Ever since the 3rd of May, when he had been told (wrongly, as it turned out) that the French Fleet had sallied out of Brest, Bridport had been waiting for a favourable wind. At last, in the early hours of Sunday, 7th, the breeze veered easterly, and he could have sailed out. But now, just when the chance had come, he knew that it would be useless to hoist the signal to weigh, since it was plain as the flag at his mast that the men would not stir until they had their Bill. The day was to prove him right, and no later than nine o’clock in the morning.

At that moment, an outbreak of preconcerted hurrahing was carried across the waters of St. Helens from almost every ship, the seamen gathering at the forecastles, and on the tops, shrouds and booms, to propel this new signal of cheerful defiance. The men of the Pompee told their captain they wanted their rights confirmed by Parliament, and taking a boat against orders—the marines refusing to interfere—made a tour of the Fleet. The Mars sent a boat to the Queen Charlotte, and when the captain of the latter ordered it away and called out the marines, the marines refused to obey, the crew broke out in active mutiny, and told their captain that he was deprived of his command until the Act should have gone through Parliament. The men of the Glory, after cheering for “an act of Parliament and an honest three pounds of pork,” refused duty. It was the same all over the Fleet. The men on the Royal Sovereign took possession of Sir Alan Gardner’s cabin, and, saying the Admirals had deceived them, seized all the arms and ammunition on the ship. On the Defence, indeed, there was some reluctance to join the fresh movement; but the crew, threatened by the guns of the Pompee and Glory, once more reeved the yard-ropes and roared their submissive cheers. By about eleven o’clock the Fleet was as it had been on 16th April—the men in control, the yardropes in evidence, and the Assembly gathered in the state cabin on the Queen Charlotte. The blow was almost more crushing than Bridport could bear; this was the reward of his patience!

I have endeavoured [he wrote to the Admiralty] to prevent this mischief by every argument in my power, but without effect; and I cannot command the fleet, as all authority is taken from me… . My mind is too deeply wounded by all these proceedings, and I am so unwell that I can scarcely hold my pen to write these sentiments of distress.

Unluckily he could not relieve his feelings by telling the Admiralty what he thought about the delay, and their “unfortunate order,” as Gardner had been bold enough to call it, of 1st May.

The Delegates were brisk enough about their conference on the Queen Charlotte, and at about midday set out in a procession of boats to row the three miles or so across to Spithead, where four line-of-battle ships and several frigates and small vessels were placidly lying. At about one o’clock Captain Griffith of the London came sorrowfully to disturb Admiral Sir John Colpoys, who was his uncle, with the news that things at St. Helens were as bad as they had ever been.

Colpoys made up his mind that he had had enough of these breaches of discipline. That very morning he had had another Admiralty order from Sir Peter Parker instructing officers to act promptly and severely upon any hint of such a thing, and had strengthened the effect of this upon his mind by choosing this day for the monthly reading of the Articles of War after divine service. His spirit was tuned up to an exhilarating firmness, and since Bridport was not at hand to tell him not to be a fool, he determined to try what he had been prevented from trying on 16th April. He at once had all hands turned up on deck, asked them if they knew what was happening at St. Helens, and on their telling him they did not, went on: “Well, then, let me know if you have any grievances remaining.” They answered, “No”; but the question was ambiguous. Colpoys thought he was asking them whether their grievances had been satisfied, which they had not been, and the men seem to have thought he was asking them whether they had any new ones. Colpoys then asked if the Admiralty had not granted all they had expected, even more than all, and the men replied, “Yes,”; but this did not mean that they were satisfied with the way Parliament was treating their affairs. Deluded by this double misunderstanding, the Admiral thought he had his men with him, and, coming to the point, said: “I now pledge myself, if you follow my advice, that you shall not get into any disgrace with your brethren in the Fleet, as I shall become responsible for your conduct.” He then had all the boats hoisted in, and sent the bluejackets below (some of them, however, remained on deck forward), with orders to run in the lower-deck guns and shut the port-lids, so that there should be no communication with the boats as they came alongside. The hatchways were closed, and the entries guarded: officers and marines were armed, and stationed in various places, especially at the sally-ports, a proportion, however, staying with Colpoys on the quarter-deck, facing the sailors who had remained above on the forecastle. The gallant Admiral, in all the stubbornness of fifty-five and with a great experience of naval discipline, was thus prepared to defy the oncoming forces of insubordination, and watched the ominous approach of the boats from St. Helens with a confident eye.

