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Joining the British Navy, 1793
Among the many inventions of the twentieth century - air travel, space travel, the computer, and television, to name a few - add adolescence. Of course, teenagers have always been a part of society throughout history. However, the concept of a prolonged period of quasi-adulthood during which adult responsibilities are temporally suspended is a product of the modern industrial age. The earlier onset of puberty, compulsory education through age eighteen, the higher average age of marriage and child labor laws that prohibited children from the workplace all contributed to the development of adolescence as a defined stage of maturation that separates childhood and adulthood in the modern world.

The life of British Admiral Sir William Parker, who was born in 1782, exemplifies society’s changing perspective of adolescence through the ages. Young Parker joined the British Navy in 1793 at age eleven. His young age did not lessen the expectation that he would adequately fulfill his duties aboard ship. He initially served as a servant to the Captain of the HMS Orion. The young boy received his baptism to warfare about a year after joining the Navy when his ship took part in the Battle of the Glorious First of June that pitted the British Channel Fleet against the French Atlantic Fleet in the mid-Atlantic. The battle was the largest naval engagement of the Napoleonic War and resulted in both sides claiming victory.

The boy grew to a man while in the British Navy and in 1801 William became captain of his own ship – the Amazon – at age twenty. He left the Navy in 1812 but returned fifteen years later and eventually became commander of the Channel Fleet in 1848. He attained the rank of Admiral in 1852 and Admiral of the Fleet in 1863. He died in 1866.

"I am very happy and as comfortable as if I was at home. . ."

On February 24, 1793 – his first day aboard ship - the eleven-year-old Parker wrote a letter to his mother assuring her of his well being:

Orion, Spithead
Sunday Morn
February 24th 1793

"My Dearest Mother,

It gave me great pleasure to receive your kind letter, for which I thank you, and I have begun upon a large sheet the moment I received it. . . I am very happy and as comfortable as if I was at home, and like it of all things; and I think I have every prospect of doing well, particularly under the care of so good a gentleman as Captain Duckworth, who is like a father to us all. Mr. Nevill and all on board are extremely kind to me. I have not yet gone higher than the maintop. We are to sail to the West Indies, and I have my things on shore being altered and made cooler for me. Pray tell Patty that I do not sleep in a hammock, but a cot, which is a much more comfortable thing, and that is not swung yet, so I manage very well. . . .

Sir John Jervis [the writer’s uncle] has told Mr. Nevill (who he knows very well) to take care of me, and I assure you he does, and is by far the best friend I have on board (Captain Duckworth excepting); tells me to ask him anything I want, and often asks me questions in those rules of navigation I have gone through; ... Captain Duckworth says, I shall not do any service of any kind before two years. But a Mr. Gray is so good as to say he will take me to watch with him in a year, and if he has a little sloop and goes with Captain Duckworth, he will take me with him, but do not mention a word about it to anybody, or in any of your letters. I am very glad to hear that Admiral Gardner is Admiral of our Fleet. Captain Duckworth is so good as to send for some plums, and other good things, for Messrs. Lane, Baker, and me.

My father has furnished me with a box of colours, drawing books, and everything that could possibly amuse me. He sends me music and more drawings from town by Admiral Gardner. Captain Duckworth very often asks me to breakfast, dine, and drink tea with him. He desires his compliments to all our family. Nobody ever looks at our letters. I intend to get Sir John Jervis to forward this. . . . My paper being by this time filled, and I suppose I must have worn out your patience, I must conclude with desiring you to give my best love to all our family, and friends, and the servants.

And believe me, dearest Mother,
Your dutiful son,
W. Parker."

   This eyewitness account appears in: Charles-Edwards and B. Richardson They Saw it Happen, An Anthology of Eyewitness Accounts of Events in British History 1689-1897 (1958); Graff, Harvey J. Conflicting Paths: growing up in America (1995).

How To Cite This Article:
"Joining the British Navy, 1793," EyeWitness to History, (2008).