In 1751, aged fourteen, Thomas Parker joined the Royal Navy where he led an unremarkable career as a seaman. In 1762, whilst bathing in Bahía de la Habana, Parker was attacked by a large shark. He survived the attack but lost his left leg below the knee (figure 1).
Fig. 1. John Singleton Copley, Parker Saved from the Shark, 1763.
It probably wasn’t the first shark attack on a Royal Navy seaman; however, the Navy having just kicked the Spanish out of Havana, British sentiment was running high, and news of Parker’s misfortune captured the esteem of British patriots back home.
By the time Parker made it back to Blighty, he was quite the celebrity and was given a hero’s welcome… along with a rather splendid new leg made of padouk (figure 2).
Fig. 2. Robert Dighton, Thomas Parker, circa 1780.
Parker enjoyed his newfound notoriety, but it wasn’t to last. Born on the Hylands House estate near Chelmsford in Essex, Thomas was the eldest son of Charles Parker, the estate carpenter. He was an ordinary sort, and the pressures of his celebrity took their toll on him. Parker resorted to frequenting quay-side taverns where patrons would throw him a halfpenny to relate the story of the shark attack in Havana (figure 3).
Fig. 3. Isaac Cruikshank, The Hero Thomas Parker, circa 1786.
Parker was a drunkard, sleeping on coils of rope in warehouses by the docks, eventually selling his padauk leg to another unfortunate sailor to pay off some of his debts. Parker’s peg leg now resides in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (figure 4).
Fig. 4. Thomas Parker’s padauk peg leg. (National Maritime Museum)
In 1788 Parker returned home to Hylands House, where his brother, Edward (figure 5), himself now a carpenter of some repute (the celebrated inventor of, amongst other things, winding sticks), took him in.
Fig. 5. John Walters, Edward Parker, Hylands House Carpenter, circa 1797.
Edward used his position to appeal to the estate manager to secure employment for his brother. Thomas’ personage, however, cut him no favours in rural Essex and so, he was assigned to the care and employ of the estate’s mole and rat catcher. Thomas seemingly excelled at catching vermin, using the end of a crutch to extricate the pests from their hiding places.
Thomas approached Edward to make him a new peg leg – one that would be singularly advantageous in his new vocation. Again, using padauk, Edward – in conjunction with a local gunsmith – fashioned a formidable peg leg incorporating a miniature blunderbuss (figure 6).
Fig. 6. Thomas Parker’s flintlock peg leg. (private collection)
With mobility regained, renewed resolve, and equipped with a state-of-the-art weapon, Thomas set about destroying rodents on the Hylands estate with rat shot and gunpowder. His achievements didn’t escape the notice of neighbouring landowners and soon Thomas’ services were in high demand.
Thomas subsequently departed Edward and Hylands House and moved fifty miles northwards to live with his widowed sister, Elizabeth, in Newmarket, where he continued blasting rats and poisoning them with an efficacious bait of his own invention (figure 7).
Fig. 7. Thomas Parker’s trade bill, circa 1791.
In 1794, aged fifty-seven, Thomas Parker died of sepsis from a gangrenous infection after blowing off part of his right foot with his peg leg whilst in the pursuit of rats.