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The Press-Gang



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I. How THE Press-Gang came in
II. Why the Gang was necessary

III. What the Press-Gang was .
IV. Whom the Gang might take
V. What the Gang did Afloat
VI. Evading the Gang

VII. What the Gang did Ashore
VIII. At Grips with the Gang
IX. The Gang at Play
X. Women and the Press-Gang
XI. In the Clutch of the Gang

XII. How the Gang went out









Appendix: Admiral Young's Torpedo
Index .




An Unwelcome Visit from the Press Gang Frontispiece


Manning the Navy ...... 56

Reproduced by kind permission from a rare print in the collection of
Mr. A. M. Broadlby.

The Press-Gang seizing a Victim . . . .80

Seizing a Waterman on Tower Hill on the Morning

OF his Wedding Day . . . . .116

Jack in the Bilboes ...... 130

From the Painting by Morland.

One of the Rarest of Press-Gang Records . . 188

A play-bill announcing the suspension of the Gang's operations on
" Play Nights," in the collection of Mr. A. M. Broadlkv, by
whose kind permission it is reproduced.

Sailors Carousing . . . . . .236

From the Mezzotint after J. Ibbbtson.

Anne Mills who served on board the Maidstone in 1740 258
Mary Anne Talbot . . . . . .266

Mary Anne Talbot dressed as a Sailor . . . 278

The Press Gang, or English Liberty Displayed . 306

Admiral Young's Torpedo ..... 332

Reproduced from the Original Drawing at the Public Record Office.



The practice of pressing men — that is to say, of
taking by intimidation or force those who will not
volunteer — would seem to have been world-wide in its

Wherever man desired to have a thing done, and
was powerful enough to insure the doing of it, there
he attained his end by the simple expedient of com-
pelling others to do for him what he, unaided, could
not do for himself.

The individual, provided he did not conspire in
sufficient numbers to impede or defeat the end in
view, counted only as a food-consuming atom in the
human mass which was set to work out the purpose
of the master mind and hand. His face value in the
problem was that of a living wage. If he sought to
enhance his value by opposing the master hand, the
master hand seized him and wrung his withers.

So long as the compelling power confined the
doing of the things it desired done to works of con-
struction, it met with little opposition in its designs,
experienced little difficulty in coercing the labour


necessary for piling its walls, excavating its tanks,
raising its pyramids and castles, or for levelling its
rog,d[s: arid' b^ftt^rg its ships and cities. These were
jhe. cpiniTionprace achievements of peace, at which
;,\ bvjeinVt4? cOQrcecf/ijilght toil unafraid ; for apart from
the normal incidence of death, such works entailed
little danger to the lives of the multitudes who wrought
upon them. Men could in consequence be procured
for them by the exercise of the minimum of coercion
— by, that is to say, the mere threat of it.

When peace went to the wall and the pressed
man was called upon to go to battle, the case assumed
another aspect, an acuter phase. Given a state of
war, the danger to life and limb, the incidence of
death, at once jumped enormously, and in proportion
as these disquieting factors in the pressed man's lot
mounted up, just in that proportion did his opposition
to the power that sought to take him become the
more determined, strenuous, and undisguised.

Particularly was this true of warlike operations
upon the sea, for to the extraordinary and terrible
risks of war were here added the ordinary but ever-
present dangers of wind and wave and storm, sufficient
in themselves to appal the unacccustomed and to
antagonise the unwilling. In face of these superlative
risks the difficulty of procuring men was accentuated
a thousand-fold, and with it both the nature and the
degree of the coercive force necessary to be exercised
for their procuration.

In these circumstances the Ruling Power had no
option but to resort to more exigent means of attaining
its end. In times of peace, working through myriad
hands, it had constructed a thousand monuments of


ornamental or utilitarian industry. These, with the
commonweal they represented, were now threatened
and must be protected at all costs. What more
reasonable than to demand of those who had built,
or of their successors in the perpetual inheritance of
toil, that they should protect what they had reared.
Hitherto, in most cases, the men required to meet
the national need had submitted at a threat. They
had to live, and coercive toil meant at least a living
wage. Now, made rebellious by a fearful looking
forward to the risks they were called upon to incur,
they had to be met by more effective measures.
Faced by this emergency, Power did not mince
matters. It laid violent hands upon the unwilling
subject and forced him, nolens volens, to sail its ships,
to man its guns, and to fight its battles by sea as he
already, under less overt compulsion, did its bidding
by land.

It is with this phase of pressing — pressing open,
violent and unashamed — that we purpose here to deal,
and more particularly with pressing as it applies to
the sea and sailors, to the Navy and the defence of an
Island Kingdom.

