The Critical Point

On 30th March the Fleet once more rode placidly at anchor at Spithead. The graceful lines of the ships swung gently on the tide, the occasional sunlight cheerfully reflecting the paint—black from the water to the lower gun-deck, then bright with various yellows, sweeping up to the vivid red or blue of the poops above the quarter-deck guns— a gallant, heartening sight to those on land. Every now and then gleams of gold, or scarlet, or pale blue flashed from the forecastles, while the Admirals’ flags or Captains’ pennants fluttered from their appropriate topgallant mastheads, Boats, with their crews gaily tricked out in any uniform that struck their captain’s fancy, rowed busily as active ants over the wind-dappled water between ship and ship, while the bum-boats swarmed rapaciously out from the shore. All was peacefully everyday, innocent of omens; and Admiral Lord Bridport went on leave until the 10th of April.

Yet the ships were humming with men bitterly disappointed at finding that their petitions to Howe, the cry of man to man, had not evoked the faintest sign of response. You cannot, obviously, send a reply to anonymous letters, but what they had hoped for was some statement in orders, or some sign of activity in Parliament. Had Howe, the sailors’ friend, done nothing? They were deeply filled with the sense that Black Dick, of all people, had deserted them, had forgotten the men who had made him a hero:

[We] flattered ourselves [they were to write] with the hopes that his Lordship would have been an advocate for us, as we have repeatedly, under his command, made the British flag triumph over that of our enemies:—but, to our great surprise, find ourselves unprotected by him, who has seen so many instances of our intrepidity, in carrying the British flag into every part of the seas with victory and success.

So the busy traffic in reasonable plotting began again, by secret letters, or whispered word of mouth on visiting days. The men would wait a little longer, patiently, but while they waited they would organise, prepare the next step. Since both Howe and the Admiralty had either thrown their petitions into the wastepaper-basket, or silently filed them, they would address 64 the Right Honourable and the Honourable Citizens and Burgesses in Parliament assembled,” very respectfully indeed, as from loyal and zealous men; adding a plea which should bring shame to the heart of any Member inclined to obduracy:

We, your petitioners, therefore humbly implore, that you will take these matters into consideration, and with your accustomed goodness and liberality, comply with the prayer of your petitioners, and we are m duty bound ever to pray, &c.

And, to show that they were all the while prepared to go through the proper channels, they would once more assail the deaf ears of the Admiralty; but to make sure that this time at least their grievances would not be smothered under the feather-beds of officialdom, they would send copies to Charles James Fox, fat, debauched, a gambler, but a fiery defender of libertarian ideas, and leader of the opposition.

He would certainly not let slip a chance of sticking a barb into Pitt by showing up the horrible injustice of naval administration.

But, as the unregarded seamen had learnt from acid experience, petitions, poor slips of paper, do no good by themselves; so on the day the letters went off, it would be made plain to everybody, by some drastic action, that they meant to be heard. To be certain that any move would be effective, the leaders had to be perfectly sure that everybody—veteran, quota-man, and boy—would be with them in this. So all the while the routine business of organising went on, there went on with it a constant screwing up of dubious men to sticking-point, and a bringing in of ships that had not conformed, such as the Defence, which had sent no petition to Howe, and until the 15th April was an uncertain factor. When she had agreed to come in, the crew received a letter of congratulation from the Royal Sovereign, and instructions such as had, no doubt, been sent to the other ships:

Royal Sovereign, Spithead, 1 5th April 1797.

Friends, I am happy to hear of your honourables courage towards redress. We are carrying on the business with the greatest expedition. We flatter ourselves with the hopes that we shall obtain our wishes, for they had better go to war with the whole Globe, then with their own subjects. We mean the day the petitions go to London to take charge of the ships until we have a proper answer from government. The signal will be first made by the Queen Charlotte. The first signal is the Union Jack at the mam with two guns fired: this is for talcing charge … The second signal is a red flag at the mizzen topmast head, and two guns: this is to send a speaker from every ship. The petitions is to be ready to go on Monday if possible. You must send them and your letters to Mr. Pink, the Bear and Ragged Staff, as that is our post office. Direct one petition to Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty. The other to Honourable Charles James Fox, South Street, Grosvenor Square.

