William Parker was born in Wandsworth in the County of Surrey and came to the Tyne following his discharge from the Army at Horse Guards, Westminster on 12 September 1820. Unfortunately the parish records for Wandsworth were destroyed during the war, so it is not possible to identify his parents or his father’s trade. His early life, including his schooling, is unknown and not until he joined the 84th Regiment of Foot on 08 April 1811 do we find some written record of his life. Parker’s active service in the Army, serving in the East Indies in support of the East India Company, ended in 1817 when he was confined to the Madras Lunatic Asylum following the death of a fellow soldier, for which Parker was tried on a charge of murder in October 1819. Acquitted on a plea of insanity, Parker returned to England the following year.
This early experience appears to have influenced his later life, as some of his most passionate speeches in support of the Charter featured references to armed conflict and his willingness to die defending a just cause.
On 23 July 1821, William Parker married Isabella Potts at St Mary’s Church, Gateshead, less than twelve months since his official discharge from the Army. From at least 1838, he was living on Lime Street in the lower Ouseburn, having secured employment at one of the local glassworks. He would later claim to represent the workers at all four glassworks at Ouseburn. On 10 September 1838 Parker was one of two representatives of working men elected to the Council of the re-launched Northern Political Union; the other was Thomas Hepburn the miners’ leader.
The Northern Political Union was an alliance of middle class radicals, tradesmen and workers in support of the six demands enshrined in the People’s Charter, and during the next four years Parker made numerous speeches in Newcastle and County Durham, submitted at least six letters to radical newspapers, and chaired the Ouseburn Working Men’s Association and, after August 1840, the Ouseburn Charter Association.
The rejection by Parliament of the Charter (or National Petition) in 1839 and again in 1842, inevitably encouraged working class radicals like Parker to pursue other causes designed to improve the conditions of the laboring poor. When trade on the Tyne slumped in 1842, it was William Parker who was elected by the unemployed as their representative in negotiations with the mayor and members of Newcastle Council. Parker submitted a detailed report to the Council members at the Guildhall in June 1842, enumerating the number of unemployed and their dependents – at least 3,864 in number – who were destitute and in need of relief. A public works programme was subsequently implemented.
During the 1840s, Parker was also the representative of local Chelsea Pensioners, and in 1848 he persuaded at least nine district associations to support a petition to Parliament demanding redress of arrears in pension payments. William Parker’s faith in Parliament as the ultimate source of redress never appears to have faltered, despite the appalling conditions in which he and his fellow workers lived and died during these years. Following the return of cholera to Newcastle in the early 1850s, Parker was one of those who supported a petition to Parliament to demand a public enquiry into the high death rate in Newcastle, seconding this proposal at a packed public meeting held at the Nelson Street lecture room in October 1853. In his address, Parker condemned the `utter incapacity of the authorities of Newcastle to be entrusted with the health of the people’ and criticised the administrators of local cemeteries, which being privately owned `could close their gates against the poor tomorrow’.
William Parker died on 03 May 1858, of gastric fever. Ironically, one of his final letters (in June 1854) was a complaint to the River Tyne Commissioners regarding the appalling pollution of the Ouseburn caused by discharges of industrial and domestic waste.