The Delegates first went on board the Marlborough, the captain making no resistance, where they told the crew to get rid of the officers against whom they had a grievance, and to take the ship down to St. Helens. As the sound of their oars came to the ears of the seamen cooped up in the stuffy ’tween-decks of the London, these began to show great excitement; they tried to push up the hatchways, and were resisted by the officers, who called out to their commander to ask if they were to fire if necessary. Colpoys shouted back, “Yes, certainly; they must not be allowed to come up till I order them.” When the Delegates came alongside, they were warned off by the sentries, but then cried out an appeal to the crew, now intoxicated with the ardour of tussle. The men on the forecastle began to move; some of them started to unlash a gun to point it at the quarter-deck, but the first lieutenant, Peter Bover, threatened to fire if they went on. They desisted, all but one, who, made of bolder stuff, dared Bover to fire, and went on freeing the gun. Bover promptly took him at his word, and the man fell mortally wounded. The men seething below rushed up the hatchways crying “Blood for blood,” were fired on by the officers, and fired back; there was general confusion, shouting, trampling, and explosion of firearms. Several on both sides were wounded, among them a Delegate, three sailors fatally, and on the other side two or three marines including an officer and a Midshipman. The marines themselves, all except two foreigners, deserted to the other side, or flung away their arms, upon which Colpoys ordered the officers to retire, and called to the men to come aft across the decks, which, according to one of the Delegates—they had scrambled on board as soon as the firing ceased—were as red as during a battle. That there was not more bloodshed was due to Colpoys’ instant acceptance of defeat, and to the steadier men, who, with forbearance and common sense, stopped the firing.

But the affray was not yet over, for Peter Bover had been seized and hauled forward by a yelling crowd of sailors frantic to make him pay with his life for killing their comrade at the gun. A yard-rope was rove, the noose thrust round his neck, and they were about to string him up when Valentine Joyce, hurling himself through the dense pack, flung his arms around his neck, and screamed out above the wild tumult, “If you hang this young man you shall hang me, for I shall never quit him”; and one of the topmen shouted out that Bover was “a brave .boy.” This caused a moment’s hesitation, during which Colpoys, seeing what was happening, and being a gallant gentleman, dashed forward into the middle of the excited, smokebegrimed mob, to take responsibility for Bover’s action, clearing his way through seamen furious from the heat of the struggle, and “ overboiling with rage and fury at seeing several of their wounded and dying shipmates weltering in their blood.” He stood up square on the forecastle facing the seven or eight hundred enraged countenances, facing too the scores of weapons perilously pointed at Mm within a finger-twitch of going off. In that white-hot tension anything might have happened: hell itself might have been let loose in a wild massacre of officers, or setting the ship on fire. Suddenly from the body of the surging, gesticulating mass a hoarse voice roared out threateningly above the din, “You’re a damned bloody scoundrel!” Colpoys steeled himself for the crash; but, most paradoxical thing in this paradoxical mutiny, the sailors instantly lowered their fire-arms, and hustling their intemperate comrade, shouted out, “How dare you speak to the Admiral in that manner! and made as though to duck him. It was not authority that had been smutched, bat the whole great naval tradition dear to the men: never before had a British admiral been so insulted! The highly charged tension relaxed; there was a slight pause, and then the quiet voice of the ship’s doctor, whom the men liked, was heard persuading them to listen to Colpoys. The latter, on the opportunity like a flash, called up all his powers of rhetoric to explain that Bover had been acting under his direct command, and that he himself had been obeying orders, “very recent instructions,” from the Admiralty. “Orders? What orders? ” the men clamoured, and defied him to produce any; and only on his insisting that he was telling the truth, was he allowed, under escort, to go to his cabin to find them.

To give hot blood time to cool, Colpoys spent as many minutes as he could in hunting for his keys, and returned with the document through a forest of such vehement dark looks that, though he was relieved to see that the rope had been removed from Bover’s neck, he had little hope for himself. In the interval Valentine Joyce had boldly adjured the angry multitude to be calm, and Mark Turner, a Delegate from the Terrible, who had served with Bover before, had put in sturdily for him; and as he was a solid midshipman of thirty-seven, his partisanship would weigh. One of the London men, too, had argued in his favour with “manly eloquence”; but what really saved him was the fact that he was a favourite with the crew. The men, then, having previously tucked away their pistols and made all safe, Colpoys read the obnoxious order, upon which he, Griffin, and Bover were marched off to their cabins, to be kept in close confinement pending court martial; and the bloody flag once more displaced at the masthead the Admiral’s serener banner of St. George.