Success to the proceedings.

How far the men were prepared to go can be darkly read into the words omitted in the above, which state that the first signal was “for taking charge, and sending the officers and women out of every ship.”

But events moved more swiftly than the slow-maturing plans, and even before the 15th something had happened to make the men of the Defence decide one way or the other. On the evening of the 12th, by some undiscovered chance, perhaps through the mysterious Mr. Pink, Captain Patton of the Transport Office heard what was in the wind. He promptly hurried off to tell the Port-Admiral, Sir Peter Parker, and then hastily rowed out through the darkness to the Royal George to give the tidings to Lord Rridport. Bridport was at once alert, and the next morning dashed off a note to Spencer, which he sent up in all haste by a trustworthy hand:

Royal George, Spithead, 13//z April 1797.

My Lord, I am sorry to inform your Lordship that a circumstance reached me yesterday which gave me much concern. It has been stated to me that representations have been made by the crews of the Channel Fleet to Lord Howe and the Admiralty for an increase of pay. If this should be the case it would be very desirable for me to know what steps have been taken in consequence thereof. I am particularly anxious to receive such instructions as your Lordship and the Board may think expedient with as little delay as possible as I yesterday heard that some disagreeable combinations were forming among the ships at Spithead on this subject. Captain Glynn will deliver this with the utmost expedition to your Lordship. He is not acquainted with the contents.

PS.—It is reported to me that this subject proceeded from the Queen Charlotte.

Spencer, evidently a little flurried, yet still hopelessly blind to the importance of the petitions, and in his funk of Parliament obstinately resisting any idea of urgency, wrote back, under the protection of the magic words, “Secret and Confidential”:

Some time ago Lord Howe transmitted to Lord Hugh Seymour several letters (in number eleven) purporting to come from the crews of the ships mentioned in the enclosed list. The letters were all in nearly the same words, and had much the appearance of being copied by the same person, though they are written m different hands. Lord Howe of course took no other notice of them, and as it appeared impossible to do anything officially …

And the rest we already know. He considerately enclosed the eleven pleading letters written to Howe.

Bridport was thunderstruck at this communication. Patton had told him vaguely that there had been petitions, but he had not had the least shadow of an idea that things were going on in this way, and to this extent. Was it not obvious to the most complete muddle-head that all this was serious? that the whole Fleet was behind these petitions? that it was solid, and determined to get what it wanted? That old dodderer Howe! It was, naturally, on his flagship that the trouble would begin—as he had, with a spice of malice, suggested to Spencer. It was notoriously a turbulent, ill-disciplined ship.

He, Bridport, was in a difficult enough position as it was, with all the responsibility of command without the place, since Howe was still nominally Admiral. If it had not been for that gouty, be-bandaged figure at Bath, the petitions would have come to him, and he would have known what was fermenting. And if Spencer could not see how serious the business was, the only thing to do was to drive this aspect well home. He controlled the Hood blood that boiled in his veins, to compose a reproof which hardly veiled his indignation, though phrased in terms of the greatest suavity. He wrote to Nepean on the 15th:

Herewith I return you eleven anonymous letters, transmitted to me by this morning’s post from the Admiralty. You will also receive a petition delivered to me by Vice-Admiral Colpoys from H.M.S. London; and one from the crew of H.M.S. Royal George bearing my flag, to which I have pledged myself that an answer will be given, as I consider the latter to be the sense of the Fleet, from the best information I have received. I have very much to lament that some answer had not been given to the various letters transmitted to Earl Howe and the Admiralty, which would m my humble opinion have prevented the disappointment and ill-humour which at present prevails m the ships under my orders. I therefore conclude their Lordships will not direct the squadron to proceed to sea before some answer is given to these petitions, as I am afraid it could not be put m execution, without the appearance of serious consequences, which the complexion of the Fleet manifestly indicates. I have not time to enter farther into the particulars of this painful subject, being anxious to save this night’s post, to which I hope to receive an answer by express, if their Lordships shall deem it necessary.

