The Spithead & Nore Mutiny

The Spithead & Nore Mutiny


Discontent among sailors at the Nore, a Royal Navy anchorage in the Thames Estuary, overflowed in riotous mutiny in May 1797. Spithead sailors win better pay and a royal pardon but the Nore Mutiny, influenced by radical political ideas, is supressed and the leaders hanged.

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    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 were potentially dangerous for Britain, because at the time the country was at war with the Revolutionary government of France. There were also concerns among some members of the British ruling class that the mutinies might be the trigger to a wider uprising similar to the French Revolution.

    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 at the living conditions aboard Royal Navy vessels and demanded a pay rise.

    Seamen's pay rates had been established in 1658, and due to the stability of wages and prices, they had still been reasonably competitive as recently as the Seven Years' War, 40 years earlier; however, high inflation during the last decades of the 18th century severely eroded the real value of the pay. At the same time, the practice of coppering the bottoms of hulls, starting 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 yet 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 there were a large number of landsmen from inshore, who did not mix well with the career seamen (volunteers or pressed men) and led 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 abolishment of the 14-ounce purser's pound (where the ship's purser was allowed to keep two ounces of every pound 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.

    Due to 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, and a pay rise and abolishment of the purser's pound. Afterwards, the mutiny was to become nicknamed "breeze at Spithead".

    The leader of the mutiny remained anonymous even after its resolution. Rumours during the time placed Valentine Joyce as the mastermind. Valentine Joyce was a quartermaster's mate aboard Lord Bridport's HMS Royal George (Roberts 2006).

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