Now the sailors petitioned for a modest measure of leave.

The men did not protest about discipline but they did call for the removal of the disciplinary abuses that were rife. Flogging was the main disciplinary punishment and, although naval regulations laid down a maximum of twelve strokes for an offence, no officer was deterred from giving more, even to over a hundred lashes, often for the most trivial offence that was probably provoked by the officers themselves.

    “To be flogged was to be tortured. The first stroke to be laid on by the brawny boatswain’s mate, as hard as he could at the full length of his arm, would always jerk an involuntary ‘Ugh!’ out of even the most hardened unfortunate ‘seized up to’ the grating at the gangway; six blows tore the flesh horribly, while after a dozen the back looked like ‘so much putrified liver.’ After a time the bones showed through, the blood burst from the bitten tongue and lips of the victim, and expelled from his lungs, dribbled from his nostrils and ears. To make sure that the standard of hitting was maintained, the wielder of the cat would be changed every two or three dozen and the blood was wiped off the thongs between each stroke to prevent them sticking together . . . A severe flogging smashed a man, he was ill for weeks after it, and rarely recovered his self-respect if he originally had any good in him.” -“Sea Life in Nelson’s Time,” by John Masefield.)

Ships were rotten, leaky and foul smelling; drinking water was foul; the food caused scurvy; ship doctors were drunkards and without skill; officers like the notorious Captain Bligh of the “Bounty” were brutes.

The war with France made it necessary to double and treble the size of the navy and the ships were manned by men released from debtors prisons, shanghaied from merchant ships in port and recruited by quotas from each county, a bounty being offered to volunteers. Quite a number of men, better educated than the regular seamen, were attracted into the navy by the offer of the bounty.

Secretly, carefully and with success an organisation had been built up in the separate fleets although with little contact between the fleets. A few sporadic, single ship mutinies against the vile conditions had occurred at times during the previous years. The organisation in the separate fleets in 1797 appears to have been spontaneous.

Very wordy petitions, expressing loyalty to king and country and willingness to fight the French if the invasion became imminent, but demanding redress for their grievances were despatched and replies patiently awaited. The organisation at Spithead was tightened up, each ship appointing two delegates and the battleship “Queen Charlotte” selected as unofficial headquarters. Plans for action were circulated, signals arranged and a time set for action. The delegates were mainly young men holding some non-commissioned rank.

Before the plans were complete events on the “Defence” precipitated action and the whole Spithead fleet went on strike. It was called a mutiny but it had none of the hall-marks of the usual mutiny. The men carried on with their normal duties, respected their officers but refused to put to sea. The delegates were afforded the privileges of officers, they maintained strict discipline amongst the men and issued many statements and orders for the control of the strike. Everything on the surface appeared normal but the officers had no power.

The Admiralty and the officers made threats, but the men remained unconcerned. The Admiralty made promises to redress some of the grievances, but the men rejected them. A bill to increase sailors’ pay was introduced into Parliament but there was delay and procrastination and the men became impatient. The most detested officer were put ashore and a fracas broke out on the “London” resulting in the death of one man. Further bloodshed was averted by the delegates and Admiral Colpoys. The delegates court martialled the officers concerned, found them guilty but reprieved them.

When the government realised that the seamen were not to be trifled with it granted their demands. But the delegates were still suspicious. They demanded a Royal Pardon in writing and that the officers they had set ashore should not be returned to their respective ships. Lord Howe was sent to Spithead with the Royal Pardon and authority to grant the men’s demands.

Having achieved their demands the sailors organised a grand gala and there was much carousal and fraternisation between Lord Howe, Portsmouth civil authorities and the seamen. The two most prominent of the delegates, 25 year old Valentine Joyce, Quarter Master’s Mate of the “Royal George” and John Fleming, 25 year old A.B., were especially feted.

As the Spithead fleet celebrated its success The Nore fleet went into action to achieve similar improvements in conditions and pay. The organisation here was less complete. John Parker, a 30 year old ex-schoolmaster, rated as a supernumerary A.B. on the Depot ship “Sandwich,” was quickly elevated to the position of President of the delegates.

The “Sandwich” was a 40 year old decaying corpse ship, smaller than Nelson’s “Victory” with a full war complement of 750 men. When it laid at Sheerness in 1797 it had on board about 1,600 men.

    “One has a vision of writhing humanity, like worms crawling over one another in the foetid pot of a boy fisherman . . . “(“The Floating Republic,” by Dobree and Mainwaring.)

This hotbed of fever and disease became the headquarters of The Nore fleet mutiny.

The Naval authorities took advantage of the weaker organisation of The Nore seamen and refused to talk with the delegates, making stronger threats backed with a show of military force. All the ships of the Nore fleet were not unanimous in their support of the mutiny and before long the struggle began to weaken. The “Clyde” and the “San Fiorenzo” pulled out from the mutinous fleet.

Food supplies became short and the delegates decided to hold up merchant shipping en route to and from London. This raised the ire of the London merchants and an emergency naval force were recruited to be sent against the mutineers, civilians from all walks enlisting for the job.

By June it was becoming more and more difficult for the delegates to hold The Nore fleet together. The “Repulse” and the “Leopard” attempted to escape and were fired on by the other mutineers, only the “Leopard” getting away. During the following days other ships drew out. As arguments went on in the ships the people of Sheerness saw the Red flags replaced by the blue and white, them, perhaps the red ones going up again, to be replaced yet again.

Men tried to escape. The authorities were jubilant and took steps to prevent escape. A pardon was offered to men who would give themselves up. On June 13th John Parker handed over the command of the “Sandwich” to the officers after a meeting of the men of that ship. So the Nore mutiny dissolved.

The naval authorities took revenge. Parker, with 28 others, was executed, a few others received from 40 to 380 lashes with the cat, whilst others were imprisoned.

The Plymouth fleet gave slight support to the Spithead seamen whilst the Yarmouth fleet adhered to their comrades at The Nore.

The Spithead affair achieved immediate results whilst the Nore mutiny appeared to have failed. But the fierceness of the Nore outbreak to which the Yarmouth fleet had been attached, the length of time it lasted and the threat to London was probably a greater contributory cause of the naval reforms that were introduced during the early years of the 19th century.

W. Waters

Books to read:

“The Naval Mutinies of 1797,” by C. Gill

“The Floating Republic,” by G. E. Mainwaring and B. Dobree

Leave a Reply