You will also herewith receive a petition which has this moment been transmitted to me from the Queen Charlotte, whose people have taken the lead in this business.

If only he had known sooner! Those fools in London! he probably thought savagely, as he paced his deck that cold grey afternoon, and saw the clusters of eager men talking over eventualities; for now the crews knew that some rumour or other had got about, and there was no more need of, or use in, secrecy. Sir Peter Parker, as directed by the Admiralty, had told the captains to sleep on board (he had already himself thought of this brilliant measure!), and warned all officers to be ready to repress the least sign of disorder with a firm hand, thus giving the whole of that day an unmistakable sense of strain. Boats plied from one ship to another in the chilly northwest breeze, carrying messages, orders, petitions, and again petitions. Yet the men, rigidly self-controlled, showed not the least sign of mutiny; they obeyed all orders. No handle was to be offered the authorities for stem repressive acts.

If only, Bridport thought, the Admiralty would take his advice, and not commit the supreme folly of ordering the Fleet to sea.

But on the Friday, Sir Peter Parker had, a little belatedly, written to the Admiralty a fairly accurate account of the sailors’ plans, adding that their Lordships, knowing whether any petitions have been received by them … will be able to determine what degree of credit should be given to the information [from Patton] I have received on the subject”S1—an illuminating comment on the thoroughness of Lord Hugh Seymour’s researches! Their Lordships knew only too well that a good deal of credit might be given to the report, and Bridport’s letter of the Saturday not having come to hand, arrived at the easy conclusion that there were a lot of mutinous dogs on board, and that the sooner they were sent off to sea the better. They could do no harm there, and, what was more, could not send in bothering petitions, which, however humbly worded, showed a subversive spirit at work somewhere. In fact, they completely misunderstood the state of the seamen’s minds, nor did it occur to theirs that the seamen in combination could exercise a strangle-hold upon the Fleet.

It was Easter Sunday, a bright, sunny day, with a southwest wind scudding a few black clouds along like ominous watchers for a possible tragedy, when Bridport received orders to prepare for immediate sailing, and at once to send Admiral Gardner’s squadron to St. Helens, the usual starting-place for a cruise. If Bridport was dismayed at having to give the order, which blew to smithereens all his hopes of avoiding “serious consequences,” the men, *too, unprepared for such a sudden crisis, felt the ground cut from under their feet. The order to Gardner’s squadron (Bridport withheld the general order) upset all the leaders’ plans. Any action would have to be impulsive. Would it be possible at that stage to make a gesture that was firm, without overstepping the bounds into riot, to declare, as we should say, a strike, rather than disintegrate into chaotic mutiny? And would the men stand firm?

Tautly expectant from the second the flags fluttered out their message, the crews watched Gardner’s ship, the Royal Sovereign. No move to obey the order was made; all that could be seen were the gesticulating figures of the officers haranguing the crew, using every means of persuasion and argument, and probably threats, to get the men to weigh anchor. On the spur of the moment, the sailors of the Queen Charlotte manned the fore-shrouds and gave three ringing cheers, echoed ship by ship throughout the eager lines. The mutiny had begun! This was the signal! No flag, either tricolour or red, was hoisted, no gun fired. With lightning presence of mind the leaders in the Queen Charlotte put off in a boat—their example being followed at once by those m the Royal George—and toured the Fleet, visiting every ship, telling them to send two Delegates to the Queen Charlotte that evening. As they went, each ship in turn sent a boat of its own to follow in regular order, so while divine service went on, “parties of seamen rowed in public procession through the Fleet in a line of boats.” There was no stopping this unofficial gala, though on the London, Admiral Colpoys, made of stout, but perhaps not very wise, stuff, boldly tried to prevent the emissaries boarding him. By God, the rebels should not soil his decks with their dirty feet! He called out the marines. But Bridport, foreseeing disastrously explosive bloodshed, sent him a message not to resist.

