The purpose of the Impress Service, as the Press Gang was called officially, was to secure the men needed to keep the Royal Navy’s ships at proper fighting strength. Given the conditions on board, and the chances of dying from disease or being killed or maimed in battle, not enough men were ever willing to volunteer for naval service. The Press Gangs were thus a kind of enforced conscription to meet the demand for men to make up for the constant losses.
Not just any men though. The navy wanted experienced seamen, able from the beginning to tell one part of the complicated rigging of a man-of-war from another; even better if they could climb aloft and be trusted to fasten or unfasten the right ropes in the teeth of an Atlantic gale. There wasn’t either the time or the inclination to train the numbers needed from scratch. Mere ‘landsmen’ were only useful for hauling on ropes and carrying heavy burdens. Most of these could be supplied anyway from the prisons and conscripted prisoners of war. The ferocious discipline to be found on naval ships was required in large part by the fact that a significant number of any crew would probably be convicted felons, reluctant prisoners of war or Irish rebels.
How the Press Gangs Worked
A group of seamen, usually led by a lieutenant, would arrive at a coastal town or fishing village and demand a certain number of skilled men for the navy’s needs. Not surprisingly, the local magistrates were reluctant to assist by supplying men voluntarily. The loss of skilled seamen could badly affect local trade, while the removal of a family’s breadwinner threw people into poverty and thus dependence on the Poor Law assistance paid for by local ratepayers.
In these cases, the Gangs took what they wanted by force or trickery. Even then it wasn’t easy. Men seized would stoutly deny any knowledge of the sea or seafaring and their families and neighbours would back them up. It was also possible for certain men to obtain certificates of exemption from being pressed, but it was far from unknown for Press Gangs to ignore them.
Signs of a Sailor
The Press Gangs therefore tended to make their choice based on supposed signs that would give a sailor away, no matter how much he argued otherwise.
For example, when the Press Gang seized one John Teede, he protested vigorously that he had never been to sea in his life, had no knowledge of sailing or anything else nautical, and would brand any who claimed otherwise as bare-faced liars. The officer in charge, convinced “he had the look of a sailor”, at once ordered his men to strip Teede. Sadly for poor Teede, he had succumbed, like many before and since, to the temptation to get tattooed. Symbols and messages of love and the sea covered both his arms from shoulder
to wrist. Needless to say, it sealed his fate.
An allegedly excellent indication of a sailor was to be bow-legged. Climbing masts and being confined to the limited space on board a sailing ship — to say nothing of the terrible diet — meant that many sailors’ legs became deformed in this way. Unfortunately, the same could be said of men who sat for hours, cross-legged, while pursuing the trade of being a tailor. More than one tailor protested in vain as the Press Gang dragged him off in the belief that they had found a reluctant seaman.
Another way to thwart the Press Gang was to offer up a suitable victim in place of a local man. This was most likely to be some innocent stranger, who had somehow caused suspicion amongst the locals; not too difficult in tightly-knit villages unused to outsiders.
At Cromer in Norfolk in 1780, a tall, heavily-bearded man was seen to walk along the beach and over the fields, “writing in a book he carried.” This naturally alarmed the townspeople, who accosted him, with the parson at their head, and demanded —none too politely I expect —that he explain himself and his conduct. The man took offence at this treatment and flatly refused to do so. At this point, all agreed he was an extremely dubious character, most likely a spy making plans of the coast. An ideal candidate therefore to be disposed of through being pressed.
The man was held while a message was sent to the lieutenant in charge of a Press Gang at Great Yarmouth, informing him that they had taken a spy, who must therefore possess significant knowledge of seamanship. The lieutenant quickly arrived and had the suspect dragged back with him to Yarmouth. Fortunately for the stranger, the mention of spying ensured he was taken before the mayor of Great Yarmouth before being pressed into the navy — just in case he actually was a spy. In the ensuing questioning, the poor fellow managed to convince the mayor he was actually an agriculturist sent over from Russia to study the English method of growing turnips.
Official Abuses of the System
The temptation to use the Press Gang as a way of paying off old scores even affected some of the highest in the land. After all, what could be easier for the Lords of the Admiralty than to use their control of the Impress Service to punish any group or place which incurred their displeasure?
When the towns of Dover and Brighton upset the Admiralty by responding to the navy’s need for recruits in ways which were deemed lacking in proper respect, the Admiralty’s animus against the towns saw a concerted series of visits by the Impress Service to seize as many local sailors as possible; until the subsequent outcry caused the Admiralty to stop the process. In the early part of the 19th century, the Admiralty also ordered a Capt. Culverhouse, in charge of the Liverpool section of the service, “to take all opportunities of impressing seafaring men belonging to the Isle of Man,” as a punishment for the “extreme ill-conduct of the people of that Island to His Majesty’s Officers of the Impress Service.”
It wasn’t only the Admiralty which could use the Press Gangs to settle scores either. When a riot occurred at King’s Lynn in 1755, mud and stones were thrown at the magistrates who arrived to do what they could to put an end to it. Naturally angered by being subjected to such indignity, they swiftly contacted the Press Gang and supplied them with the names of the 60 people most involved in the rioting. All were seized and taken to Spithead to be forcibly added to naval ships’ crews.
Far from incurring any resentment from the townspeople, the magistrates’ action caused general rejoicing, since it was said that those now pressed into the navy consisted mostly of “’vagrants, gipsies, those living at the charge of the parish [recipients of Poor Law relief], the maimed, the halt and sundry idiots.” In short, “the sweepings of the borough.”
I can’t help feeling it’s a good job no similar way of dealing with demonstrators and local welfare claimants exists today!