At what time the pressing of men for the sea
service of the Crown was first resorted to in these
islands it is impossible to determine. There is
evidence, however, that the practice was not only
in vogue, but firmly established as an adjunct of
power, as early as the days of the Saxon kings. It
was, in fact, coeval with feudalism, of which it may
be described as a side-issue incidental to a maritime
situation ; for though it is impossible to point to any
species of fee, as understood of the tenure of land,


under which the holder was liable to render service at
sea, yet it must not be forgotten that the great ports
of the kingdom, and more especially the Cinque Ports,
were from time immemorial bound to find ships for
national purposes, whenever called upon to do so, in
return for the peculiar rights and privileges conferred
upon them by the Crown. The supply of ships
necessarily involved the supply of men to sail and
fight them, and in this supply, or, rather, in the mode
of obtaining it, we have undoubtedly the origin of the
later impress system.

With the reign of John the practice springs into
sudden prominence. The incessant activities of that
uneasy king led to almost incessant pressing, and at
certain crises in his reign commission after commis-
sion is directed, in feverish succession, to the sheriffs
of counties and the bailiffs of seaports throughout the
kingdom, straitly enjoining them to arrest and stay all
ships within their respective jurisdictions, and with the
ships the mariners who sail them.^ No exception was
taken to these edicts. Long usage rendered the royal
lien indefeasible.^

^ By a plausible euphemism they were said to be "hired." As a
matter of fact, both ships and men were retained during the royal
pleasure at rates fixed by custom.

2 In more modern times the pressing of ships, though still put
forward as a prerogative of the Crown, was confined in the main to un-
foreseen exigencies of transport. On the fall of Louisburg in 1760,
vessels were pressed at that port in order to carry the prisoners of war
to France {Ad.* i. 1491— Capt. Byron, 17 June 1760) ; and in 1764, again,
we find Capt. Brereton, of the Falmouth^ forcibly impressing the East
India ship Revenge for the purpose of transporting to Fort St. George,
in British India, the company, numbering some four hundred and twenty-
one souls, of the Siam, then recently condemned at Manilla as unsea-
worthy. — Ad. i. 1498 — Letters of Capt. Brereton, 1764.

* Ad.f in the footnotes, signifies Admiralty Records,


In the carrying out of the royal commands there
was consequently, at this stage in the development of
pressing, little if any resort to direct coercion. From
the very nature of the case the principle of coercion
was there, but it was there only in the bud. The
king's right to hale whom he would into his service
being practically undisputed, a threat of reprisals in
the event of disobedience answered all purposes, and
even this threat was as yet more often implied than
openly expressed. King John was perhaps the first
to clothe it in words. Requisitioning the services of
the mariners of Wales, a notoriously disloyal body, he
gave the warrant, issued in 1208, a severely minatory
turn. " Know ye for certain," it ran, " that if ye act
contrary to this, we will cause you and the masters of
your vessels to be hanged, and all your goods to be
seized for our use."

At this point in the gradual subjection of the
seaman to the needs of the nation, defensive or the
contrary, we are confronted by an event as remarkable
in its nature as it is epoch-making in its consequences.
Magna Charta was sealed on the 15th of June 12 15,
and within a year of that date, on, namely, the 14th
of April then next ensuing, King John issued his
commission to the barons of twenty-two seaports,
requiring them, in terms admitting of neither mis-
construction nor compromise, to arrest all ships, and
to assemble those ships, together with their companies,
in the River of Thames before a certain day.^ This
wholesale embargo upon the shipping and seamen of
the nation, imposed as it was immediately after the
ensealing of Magna Charta, raises a question of great

^ Hardy, Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum^ 1833.


constitutional interest. In what sense, and to what
extent, was the Charter of English Liberties intended
to apply to the seafaring man ?

Essentially a tyrant and a ruthless promise-breaker,
John's natural cruelty would in itself sufficiently
account for the dire penalties threatened under the
warrant of 1 208 ; but neither his tyranny, his faithless-
ness of character, nor his very human irritation at the
concessions wrung from him by his barons, can explain
to our satisfaction why, having granted a charter
affirming and safeguarding the liberties of, ostensibly,
every class of his people, he should immediately inflict
upon one of those classes, and that, too, the one least
of all concerned in his historic dispute, the pains of a
most rigorous impressment. The only rational ex-
planation of his conduct is, that in thus acting he was
contravening no convention, doing violence to no
covenant, but was, on the contrary, merely exercising,
in accordance with time-honoured usage, an already
well-recognised, clearly defined and firmly seated
prerogative which the great charter he had so recently
put his hand to was in no sense intended to limit
or annul.

