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.
Wow! History is amazing.
Jack, an excellent post, thank you. Of all the titles I can think of having, “Rat Destroyer” is far and away the best. Thank you for bringing this otherwise obscure bit of history to my attention.
A great tale of someone who might best be described as a “character”! What an ironic demise! You have brightened up our lockdowns.
It’s so nice to see you posting again. I enjoy your woodworking insights. I hope you have been well and getting on with stimulating and creative projects.
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My god I enjoyed this. Thanks
Another example of why “Jack Plane” of Pegs and Tails is a man that I am pleased to be associated with.
You, sir, are one of a kind and I am deeply indebted to you for the offerings which you so generously parcel out to us, your unworthy subscribers.
I love it! I’m quite certain that if I had a blunderbuss leg, I would also end up sorting myself.
That’s a rather remarkable tale
Excellent 1st of April tale as you produce each year. I really was caught.
Thank you Jack, you never fail to educate and entertain! Stay safe and well my friend.
Thanks for this one! What a great story to add to a painting that I’ve long been familiar with. One of the three versions I’ve seen many times at The Detroit Institute of Arts. Cheers, Don
I’ve always thought of that painting as “Watson” and the shark. it terrified me as a child. I didn’t believe he was pulled out in spite of adult assurances. I was also fascinated by his hair in the water.
The American artist J. S. Copley did at least 3 versions of Brook Watson (Lord Mayor of London) losing his leg to a shark in Havanna Harbor and they’re now in Washington, DC, Boston, MA, and Detroit, MI. Never heard of Parker and have no idea what this dude is going on about. The furniture pics are nice though.
Thankyou for , as usual at this time of year, for your researches into the folk memory of the woodworking world. Apparently the craic was that Parker’s weapon was most effective against the rodents with really tall tails.
Shot himself in the foot with his other foot :D
That’s a story well suited to the date and fun to read :D
an interesting story, especially if you are familiar with the painting. also you may find the advertisement interesting, although i did not look at it.
Watson would/ Wood approve ; )
Dear Jack, Having waged a war on vermin (mice) recently, I appreciate the history of Mr. Parker. For months, I set just the right number of traps to successfully kill off the less intelligent of the local line and breed a new line of extra crafty, ninja mice that managed to escape all (mediocre) death enticements. There were many failed attempts at offering a humane demise. I was so proud of my giant bucket mouse trap with a ramp and “walk the plank” lever that tipped them in (in theory)…. followed by lots of snaps traps which taught them to pick the bait right off…until I learned to tie the bait on to the mechanism. They learned to evade that as well. Finally, at wits end, with no peg leg armed with powder, I sat alone during the dark night on the kitchen floor with supplies that included an electric staple gun, waiting for the brilliant “Darwinian” mice to emerge–only to study their entrance and egress. I won’t spoil this comment with a sordid explanation of their demise, but rest assured, it took A LOT to outsmart them. I know Mr. Parker’s method required a lot of patience and observation. Admirable! I recall a British antiques roadshow with an impressive giant wooden rat trap- was it a mini rodent guillotine? Wonder how that worked. Your posts always educate and amuse and I wish I knew you. Thank you!
American suburban mom and collector of 18th C furniture, Leigh Wirth Dencker.
I feel we’ve met.