In the eighteenth century, Britain’s territorial and commercial empire was expanding in every direction across the globe; this exponential scramble rested heavily on its military might. Throughout the century war was almost constant, by land, and increasingly importantly, by sea. Britain’s navy was increasingly the most powerful on the planet, and protected the ‘national’, ie ruling interests on all continents.
For instance at the beginning of the year war broke out Parliament increased the size of the Navy to 45,000 (the population of Britain at the time was around 9 million). In 1794 this was increased to to 85,000 and in 1799 to 120,000.
But seagoing was always an expensive business, high on wastage, with a high rate of loss of ships – in battle, in storms, shipwreck and through incompetent command, faulty construction or occasional mutiny. A constant source of new sailors was needed to replenish the navy’s forces; but as it was a dangerous life, where your health and safety was in low regard, death was likely, and your pay was often years in arrears. Thus experienced sailors would generally rather plump for any safer and better rewarded forms of shipping (although all in all a sailor’s life was hardly a peach).
To make up the vast numbers, the state resorted to various forms of persuasion – advancing some wages up front (though you were expected to buy clothes and a hammock, known as slops, out of this: ‘At their coming on board they may be supplied by slop clothes, but the value thereof must be deducted out of the said two months advance.’), and making joining the navy a way to escape from the threat of the debtors prison (the navy would protect any man from his creditors if his debt was less than £20).
When this was insufficient, the Impress Service (popularly know as the press gang) was charged with rounding up men. In theory it was limited to seamen, (though this was given a broad interpretation), between 18 to 55 years of age, (frequently these limits were ignored).
In every port in Great Britain, the press gang sought out likely ‘recruits’; usually consisting some of the local hard men as ‘gangers’, not often sailors themselves (and serving on a press gang was the only sure fire way of not being pressed yourself). The Gang roamed the ports and countryside in search of suitable recruits, and were paid money for travel, 3d per mile for officers 1d for men, and money per man pressed, anything up to 10 shillings. The scope for corruption was large, many men would bribe their way out of the gangs clutches, for a prosperous man a £10 bribe to the press gang was a small price to pay for his continued liberty. The press gang was a hated enemy of the poor, in London as elsewhere.
Merchant ships provided obvious targets for the press gang and captains would board merchant ships to take off any men he might want, officers and apprentices were exempt. Merchant captains built hideaways for one or two particularly valuable men to hide in if the press gang came aboard. The rule was that the press gang had to leave enough men on board to ‘navigate the ship‘, again a phrase open to wide interpretation.
The press gang was backed by the state nationally; but local civil authorities on shore would often do everything in their power to disrupt its operations.
But resistance, both individual and collective, to impressment, formed the best defence against this forced co-option. Avoidance of the Press Gang was a practiced art form; warning systems were developed to alert eligible tars to hide when the gangs were on the prowl, and sympathetic inns and houses would shelter men fleeing impressment.
Partly resistance arose from the demographic the press gangs often ended up targeting. Sailors as a social group were accustomed to collective solidarity, arising nor only from there experience of working together to run a ship, but often from acting together in their common interests to combat poor working conditions (from which sailors were also famous for their central involvement in social struggles, riots, revolts, for centuries). But the press gang also sought unwilling volunteers among the residents of slums and rookeries, where sentiments were generally anti-authoritarian and collective self-interest against the powers that be was necessary for daily survival (eg: In April 1721, the inhabitants of Southwark’s Mint rookery took up “Arms in defence of Liberty” & expelled the press gangs from Southwark). The gangs also raided taverns to round up drunk and unwary pub goers… running battles were frequently fought between the Press Gang and locals, often crowds would gather to rescue men captured by the Gang. Women often take the leading part in battles against them: especially prostitutes, as many sailors lived with prostitutes, or women who made part of their living through prostitution.
Whole-scale raids on merchant ships were far from uncommon; for instance, today in 1770, press-gangs raided many ships on on the Thames – not, however, entirely successfully:
“This night there was a very hot press on the river Thames; they paid no regard to protections, but stripped every vessel of all hands that were useful. They boarded the Glatton, East Indiaman; but the crew made a stout defence, got on shore, and came into London about twelve o’clock. It is computed that on the river, and on shore, they took upwards of 700.” (Annual Register, 1770.)
The crew of the Glatton, like many before them, fought off the press man and escaped forced service in the navy.
The high level of opposition to impressment led the navy to resort to intercepting ships carrying freed Britons from imprisonment (eg prisoners exchanged with France) and kidnapping as many men as they needed. The press gangs in the ports where these ships were returning also kept a look out for them. But the exchange ships were hired merchantmen and the crews were sympathetic to the former prisoners often landing them in places they knew there was no press gang. One ship ran up the river into Rye at night and let 300 men flee into the countryside long before the press gang from Folkestone could catch them.
Officially no foreigner could be pressed into service, although he could volunteer. However if he married a Briton or worked in a British merchant ship for two years, he became liable for pressing. The impressment of Americans (in theory protected by sworn certificates) was one of the factors that lead to a British – US war of 1812.
By the 1790s and the titanic struggle between Britain and revolutionary/Napoleonic France, the press gang’s unpopularity and violent resistance to it had made it an unwieldy and impractical method of recruitment. In 1795 the government had to bring in mass conscription, in the form of the Quota Acts, which laid down that each county had to provide a quota of men depending on its population and number of seaports, for service at sea. Again, this produced less than it promised – while counties offered a bounty for men to sign up, few came forward. So instead men convicted of petty crimes were given the option go to sea or go to jail. Since the Georgian code of justice at the time prescribed a harsh jail sentence or death for what we would consider quite trivial offences, the option of going to sea and a pension at the end could appear the least worst option…
Impressment was last used in Britain during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. Although not used after that period, the right to use impressment was retained. In 1835, a law was passed that exempted sailors who had been impressed and had served for five years in the navy from being press-ganged again. In 1853, the navy introduced continuous service for sailors who wished to make a career in the navy. After a fixed number of years, they would receive a pension. This reduced the need for general impressment and it died out in the form that it had been used previously. However, in the twentieth century, during the two world wars, another type of impressment has been used in the form of compulsory national service or conscription and this type of service continued until the early 1960s.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online