Spithead and Nore mutinies

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The Delegates in Council, or beggars on horseback, a contemporaneous caricature.

The Spithead and Nore mutinies were two major mutinies by sailors of the Royal Navy in 1797. There was also discontent and minor incidents on ships in other locations in the same year. The mutinies differed in character: while the Spithead mutiny was similar to a strike, with only limited violence, the Nore mutiny had more political demands, and was more violent.

The mutinies were potentially dangerous for Britain, because at the time the country was at war with Revolutionary France. There were also concerns among the government that the mutinies might be part of wider attempts at sedition instigated by societies such as the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen.


The mutiny at Spithead (an anchorage near Portsmouth) lasted from 16 April to 15 May 1797. Sailors on 16 ships in the Channel Fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Bridport, protested against the living conditions aboard Royal Navy vessels and demanded a pay rise.

Seamen's pay rates had been established in 1658, and because of the stability of wages and prices, they were still reasonable as recently as the 1756–1763 Seven Years' War; however, high inflation during the last decades of the 18th century had thus severely eroded the real value of the pay. At the same time, the practice of coppering the submerged part of hulls, which had started in 1761, meant that British warships no longer had to return to port frequently to have their hulls scraped, and the additional time at sea significantly altered the rhythm and difficulty of seamen's work. The Royal Navy had not made adjustments for any of these changes, and was slow to understand their effects on its crews. Finally, the new wartime quota system meant that crews had many landsmen from inshore who did not mix well with the career seamen, leading to discontented ships' companies.

The mutineers were led by elected delegates and tried to negotiate with the Admiralty for two weeks, focusing their demands on better pay, the abolition of the 14-ounce "purser's pound" (the ship's purser was allowed to keep two ounces of every true pound—16 ounces—of meat as a perquisite), and the removal of a handful of unpopular officers; neither flogging nor impressment was mentioned in the mutineers' demands. The mutineers maintained regular naval routine and discipline aboard their ships (mostly with their regular officers), allowed some ships to leave for convoy escort duty or patrols, and promised to suspend the mutiny and go to sea immediately if French ships were spotted heading for English shores.

Because of mistrust, especially over pardons for the mutineers, the negotiations broke down, and minor incidents broke out, with several unpopular officers sent to shore and others treated with signs of deliberate disrespect. When the situation calmed, Admiral Lord Howe intervened to negotiate an agreement that saw a royal pardon for all crews, reassignment of some of the unpopular officers, a pay raise and abolition of the purser's pound. As a direct result of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore, many of the worst abuses prevalent in the Royal Navy up until this time, such as bad food, brutal discipline, and the withholding of pay, were remedied.[1] Afterwards, the mutiny was to become nicknamed the "breeze at Spithead".[a]

The leader of the mutiny remained anonymous even after its resolution. Rumours during the time placed Valentine Joyce as the mastermind. Joyce was a quartermaster's mate aboard Lord Bridport's Royal George.[2]

The Nore[edit]

Richard Parker about to be hanged for mutiny (image from the Newgate Calendar)

Inspired by the example of their comrades at Spithead, the sailors at the Nore (an anchorage in the Thames Estuary) also mutinied, on 12 May 1797, when the crew of Sandwich seized control of the ship. Several other ships in the same location followed this example, though others slipped away and continued to slip away during the mutiny, despite gunfire from the ships that remained (which attempted to use force to hold the mutiny together). The mutineers had been unable to organise easily because the ships were scattered along the Nore (and were not all part of a unified fleet, as at Spithead), but quickly elected delegates for each ship.[3]

Richard Parker was elected "President of the Delegates of the Fleet" due to his obvious intelligence, education and empathy with the suffering of the sailors. Parker was a former master's mate who was dis-rated and court-martialed in December 1793 and re-enlisted in the Navy as a seaman in early 1797, where he came to serve aboard the brig-sloop Hound.[4] Demands were formulated and on 20 May 1797, a list of eight demands was presented to Admiral Charles Buckner, which mainly involved pardons, increased pay and modification of the Articles of War,[3] eventually expanding to a demand that the King dissolve Parliament and make immediate peace with France. These demands infuriated the Admiralty, which offered nothing except a pardon (and the concessions already made at Spithead) in return for an immediate return to duty.

The mutineers expanded their initial grievances and blockaded London,[5] preventing merchant vessels from entering the port, and the principals made plans to sail their ships to France, alienating the regular English sailors and losing more and more ships as the mutiny progressed. On 5 June Parker issued an order that merchant ships be allowed to pass the blockade, and only Royal Navy victualling (i.e., supply) ships be detained; the ostensible reason provided in the order was that "the release of the merchant vessels would create a favourable impression on shore", although this decision may actually have been perhaps more due to the complexities involved in such a wide undertaking as interdicting all the merchant traffic on the busy Thames.[6] After the successful resolution of the Spithead mutiny, the government and the Admiralty were not minded to make further concessions, particularly as they felt some leaders of the Nore mutiny had political aims beyond improving pay and living conditions.