The plan of the Delegates was at this point perfectly cut and dried. They had two objects in view, both of an offensive-defensive nature, bold and far-seeing, but at the same time cautious. The first, obviously made more important than ever by the affairs of that day, was to force unpopular officers to quit their ships: this would show that the men meant business, and at the same time prevent feelings becoming exacerbated so far as to produce more incidents of the kind that had reddened the decks of the London. The men acted without hesitation, as James Anthony Gardner, for instance, now second lieutenant on the Hind frigate, was to discover, somewhat to his surprise. He had the first watch that evening, and all seemed quiet up to midnight, when he was relieved by the master. But at about three bells in the morning watch he was urgently sent for by the captain, and, rushing up on deck, he found the whole ship’s company in process of being harangued by his superior, who, “in the most impressive manner” he could attain, was urging upon his men the fitness, the dutifulness, the merit, and the beauty of returning to obedience. But the men failed to be impressed, or at least would not budge. Gardner, indeed, thought them vacillating and considered that if this had been an isolated mutiny, the stout fellows “would soon have driven the scoundrels to the devil”; but what could one do when surrounded by line-of-battle ships all “acting in the same disgraceful manner”? How disgraceful Gardner had further driven home to him when, not long before eight, a paper was handed in naming the captain, purser, and certain other officers, including himself:

Gentlemen [it read], it is the request of the ship’s company that you leave the ship precisely at eight o’clock. As it is unanimously agreed that you should leave the ship we would wish you to leave it peaceable or desperate methods will be taken.

It was no earthly use to fume or fuss; there was nothing to do but go below and hastily pack. Near the time stated the expelled officers were told that everything was ready; their trunks were taken for them, and they went down to the barge among ranks of silent men, each armed with a cutlass. They battled towards the shore in the teeth of a north-eastern gale, and it was not until nearly four hours later that they were landed on Point Beach. A harsh, long-drawn experience, bitter to the spirit, and bitter to the flesh in that howling wind; full expiation, surely, for the venial sin of “starting”; and as a final ignominy, the boat’s crew refused to carry their officers’ baggage farther than the edge of the beach. Had they not been warned by the ringleaders that if they did they would be handsomely ducked when they got back? Gardner, however, who had heard this threat, was prepared. He told the bowman, and one or two others whom he believed to be “ great scoundrels,” to hump their traps to a hut only a few steps from the boat, and, showing them his pistols, said: “You understand me.” They did, the traps were duly carried; but it must have been poor satisfaction for the shivering officers—and the men were actually ducked.

The Delegates’ second object was to concentrate their forces. They already had the idea that the Admiralty would try to divide them, “get them upon different stations,” as the crew of the Ramillies had said; and they had come to Spithead partly to get the ships there to join them at St.Helens. How general this idea was can be gathered from a letter written by the crew of the Prince, in Curtis’s squadron at Torbay:


8th May 1797.

Ship Mates, In consequence of the affair which has taken place at Spithead highly concerns the Navy m general, and we think it a duty incumbent on us all since it is brought forward we ought to carry the same into effect the opportunity now offers to do ourselves some service in freeing ourselves from the tiranny and arbitrary power that is Comd over us. It appears thay have ordered us here to separate our connection as much as possible from Bridport’s fleet, and in case any step should be taken by us that you will act m conjunction with us and not be said you shrink back from maintaining your rights and privileges.

Prince All Hands.

a letter which apparently crossed a message from St.Helens telling them to come there. Concentration, then, was the main object of the move, but it would also prevent any possible fracas between the sailors and the troops. The latter were now all prepared for action at Portsmouth; there were ten thousand of them, the garrison ready for a siege, with the drawbridges up and the guns laid; even “the old, crazy castle of Southsea” had its quota of troops. It would be as well to be out of contact.

On the 8th, therefore, most of the ships, large and small, went down to St. Helens, having got rid of their unpopular officers. Yet not all of those who stayed behind were disliked: Captain Talbot of the Eurydice frigate, for example, was very much loved by his men. The crew were told that if they did not go down to the Isle of Wight the Marlborough would fire on them; Talbot’s orders, on the other hand, were to stay at Spithead: neither crew nor captain would disobey orders, so, to the regret of his men, Talbot had to leave them. They were not, however, separated for long. It had been the policy of the Delegates during the first mutiny to let the big ships bear the weight of the contest, leaving the smaller vessels to go about their duty; and to this policy they reverted. Thus after a day or two the frigates returned to their old anchorage: whereupon the men of the Eurydice wrote, with a charming wholeheartedness and an almost lyrical impulse:

Captain Talbot, with the same cheerfulness that we joined in promoting the general good, so we now join in our earnest wishes and desires that you will once more join the flock of which you are the tender shepherd. We wish by tins to show you. Sir, that we are men that loves the present cause as men ought to, yet we are not eleveated that degree to neglect our duty to our country or our obedience to you, and as the line of battle ships means to settle the business, the command of the ship belongs to you, sir, which command we, the ship’s company, resign with all due honour, respect and submission hopeing you will always continue to do as you have heretofore done, to hear a man’s cause as well as an officer’s.

