Sunday, 4 March 2007


This is the story of Richard Parker, a young lad who's unfortunate claim to fame was being killed in order to save others when shipwrecked in the tropics. I've always had an interest in the story as my first serious girlfriend was distantly related to him, but had forgotten all about it until recently coming across his gravestone.

Richard was, like me, a Woolston boy, or to be more precise an Itchen Ferry boy. On the 19th May 1884 he set sail from Southampton as a cabin boy on the yacht Mignonette, bound for Australia. The yacht was captained by Thomas Dudley, with Edward Brooks and Edwin Stephens completing the crew of four.

The journey was pretty uneventful until disaster struck on 3rd July, with a heavy sea breaking right over the yacht. Captain Dudley soon gave the order to abandon ship and Richard helped the captain and three other crew members to quickly throw provisions overboard for later retrieval before launching their dinghy. Unfortunately Richards assumption that the cask of drinking water would float was incorrect and it quickly sank to the bottom along with the yacht.

Their first job was to patch up the leaking dinghy, having done this the only provisions they could still find was a tin of parsnips. They did manage to collect rainwater and catch a turtle but after nineteen days adrift their situation was critical. Richard, despite all advise, had succumberd to temptation and drank seawater. All of the crew were now starving and near death from thirst, and two of them took the incredibly hard decision to sacrifice one to save the rest. With Richard clearly the weakest, being delirious from the drunken sea-water, he was the obvious choice. Brooks would have nothing to do with the killing but Captain Dudley eventually took out his knife and slashed the boys throat. The others relieved their thirst by drinking his blood, also eating his heart and other body parts.

Four days later they were picked up by a passing German ship. They survivors where eventually landed at Falmouth where they openly admitted to their "crime". A famous legal case followed, with the defendants claiming that the murder was justified as it was necessary in order to save other lives. The were found guilty and sentenced to death, but in view of the incredible suffering they had already endured this was reduced to a short imprisonment.

Richard was buried at sea but a memorial headstone to him was erected in Peartree Church, Southampton on his mother's grave. The inscription (unfortunately no longer clear enough to photograph well) reads as follows:

to the memory of
AGED 17,
who died at sea
July 25th 1884 after
nineteen days
dreadful suffering in an open
boat in the tropics,
having been wrecked in
the yacht 'Mignonette"
"Though he slay me, yet will
I trust in him" Job XIII 15

"Lay not this sin to
their charge" Acts VII 60

It would appear from this that the family bore the "murderers" no ill will.

Captain Dudley later emigrated to Australia but before he leaving he left a legacy to pay a local family to tend to Richard's grave (presumably in an effort to alleviate his guilt). The local family were so ashamed to accept money from "Cannibal Tom" as he was known that they only ever cleaned the stone at night to avoid being seen. And just to prove that what goes around comes around, Captain Dudley had a second claim to fame, becoming the first man in Australia to die of the bubonic plague.

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