The Admiral commanding then did the sensible thing, which perhaps only one man in a hundred would have been sensible enough to do. He ordered each captain to muster his men and ask them to state their grievances. In the meantime he wrote a rapid message to the Admiralty, telling them frankly that to use what their Lordships called “vigorous and effectual measures for getting the better of the crews … or securing the ringleaders” would be worse than absurd. There was nothing to be done, in fact, but to comply 64 in some measure with the prayer of the petitions,” which he hoped would be done; for on the Royal George and Queen Charlotte, at any rate, there was “no objection to go to sea, provided an answer is given to their petitions.” Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Morice Pole took the letter post-haste to London, and told the Admiralty exactly what had happened.

It was time, Bridport no doubt felt, for the Admiralty to begin to realise the situation, for that afternoon he had got from them, in answer to his letter of the day before, an order of such startling ineptitude, that even he, who had already suffered from Admiralty supineness, was staggered. Not only was he once more ordered to put to sea at once—that did not matter, since it was impossible to do—but he was told to communicate to the men a message conceived in the best style of Parliamentary evasiveness, as though their Lordships had been a Minister in the House answering a question he fully intended to burke. Even in his edited version the sailors heard:

I am to acquaint the crews of His Majesty’s Ships under my command, that I have transmitted their petitions to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and I am authorised by them that their petitions will be taken mto serious and immediate consideration as their importance requires.

“Could departmental vacuity go further?” Bridport probably thought not, and tried to better things by an appeal.

And the Commander-In-Chief trusts this answer will be satisfactory, and that the different ships’ companies will immediately return to duty, as the service of the country requires their proceeding to sea.

The bluff did not act: Bridport can hardly have hoped that it would, knowing that his personal influence was not very great; and the men were made profoundly suspicious by the phrase, “serious consideration,” which seemed to them, not unnaturally, to mean precisely that their case was not being considered with any great attention.

That evening two Delegates from every one of the sixteen line-of-battle ships in the Fleet gathered together in Howe’s great state-cabin on the Queen Charlotte . Seated round the table, under the dubious light of the swinging oil lamps and the purser’s dips, which lit up now the bronzed face of some weather-beaten tar, now the pale features of a young and perhaps fanatical revolutionary, the new commanders of the Fleet deliberated in council. If one of them was leader, which cannot be proved, it was probably Valentine Joyce of the Royal George, twenty-six years old, nearly the youngest man there, but a sound, experienced, authoritative sailor, or he would not have been Quarter Master’s Mate. His chief coadjutor, it was widely believed, was Evans, “a lawyer of abilities, but [in the opinion of a certain Mr. Thomas] of most villainous principles,” who had been disqualified for malpractices. At any rate he had earned the confidence of the seamen —quite capable of seeing through a rogue—for he was elected a Delegate, though since he went under an assumed name as an ordinary seaman, he has not yet been traced. At all events this mysterious person was not Joyce’s companion from his ship, for an A.B. called John Morrice, an Aberdonian of thirty-three, and most likely tough, was the other nominee from the Royal George. Of much the same age, but of petty officer rank as Yeoman of Sheets, was John Huddlestone of the Queen Charlotte. The Royal Sovereign preferred to put their confidence in two younger men, A.B.’s, both aged twenty-seven or so, from Pilfown and from York. The London was more aristocratic in its choice, being represented by a petty officer, William Riely (or Riley, sometimes printed Ruly), a Quarter Master — ranking with a Bo’sun’s Mate—who hailed from Westminster, and a young spark of twenty-four from Greenock, a Gunner’s Mate, who, though of lower rank and four years younger than Riely, signed before him on petitions. The Pompée went higher still, and had the Quarter Master to represent it. None of the men seems to have been long on his present ship, and they appear to have come from all over the country, with only a small sprinkling of Irishmen, such as Patrick Glynn of the Queen Charlotte, A.B., and Patrick Dugan of the Glory, once a Midshipman and now Quarter Master’s Mate, with perhaps one or two more whose names do not betray their Irish origin, such as William Anderson of the Duke, also once a Midshipman, now Quarter Master. The Delegates, then, were trustworthy seamen, not, as is usually supposed, seditionmongers from Dublin, nor landsmen unable to adapt themselves to the service, who might be expected to dislike unfamiliar conditions; though they may have been quotamen who saw how disgraceful those conditions were. Nor were they mainly men greedy for more pay, for, as we have seen, many of them were not to be affected by the rises in pay demanded. Some were young men, perhaps too eager for change of any kind, one or two may have been revolutionaries, but most were hardy men, no longer youthful, many of them in responsible positions, and all of them, apparently, competent. Not one of them was a mere Ordinary Seaman, only thirteen were even mere A.B.’s; five of them were seasoned Midshipmen of mature age who had worked their way up, many were of petty officer rank. This was no rabble of discontented scum, knowing nothing of the sea, but men whom their companions had learned to trust, the flower of all that was not quarterdeck.