The mutineers were denied food and water, and when Parker hoisted the signal for the ships to sail to France,[contradictory] all of the remaining ships refused to follow; eventually, most ships slipped their anchors and deserted (some under fire from the mutineers), and the mutiny failed. Parker was quickly convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of Sandwich, the vessel where the mutiny had started. In the reprisals which followed, 29 were hanged, 29 were imprisoned, and 9 flogged, while others were sentenced to transportation to Australia. The majority of men involved in the mutiny were not punished at all, which was lenient by the standards of the time.[7]

After the Nore mutiny, Royal Navy vessels no longer rang five bells in the last dog watch, as that had been the signal to begin the mutiny.[8]

Other mutinies and discontent in 1797[edit]

In September 1797, the crew of Hermione mutinied in the West Indies, killing almost all the officers in revenge for a number of grievances including the throwing into the sea of the bodies of three men who had been killed in falling from the rigging in a desperate scramble to avoid flogging for being last man down on deck.[9]The Hermione was taken by the crew to the Spanish port of La Guaira.[10]

On 27 December, the crew of Marie Antoinette murdered their officers and took their ship into a French port in the West Indies.[10]

Other mutinies took place off the coast of Ireland and at the Cape of Good Hope and spread to the fleet under Admiral Jervis off the coast of Spain.

In the arts[edit]

  • The father of the protagonist in Frederick Marryat's The King's Own (1830) was hanged for his part in the Nore mutiny.
  • Herman Melville's novel Billy Budd (1924), and the 1951 opera based on it by Benjamin Britten, are set immediately after the main mutinies.
  • The Floating Republic – An account of the Mutinies at Spithead and The Nore in 1797, by G.E. Manwaring and Bonamy Dobrée published by Frank Cass & Co. 1935 is a history of these mutinies. In 1982, BBC Radio 4's Saturday Night Theatre broadcast a dramatised account of the book called The Floating Republic.
  • The 1962 film H.M.S. Defiant (released in the U.S. as Damn the Defiant!) is a fictional account of a similar mutiny at sea at this time.
  • Ramage and the Freebooters (1969) by British novelist Dudley Pope begins when Lieutenant Ramage is given command of a ship anchored at Spithead during the Mutiny, and must convince the crew to sail so that he may carry out his orders.
  • The Men They Couldn't Hang, an English folk-punk group, commemorated the executed leaders of the mutiny in the ballad "The Colours" (1988).
  • In William Kinsolving's 1996 novel Mister Christian, Fletcher Christian returns from the South Seas and witnesses the Nore mutiny.
  • Much of the Dewey Lambdin 2000 novel A King's Captain is set during the Nore Mutiny as seen by the protagonist, Alan Lewrie.
  • Mutiny (2004) by Julian Stockwin is a fictional account of the Nore mutiny.


  1. ^ "'The Breeze at Spithead', which occupies more than half the volume, is not only the largest but most interesting part of its contents.": from a review of Tales of a Tar (1834), by William Nugent Glascock: The Times [London, England] 1 April 1834, p.3
  1. ^ CE staff 2009, Mutiny.
  2. ^ Roberts 2007, p. [page needed].
  3. ^ a b NG staff 1999.
  4. ^ Neale 1842, pp. 272–275.
  5. ^ Gill 1913, p. 182.
  6. ^ Gill 1913, p. 184.
  7. ^ Coats, Ann Veronica (2011). The Naval Mutinies of 1797. p. 158. 
  8. ^ 1000s Of Museums Online 2015.
  9. ^ Tracy 2006, p. 294.
  10. ^ a b Clowes 1897, p. 549.


Further reading[edit]

  • Manwaring, G.E.; Dobrée, Bonamy (1987) [1935], The Floating Republic: An Account Of The Mutinies At Spithead And The Nore In 1797, London: Cresset Library, ISBN 0-09173-154-2  — 1st pub, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1935
  • Dugan, James (1967) [1965], The Great Mutiny (New American Library (paperback) ed.), G. P. Putnam's Sons 
  • The Historical Society of Hele's School Exeter (1950), "Richard Parker", Born in Exeter, Exeter: A. Wheaton & Company 
  • Schneer, Jonathan (2006), The Thames : England's River (Paperback ed.), London: Abacus, ISBN 0349119295 
  • Woodman, Richard (2005), A Brief History of Mutiny (1st Carroll & Graf ed.), New York: Carroll & Graf, ISBN 0-7867-1567-7 

External links[edit]