On this day 208 years ago a mutiny started at the Nore anchorage in the Thames estuary that would last for a month and would come to threaten the beating heart of London, they city’s incredibly lucrative trade economy. Great Britain was at war with revolutionary France, which put a huge strain on the nation’s navy, and also meant that the government could not afford to have the navy mutinying. Discontent had been brewing within the navy since the start of 1797; the men were poorly treated, their wages had not changed for over a century, and high rates of inflation were severely eroding their value. As well as this, the French revolution had badly scared Britain’s ruling elites, and they feared a similar uprising here.
In April the ships at the Spithead anchorage near Portsmouth mutinied, demanding better pay and working conditions. They won their demands, and everyone who took part was pardoned. The seamen at Nore took inspiration from those at Spithead, but their mutiny was not destined to be so successful, for a number of reasons.
The crew of the Sandwich were the first to mutiny, on the evening of the 12th of May 1797. They were joined by other ships, but some ships left the Nore to avoid taking part in the mutiny. Organisation was difficult amongst the sailors at Nore, as the ships were spread out, and they didn’t belong to a single fleet, as was the case at Spithead. Nevertheless delegates were elected from every ship, and a man named Richard Parker was elected ‘President of the Delegates of the Fleet.’
On the 20th of May (which also happens to be my birthday!), the mutineers presented a list of 8 demands to Admiral Charles Buckner. The demands started off fairly average, including pardons for the mutineers and increased pay. However the demands soon took on a more radical turn, as the mutineers demanded that the King dissolve Parliament, and immediately make peace with France. This turn outraged the Admiralty, who offered the Nore sailors only the same concessions they had given to the men at Spithead.
The mutineers blockaded the Thames, and tried to prevent any ship from entering or leaving London. Had they been successful for any great length of time, they would have crippled London’s booming economy. They also made plans to sail to France, a plan which alienated many of the sailors, causing more ships to abandon the mutiny. The government and Admiralty didn’t want to make any further concessions, especially as they were wary of the political aims of some of the more radical leaders.
The mutineers were denied food, and eventually so many ships slipped away, despite being fired on by those that remained, that the mutiny collapsed. Richard Parker was swiftly convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of the Sandwich, where the mutiny started. 29 leaders were also hanged, and others were flogged, imprisoned or transported to Australia.
The men at Nore were fighting for better conditions and pay, but their more radical demands meant they the government and Admiralty could not be seen to back down. The mutineers also threatened London’s economy, which the authorities could not allow to stand. The seamen’s status as members of the navy put them in a different position to civilians when it came to their working rights. Members of the armed forces do not have the same rights as the average worker; to this day, they are not allowed to join a union or go on strike. These restrictions make the actions of the sailors at Nore all the more admirable. They faced dire consequences to stand up for themselves, and Richard Parker and many others paid the price when the mutiny collapsed.
Sources and Further Reading
Anon. ‘Research Guide B8: The Spithead and Nore Mutinies,’ National Maritime Museum. Last modified April 2008, accessed 15 April 2015 http://www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/library/research-guides/the-royal-navy/research-guide-b8-the-spithead-and-nore-mutinies-of-1797
Anon. ‘Spithead and Nore Mutinies,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 13 February 2015, accessed 15 April 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spithead_and_Nore_mutinies
Anon. ‘The Naval Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore,’ Socialist Appeal. Last modified 15 January 2008, accessed 15 April 2015. http://www.socialist.net/the-naval-mutinies-at-spithead-and-the-nore.htm
Moore, Richard. ‘Mutiny at the Nore,’ Napoleonic Guide. No date, accessed 15 April 2015. http://www.napoleonguide.com/navy_nore.htm