The extraordinary thing about the deliberators was that these men did not heat each other up into forming a council of offensive war, but coolly remained a committee to establish means of keeping order among their rebel selves—a supremely able tactical measure. If any revolutionary tendencies poked up their heads, they were crushed: for, as the men had told Fox, “[we] are not actuated by any spirit of sedition or disaffection whatsoever: on the contrary, it is indigence and extreme penury alone that is the cause of our complaint.” It was to that aspect that they were determined to keep the issue narrowed. They therefore drew up an exemplary set of rules, most of which ended with the warning that any man neglecting them would be rigorously dealt with—paradoxically unmutinous rules, as: “The greatest attention to be paid to the orders of the officers. Any person failing in respect due to them, or neglecting their duty, shall be severely punished.” Watches were to be kept with all the usual strictness; any man attempting to bring liquor on board, or found drunk, would receive no mercy; though women might come on board, none must be allowed to go back again, as a safeguard against tattle ashore and leakage of news, to prevent which even “liberty” from ship to ship was strictly forbidden, as well as letters to the land, which might contain alarmingly inflammatory stuff. It was naturally ordered that “no ship shall lift an anchor to proceed from this port until the desire of the Fleet is satisfied.” To maintain the spirit, and to show the others that all was well, every ship was to give three cheers at eight o’clock in the morning, and again at sunset.

These men were sure of their backing: they knew, sitting in unaccustomed state in the great cabin, that they had the whole Fleet behind them. All petty squabbles had been sunk. The foretop men with their pride of skill forgot their superiority over the duller after-guard; both felt their fraternity with the mass of despised “waisters”—the scavengers, pumpers, sewer-men and pigsty keepers, mostly landsmen, who lived in the waist of the ship. The marines, usually a race apart, were embraced as fellow-sufferers, and even the unfortunate boys, whom everybody kicked and cuffed when they came within reach, were regarded as part of the great community. General discontent, due to increasing hardships and a sense of wrong, had made them one. “Scarcely a dissenting voice was heard in any ship, from the Quarter Masters, Boatswain’s Mates, etc.: [petty officers] to the most contemptible sweeper.” “Yet an oath cements feelings, and was very seriously regarded by the sailors; so the Delegates decided that every man in the Fleet should swear 64 by his Maker that the cause we have undertaken be persevered in till accomplished.” In case of disturbance on any ship—there may always be counter-revolts—a red flag, signifying battle,” was to be hoisted on the foretopgallant masthead, or, at night, two lights, one above the other. On seeing that signal, a boat with the Delegates would repair immediately to the scene of trouble.

There was nothing more the Delegates could do that evening: the next move lay with the Admiralty. The men, most likely, rested calmly, but the repose of the officers was less easy through that night of uncertain waiting. Sir Alan Gardner reported to Bridport that Captain Bedford had “overheard below that it is at present determined by the men of the Fleet to wait until Tuesday for an answer to their petitions, and in case it does not arrive by that day’s post that a signal with a Union and two guns is to be made on board the Queen Charlotte, when the whole of the officers are to be secured and sent on shore.” “Anything might happen, and they were helpless. What would, what could, the Admiralty do?