Mutiny on the Prince George – 16 January 1779
One of the consequences of the political conflict that broke out following the Battle of Ushant was the need to appoint acting-captains to those ships whose officers were required to either sit on, or give witness statements at, the court-martials of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel and Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser.
One such ship was the Prince George 90, whose captain, Sir John Lindsay, was a key witness in the defence of Admiral Keppel. Into his cabin moved Philip Patton, a mature Scots-born officer of forty years of age, but a commander of just a few months. Born of relatively humble origins and with little ‘interest’ to advance his career, Patton had enjoyed the good fortune of being Rear-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s acting first lieutenant when the King had reviewed the fleet in May 1778, and he had been promoted along with all the other participating admirals’ senior lieutenants. Patton’s temporary posting to the Prince George was subsequently made by the order of the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Thomas Pye, and it was without Admiralty approval.
Neither, somewhat surprisingly given his scholarly, amiable, generous nature, did Patton’s appointment appear to have the approval of the men of the Prince George, for not long after going to sea with Vice-Admiral Lord Shuldham’s squadron it was discovered that the lanyards of the main shrouds had been tampered with. The consequences of this sabotage would have brought down the main-mast in a more substantial breeze than the one which was prevailing, and that catastrophe would have necessitated a return to port. Thwarted on this occasion, the men were soon to display their disobedience again.
On 16 January the squadron was bowling along in a squally, blustery southerly wind some two hundred leagues out into the Atlantic. The weather had been unfavourable for some days and there had been no opportunity to open the lower deck gun-ports and provide ventilation below. Patton decided to address the situation by having those decks thoroughly cleaned and fires lit, and to this purpose he ordered all the hammocks brought up into the three-decker’s unoccupied great cabin at 9 a.m.
An hour passed and the hammocks failed to appear. Instead the boatswain came to the quarterdeck to report that the men had refused to bring their hammocks up, and that his life had been threatened by a number of unseen men in the dim recesses of the lower decks.
Patton immediately gave orders for lights to be carried into the lower gun-deck, and for the men to be assembled. These instructions were complied with, whereupon he addressed the hands to the effect that he had ordered the hammocks brought up for their own benefit, yet that such an explanation should have been unnecessary as it was beyond doubt that his orders should have been obeyed without question.
His speech was met with stony silence, and still the men refused to go below to collect their hammocks. Gathering all of his officers about him, Patton desired them to call each man to his duty according to the watch-bill, and to arrest the first man who refused to obey. Deprived of their anonymity the men followed the officers’ instructions, went below to the newly lit decks, and brought their hammocks up.
That evening Patton ordered his officers to supervise the re-stowing of the hammocks below, and to bring to him any man betraying a grievance. Not long afterwards the first lieutenant appeared with a man who desired that his hammock be thrown overboard. Summoning all hands aft, Patton had him flogged then announced to the crew that anybody else who dared question his authority would be similarly disciplined.
For the duration of the fleet’s cruise Captain Patton did not encounter any further opposition, and after arriving at Spithead he handed the Prince George over in good order to Sir John Lindsay. Within two months the worthy Patton was posted captain when he was appointed to the Namur 90, flagship of Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby. He would later be renowned for the care he took over his men’s conditions, and for predicting the great fleet mutinies of 1797.