This view of the case is confirmed by subsequent
events. Press warrants, identical in every respect
save one with the historic warrant of 12 16, continued
to emanate from the Crown long after King John
had gone to his account, and, what is more to the
point, to emanate unchallenged. Stubbs himself, our
greatest constitutional authority, repeatedly admits as
much. Every crisis in the destinies of the Island
Kingdom — and they were many and frequent — pro-
duced its batch of these procuratory documents, every


batch its quota of pressed men. The inference is
plain. The mariner was the bondsman of the sea,
and to him the Nullus liber homo capiatur clause of
the Great Charter was never intended to apply. In
his case a dead-letter from the first, it so remained
throughout the entire chapter of his vicissitudes.

The chief point wherein the warrants of later times
differed from those of King John was this : As time
went on the penalties they imposed on those who
resisted the press became less and less severe. The
death penalty fell into speedy disuse, if, indeed, it was
ever inflicted at all. Imprisonment for a term of from
one to two years, with forfeiture of goods, was held to
meet all the exigencies of the case. Gradually even
this modified practice underwent amelioration, until at
length it dawned upon the official intelligence that a
seaman who was free to respond to the summons of
the boatswain's whistle constituted an infinitely more
valuable physical asset than one who cursed his king
and his Maker in irons. All punishment of the
condign order, for contempt or resistance of the press,
now went by the board, and in its stead the seaman
was merely admonished in paternal fashion, as in a
Proclamation of 1623, to take the king's shilling
*' dutifully and reverently" when it was tendered
to him.

In its apparent guilelessness the admonition was
nevertheless woefully deceptive. Like the subdued
beat of drum by which, some five years later, the
seamen of London were lured to Tower Hill, there to
be seized and thrown bodily into the waiting fleet, it
masked under its mild exterior the old threat of
coercion in a new form. The ancient pains and


penalties were indeed no more ; but for the back of
the sailor who was so ill-advised as to defy the press
there was another rod in pickle. He could now be
taken forcibly.

For side by side with the negative change involved
in the abolition of the old punishments, there had been
in progress, throughout the intervening centuries, a
positive development of far worse omen for the hap-
less sailor-man. The root-principle of direct coercion,
necessarily inherent in any system that seeks to foist
an arbitrary and obnoxious status upon any consider-
able body of men, was slowly but surely bursting into
bud. The years that had seen the unprested seaman
freed from the dread of the yardarm and the horrors
of the forepeak, had bred a new terror for him.
Centuries of usage had strengthened the arm of that
hated personage the Press-Master, and the compul-
sion which had once skulked under cover of a threat
now threw off its disguise and stalked the seafaring
man for what it really was — Force, open and un-
ashamed. The dernier ressort of former days was
now the first resort. The seafaring man who refused
the king's service when ** admonished " thereto had
short shrift. He was "first knocked down, and then
bade to stand in the king's name." Such, literally
and without undue exaggeration, was the later system
which, reaching the climax of its insolent pretensions
to justifiable violence in the eighteenth century, for
upwards of a hundred years bestrode the neck of the
unfortunate sailor like some monstrous Old Man of
the Sea.

Outbursts of violent pressing before the dawn of
the eighteenth century, though spasmodic and on the


whole infrequent, were not entirely unknown. Times
of national stress were peculiarly productive of them.
Thus when, in 1545, there was reason to fear a
French invasion, pressing of the most violent and
unprecedented character was openly resorted to in
order to man the fleet. The class who suffered most
severely on that occasion were the fisher folk of
Devon, ''the most part" of whom were ''taken as
marryners to serve the king." ^

During the Civil Wars of the next century both
parties to the strife issued press warrants which were
enforced with the utmost rigour. The Restoration saw
a marked recrudescence of similar measures. How
great was the need of men at that time, and how
exigent the means employed to procure them, may be
gathered from the fact, cited by Pepys, that in 1666
the fleet lay idle for a whole fortnight " without any
demand for a farthing worth of anything, but only to
get men." The genial diarist was deeply moved by
the scenes of violence that followed. They were, he
roundly declares, "a shame to think of."

The origin of the term "pressing," with its cognates
"to press" and "pressed," is not less remarkable than
the genesis of the violence it so aptly describes.
Originally the man who was required for the king's
service at sea, like his twin brother the soldier, was
not "pressed" in the sense in which we now use
the term. He was merely subjected to a process
called "presting." To "prest" a man meant to
enlist him by means of what was technically known

^ State Papers^ Henry vili. — Lord Russell to the Privy Council,
22 Aug. 1545. Bourne, who cites the incident in his Tudor Seamen^
misses the essential point that the fishermen were forcibly pressed.



as " prest " money — " prest " being the English
equivalent of the obsolete French priest, now prH,
meaning "ready." In the recruiter's vocabulary,
therefore, "prest" money stood for what is nowa-
days, in both services, commonly termed the ** king's
shilling," and the man who, either voluntarily or under
duress, accepted or received that shilling at the
recruiter's hands, was said to be " prested " or "prest."
In other words, having taken the king's ready money,
he was thenceforth, during the king's pleasure, " ready "
for the king's service.