On the 8th, however, the roads were left empty except for the Royal William, Sir Peter Parker’s ship, which apparently never joined the mutiny as a unit (though certain of the men did); the remainder, with or without officers, made for St. Helens, some of them failing to display that nice accuracy in navigation, particularly at the tricky entrance to the harbour, expected of the British Navy. Excellent men as the captains of forecastles might be, it was not in the difficult art of manoeuvring a sailing ship that their virtue lay, especially in the hurricane that it had come on to blow; and more than once the ships riding at single anchor were within an ace of fouling one another.

The wholesale expurgation of officers began on the 7th, and went on for two or three days. The Marlborough and the Nymphe joyfully ejected their trumpet-wielding captains and other officers: Captain Holloway and the officers of the Duke were compelled to obey a peremptory missive:


You are desired upon the receipt of this that the undermentioned persons quit the ship upon the receipt of this, never to return again, except the persons with a mark against their names who is to return when everything is settled to the satisfaction of the fleet. You are to depart out of the ship directly,

only six out of the twenty-one names having a cross against them. Over a hundred officers were put ashore, including Admiral Gardner, hardly a ship failing to yield its sacrifice. Sometimes they were treated with delicacy, given due warning, honourably borne away in the captain’s barge, and perhaps told they might come back when all was over: from other ships, such as the Glory, they were suddenly bundled out without notice or respect. That ship, in fact, lost all her officers. Throughout this turmoil Bridport, impotently calm—at least as calm as he could manage to be—was receiving reports of calamity, as from the captain of the Terrible:

8th May.

I beg leave to inform your Lordship that I am just come on shore from H.M.S. Terrible, the command of that ship having been perfectly taken from me, and finding that I had no longer any authority over any pail of her crew, they have hoisted the Red Flag to call the Delegates on board, and on the arrival of four of them, seized all the arms in the wardroom, and in the officers’ cabins, immediately after which they declared it to be their determination that myself and all my officers, except the Master, Surgeon, Purser, three warrant officers, and one Midshipman should quit the ship.

The people of the Mars, finding that one of their officers kept a brace of pistols loaded in his cabin, came to the conclusion that all of them were bellicose, with the result conveyed to Bridport by their commander:

9th May.

This is the first opportunity I have had of communicating to your Lordship the mutinous conduct of the crew of H.M.S. Mars by turning me and the officers named on the other side out of the ship yesterday morning after having taken possession of all the arms and placed additional sentinels over us all Sunday night, and prevented my having any communication with any person except the First Lieutenant and Master, and with those a very short time, and upon going out of my cabin in the morning I was stopped by a sentry, and told it was the ship’s company’s orders that I was not to go upon the Quarter Deck. I am sorry to say the Marines have taken a very active part in this mutiny.

The marines, indeed, forgot their function and acted with the seamen; and not on the Mars alone, for, while he was dressing in the morning, the Captain of Marines on the Queen Charlotte had a note thrown on to the gallery directing him to leave the ship at once.

It was not that the men wanted to be officerless so as to pursue fell designs unhindered; it was only that some of the officers had made themselves hateful. Indeed it was a little invidious to be uncoxnmanded, and on the 11th Bridport was handed a request which may have cheered him:

May it please your Lordship

That we La Nymphe*s ship’s company are perfectly satisfyd with what was agreed on by the fleet. But as we wish to shew the world that we Love Discipline and Good Order to be established on boar[d] us we humbly hope your Lordship will send us immediately a Captain and two Lieutenants, that we may not be hinder’d from proceeding with the fleet when ordered to sea.

We remain your Lordship’s humble servants.

La Nymphe’s Skips’ Company.

A similar plea was addressed to Nepean by the crew of the Stag. The men, it is clear, never regarded this affair as a mutiny, but as a combination —one of the very earliest in the history of the Labour movement—to get a just reward for their toil, and a betterment of the sub-human conditions of their lives.

