In our modern world we have a horrible vision of what the British (and Americans) used to call “press gangs”. These bands of glorified thugs roamed the streets of harbor towns and farming villages literally bashing down doors and dragging able men away from their livelihoods and families to a hellish life at sea. No one was safe unless he could show a severed limb, was blind or deaf. Whole farming communities would be left without a single man save the very old or the virtual babies. The gangs were a government backed form of terror.
The truth of history is in this case, as in so many others, far more interesting than the fiction. While the men who worked under the auspices of the Royal Navy’s Impress Service did have the right to round up any able-bodied, male citizen of Britain between the ages of 18 and 55, it rarely happened that they followed this theory to the letter. Though many sailors were indeed taken up by the press, it was not so common for a laborer or merchant’s boy to be dragged off to sea.
The Royal Navy went through a period of tremendous growth in the last half of the 18th century. Since Britain is an island, a seafaring force has always been essential to her defense. By the 1750s, though, a strong naval force had become essential to keeping Britain’s many colonies safe and thriving as well. Ships were built in unheard of numbers and men were needed to work those ships. Unfortunately, they weren’t always willing to sign on for what could turn into years at a time in unknown and dangerous waters.
Of course there were the lifelong sailors who knew nothing else but when ships multiplied the old salts tended to stay with their trusted Captains. Since individual commanders were in charge of manning their ships once they were given their commission, a Captain could theoretically be stuck in port for an indefinite period should he be unable to recruit sailors for his ship. And therein lay the crux of the problem. Ships needed men who knew their way at sea.
The Impress Service was set up by the Admiralty with the permission of the Crown and based on the right of the King to demand service of any subject in defense of the realm. Though there were Impress men in most if not all port towns by 1755, many of the gangs were made up of seamen from a particular ship who’s Captain had sent them ashore to round up a few men to complete his crew. It was rare that these men, able seaman themselves for the most part, would want a farmer as a mate. As the Brethren know, a gawpus is good for only one thing: standing about with his lubberly mouth open and that means more work for every other Jack aboard us.
For this reason many men were pressed, not from jobs by land, but from other ships. From the 1780s on it was not uncommon for a Royal Navy ship to hale a merchant or privateer vessel, board her under some pretense and begin taking men from her crew. The Admiralty laws stated that officers and apprentices (such as the carpenter’s mate for instance) could not be pressed but in a pinch things could be a little less “lawful” at sea.
During and particularly after the American Revolution, impressment of U.S. merchant and eventually navy sailors by the Royal Navy became first a problem and then an international issue. Privateer and navy men were called out as deserters by the British and were therefore not being subject to the press but to “repatriation”. Triple P favorite David Porter, who spent time in U.S. merchants as a very young man, was treated to this tactic three times. He managed to escape in each instance but the “attention” he received from the Royal Navy made him one of their most formidable – if not vengeful – foes in the War of 1812. That war, in fact, might have been avoided had the British not began blatantly pressing men from U.S. Navy ships, including the now famous HMS Leopard vs. USS Chesapeake incident of 1807 in which American Commodore Barron was taken prisoner for resisting the impressment of his men.
It would be a falsehood to paint a rosy picture of the press gang. Sailors were certainly subject to certain horrors. These could include beatings, being chained and/or being dragged away from an alehouse in a drunken stupor. The Royal Navy made the situation worse by introducing the use of the press tender to ferry men down river from London and other larger cities. The ships, in widespread use by the “hot press” of 1803, had a box-like “room for impressed men” where sailors would be packed not unlike slaves for the miserable trip to Portsmouth, Plymouth or the Nore. This treatment fell upon one William Robinson, a 20 year old volunteer at the time, who later wrote:
In this place we spent the day and the following night huddled together, for there was not room to sit or stand separate; indeed, we were in a pitiable plight, for numbers of them were sea-sick, some retching, others were smoking, whilst many were so overcome with the stench that they fainted for want of air.
Despite the very real possibility of such misery, most sailors agreed that the Impress was its own blessing. They had a greater fear of unilateral conscription in which the length of service could become far longer, or even indefinite, if the government saw fit to make it so. As Brian Lavery puts it in his informative book Jack Aubrey Commands:
Though impressment was a huge gap in British claims to support liberty of the subject, the average backbencher felt that it was better than the state bureaucracy which would be needed to replace it. The sailor and his employer the merchant tended to prefer a ramshackle system to one which might be rather more difficult to evade.
Header: Horrors of the Press Gang, a cartoon from 1780