Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parker, William (1743-1802)

PARKER, Sir WILLIAM (1743–1802), vice-admiral, son of Augustine Parker, sometime mayor of Queenborough and commander of one of the king's yachts, was born on 1 Jan. 1743. He seems to have entered the navy in 1756, on board the Centurion, with Captain William Mantell, and to have been present in the fleet before Louisbourg in 1757, at the capture of Louisbourg in 1758, and the capture of Quebec in 1759. In 1760 the Centurion, under the command of Captain James Galbraith, went to the coast of Africa, and in 1761 was on the Jamaica station. In 1762 she returned to England, and Parker, having been in her, as midshipman and master's mate, for nearly six years, passed his examination on 3 Nov. 1762. On 29 Nov. 1766 he was promoted to be lieutenant, and, for much of his time in that rank, was employed on the Newfoundland station in, among other ships, the Niger and Aldborough frigates, and the Egmont schooner. He was promoted to the rank of commander on 25 June 1773, and in March 1775 commissioned the Martin, again for service on the Newfoundland station. On his promotion to post rank, 28 Aug. 1777, he commanded the Deal Castle in the West Indies under Barrington in 1778, and under Byron in 1779. He afterwards commanded the Maidstone, and, in 1782, the Iphigenia, which was paid off early in 1783. He was then appointed to the Dictator, guardship in the Medway; and, after commanding her for three years, was, from 1787 to 1790, commodore and commander-in-chief on the Leeward Islands station, with a broad pennant in the 50-gun ship Jupiter. In the Spanish armament of 1790 he commanded the Formidable, which was paid off in the autumn.

In December 1792 Parker commissioned the 74-gun ship Audacious for service in the Channel fleet under the command of Richard Howe, earl Howe [q. v.] On 28 May 1794, as the English and French fleets were in presence of each other, a strenuous attack was made on the French rear by three or four or five English ships. Foreseeing the possibility of such an attempt, the French had strengthened their rear by placing there the 120-gun ship Révolutionnaire, which thus became the object of continuous attack. But the English ships never succeeded in engaging her with several ships at the same time, and against them singly she was able to hold her own. At dusk Howe made the signal for the ships to take their station in the line, but the Révolutionnaire had by that time suffered a good deal of damage, had fallen a long way astern, and was brought to close action by the Audacious. As the other ships obeyed the recall, the Audacious was left singly exposed to the fire of her huge antagonist. Had the Révolutionnaire been in good order, she must have demolished the Audacious; happily her men were neither seamen nor gunners, and the fight was not so unequal as it seemed. As the night closed in both ships had received a great deal of damage, and by ten o'clock they separated, or, perhaps it would be more correct to say, drifted apart. On the morning of the 29th they were still in sight of each other, and a detached French squadron coming within gunshot placed the Audacious in imminent danger. Though her rigging was cut to pieces, her masts were all standing, and she could sail before the wind. As she ran to leeward a thick haze concealed her from the view of her pursuers, and these judged it more important to stand by the Révolutionnaire than follow the Audacious, which, being quite unable to rejoin the fleet, returned to Plymouth. The Révolutionnaire was towed to Rochelle, and thus the result of the engagement was that, in the action of 1 June, the French were deprived of a 120-gun ship, the English of a 74.

On 14 July Parker was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and in the following February was appointed commander-in-chief at Jamaica, with his flag in the Raisonnable. A severe illness compelled him to return to England in the summer of 1796; but, having recovered his health, he was sent out in January 1797 to join Sir John Jervis (afterwards Earl of St. Vincent) [q. v.] with a reinforcement of five sail of the line, his flag being on board the Prince George of 98 guns. He joined Jervis on 9 Feb., and on the 14th the battle of Cape St. Vincent was fought. The Prince George was the third ship in the English line, and came early into action, in which she had an effective share. It appears certain that it was her fire that beat the San Josef before Nelson boarded and took possession of her [see Nelson, Horatio, Viscount]. Parker thus felt more than a little sore at the publication of Nelson's account of what took place, in which, as he thought, an undue share of the success was claimed for the Captain. He accordingly drew up a narrative of what happened, from his point of view, and exaggerated the Prince George's part in the battle at least as much as Nelson had depreciated it. It must, however, be borne in mind that each of them had been intent on his own business, and was liable to be deceived as to the part taken by others. There is no doubt that each narrative conveys the honest impressions of the writer. To lookers-on, however, the part of the Captain seemed much the more brilliant; and, though it is conceded that the capture of the San Josef was mainly owing to the tremendous broadsides of the Prince George, nothing in Parker's conduct could compare with Nelson's bold initiative in wearing out of the line.

As third in command in a battle so glorious and of such far-reaching effects, Parker was made a baronet, was presented with the freedom of the city of London, and, in common with the other admirals and captains, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and the gold medal. He remained with the fleet under Lord St. Vincent, becoming second in command by the recall of Vice-admiral Thompson. In the summer of 1798 he conceived himself deeply injured by the appointment of Nelson, his junior, to a detached and quasi-independent command in the Mediterranean, and complained bitterly to the commander-in-chief, who allowed him to suppose that he agreed with him, and that it was done entirely by the admiralty. Parker remained with the fleet till 1799, and was with Lord Keith in the pursuit of the French fleet out of the Mediterranean and into Brest [see Elphinstone, George Keith, Viscount Keith], after which he went to Spithead and struck his flag. In March 1800 he was appointed commander-in-chief on the Halifax station; but was recalled in the following year, in consequence of having, contrary to orders from the admiralty, sent two of his ships to the West Indies. He demanded a court-martial, which was granted. The offence was a technical one, and the court, while acquitting him of any misconduct, was of opinion that his orders to the two ships had been ‘indiscreet.’ The sting of the admonition would probably have been soothed by another command; but the peace was on the point of being signed, and during 1802 he remained on shore. On the last day of the year he died suddenly in a fit of apoplexy.

Parker married, in 1766, Jane, daughter of Edward Collingwood, and by her had seven daughters and one son. William George, who succeeded to the baronetcy, and died a vice-admiral in 1848.

[Ralfe's Naval Biogr. ii. 45; James's Naval History; Chevalier's Hist. de la Marine française sous la première République; Lists, Paybook, &c., in the Public Record Office.]

J. K. L.