Portsmouth, Southsea, Gosport, were filled with officers bewailing their misfortune, or besieging Sir Peter Parker with prayers for help. The sight of them did not reassure the people of those towns, who surged on to the platform to see wherries, boats, cutters, rowing or sailing in to deposit batch after batch of homeless officers of all ranks, and be thrilled by the sight of boat-loads of sailors each sporting a brace of large pistols, a cutlass, and a cartouche box. “The horror and confusion of this town are beyond description,” the London Chronicle reporter wrote from Portsmouth, giving every atom of news-value to what he could pick up: “The mind of everyone is almost in an indescribable state,” he went on: the Fleet was going to St. Helens for the trial of Admiral Colpoys! It was comfortingly true that the seamen kept the masters on board “to fight under them if an enemy’s fleet should insult our coasts,” and threatened to go to sea to meet the French without officers, 122 but this did not make up for the piratical figures at the wharf-side, nor for the bloody flags waving from the mastheads. There was a sense of violence in this outbreak: it was all most unlike that friendly first mutiny which the Prince of Wiirttemberg had been conducted round, as though it were a mild diversion. Tempers, they knew, were up, for the sick at Haslar had been so incensed by the events in the London, that their behaviour towards the wounded marines and officers who had been brought in there warned the authorities to move them somewhere else.

What the country was most agitated about was the fate impending o\er Colpoys, Griffith and Bover; the tensest interest cenired on the London. Would the sailors’ court martial condemn these officers to death? In the dismayed capital there was something like a panic, and the most absurd suggestions were made for saving the situation, among them that the King himself should at once go to Portsmouth and, playing the wounded sovereign, plead the men back to their duty l 123 There was some cause for alarm, for fierce deliberations were going on among the Delegates gathered on the Mars while the anxious officers awaited the outcome in the cabins of the London. The Assembly did not go so far as to appoint a secretary to keep the minutes, but one can guess from the current rumours that a tussle racketed backwards and forwards for hours. It was natural that some of the men should be hot for revenge—you do not see your friends shot down without wanting to have somebody’s blood for it—and on the 9th the Morning Chronicle reported:

Admiral Colpoys was tried yesterday by the delegates on board the Mats for Murder and found guilty.

But one may be sure that the more level-headed among the Delegates did not want to shed more blood; humanity apart, it would entail reprisals, and make hopeless any prospect of pardon for this new mutiny. Yet the scales do not seem to have ripped on the happier side until John Fleming, the A.B. of twenty-five who had been elected extra Delegate of the London to replace the one who had been wounded, made a decisive statement, which he either read to the Assembly, or sent before going across to the Mars to take his seat as a representative. In this remarkable letter he thanked his electors for the most flattering proofs of their opinion of his abilities to act as a man and a Christian ought to do—the phrasing is his own—and went on:

Permit me now to speak for that ship’s company whose momentary impulse of passion, and wreaked their vengeance on that unfortunate gentleman, a few minutes would have brought to their recollection the amiable character he always bore amongst them, and I am confident would have embittered the latest moments of their lives. Now, my brethren, your general cry is “Blood for blood.” Do you mean that as a compliment to us to assist us in following error after error? If so, it is a poor compliment indeed; or do you, let me ask you, think it justice9 I hope not; if you do, pray, from whence do you derive the authority to sit as a court over the life of even the meanest subject? The only answer you can give me is, that you are authorised by your respective ship’s companies. But is that authority sufficient to quiet your conscience for taking the life even of a criminal, much more that of a deserving worthy gentleman, who is an ornament to his profession in every respect; I can almost safely say you will say “No.” But if you are to be influenced by your ships’ companies, contrary to your own opinion, I am but a single individual among you, and before this hand of mine shall subscribe the name of Fleming to anything that may in the least tend to that gentleman’s prejudice, much more his life, I will undergo your utmost violence, and meet death with him hand in hand. I am, nevertheless, as unanimous as any member of the fleet for a redress of your grievances, and maintain that point with you all, so long as you are contented with your original demands, but the moment I hear of your deviating from these principles, that instant I become your most inveterate enemy.

Such a letter, worthy of a Privy Councillor, must have shaken the wilder spirits among the Delegates, especially as Fleming accompanied his signature with the words “Per desire of the London’s ship’s company.” At all events, on the evening of the 9th a message was sent to the London that Bover should be released. He remained on his ship, the men of which bore him no grudge.

I have been [he wrote to his family on the 11th] m a most critical situation, but all is well again; I was fortunately much beloved by several of the ship’s company, and that alone has saved me; their respect for me has increased much since the business.

But what was to happen to Colpoys and Griffith was still undecided, though on the 10th the London Chronicle told a relieved world that

Admiral Colpoys has been tried by a Tribunal instituted by the seamen, the verdict of which is to the following effect. “That in every part of his late conduct on board the London man of war he conducted himself as became a British officer; he is therefore free to reassume the command of his ship, or decline it, as he thinks proper.”

The unlucky reporter was wrong again.