By the transfer of the prest shilling from the hand
of the recruiter to the pouch of the seaman a subtle
contract, as between the latter and his sovereign, was
supposed to be set up, than which no more solemn or
binding pact could exist save between a man and his
Maker. One of the parties to the contract was more
often than not, it is true, a strongly dissenting party ;
but although under the common law of the land this
circumstance would have rendered any similar con-
tract null and void, in this amazing transaction between
the king and his "prest" subject it was held to be
of no vitiating force. From the moment the king s
shilling, by whatever means, found its way into the
sailor's possession, from that moment he was the
king's man, bound in heavy penalties to toe the line of
duty, and, should circumstances demand it, to fight
the king's enemies to the death, be that fate either
theirs or his.

By some strange irony of circumstance there
happened to be in the English language a word —
" pressed " — which tallied almost exactly in pronuncia-
tion with the old French -word prest, so long employed,


as we have seen, to differentiate from his fellows
the man who, by the devious means we have here
described, was made ** ready" for the sea service.
"Press" means to constrain, to urge with force —
definitions precisely connoting the development and
manner of violent enlistment. Hence, as the change
from covert to overt violence grew in strength,
** pressing," in the mouths of the people at large,
came to be synonymous with that most obnoxious,
oppressive and fear-inspiring system of recruiting
which, in the course of time, took the place of its
milder and more humane antecedent, " presting."
The "prest" man disappeared,^ and in his stead there
came upon the scene his later substitute the " pressed "
man, ** forced," as Pepys so graphically describes his
condition, ** against all law to be gone." An odder
coincidence than this gradual substitution of *' pressed "
iox prest, or one more grimly appropriate in its applica-
tion, it would surely be impossible to discover in the
whose history of nomenclature.

With the growth of the power and violence of the
impress there was gradually inaugurated another
change, which perhaps played a larger part than any
other feature of the system in making it finally
obnoxious to the nation at large — finally, because,
as we shall see, the nation long endured its exactions
with pathetic submission and lamentable indifference.
The incidence of pressing was no longer confined,
as in its earlier stages, to the overflow of the populace

^ The Law Officers of the Crown retained him, on paper, until the
close of the eighteenth century — an example in which they were followed
by the Admiralty. To admit his disappearance would have been to
knock the bottom out of their case.


upon the country's rivers, and bays, and seas.
Gradually, as naval needs grew in volume and urgency,
the press net was cast wider and wider, until at
length, during the great century of struggle, when
the system was almost constantly working at its
highest pressure and greatest efficiency, practically
every class of the population of these islands was
subjected to its merciless inroads, if not decimated by
its indiscriminate exactions.

On the very threshold of the century we stumble
upon an episode curiously indicative of the set of the
tide. Czar Peter of Russia had been recently in
England, acquiring a knowledge of English customs
which, on his return home, he immediately began to
put in practice. His navy, such as it was, was
wretchedly manned.^ Russian serfs made bad sailors
and worse seamen. In the English ships thronging
the quays at Archangel there was, however, plenty of
good stuff — men who could use the sea without being
sick, men capable of carrying a ship to her destination
without piling her up on the rocks or seeking nightly
shelter under the land. He accordingly pressed every
ninth man out of those ships.

When news of this high - handed proceeding

^ The navy got together by Czar Peter had all but disappeared by
the time Catherine ii. came to the throne. " Ichabod" was written over
the doors of the Russian Admiralty. Their ships of war were few in
number, unseaworthy, ill-found, ill-manned. Two thousand able-bodied
seamen could with difficulty be got together in an emergency. The
nominal fighting strength of the fleet stood high, but that strength in
reality consisted of men " one half of whom had never sailed out of the
Gulf of Finland, whilst the other half had never sailed anywhere at all.''
When the fleet was ordered to sea, the Admiralty " put soldiers on
board, and by calling them sailors persuaded themselves that they really
were so." — State Papers^ Russia^ vol. Ixxvii. — Macartney, Nov. 16-27,


reached England, it roused the Queen and her
advisers to indignation. Winter though it was, they
lost no time in dispatching Charles Whitworth, a
rising diplomat of the suavest type, as ** Envoy
Extraordinary to our Good (but naughty) Brother the
Czar of Muscovy," with instructions to demand the
release, immediate and unconditional, of the pressed
men. Whitworth found the Czar at Moscow. The
Autocrat of All the Russias listened affably enough
to what he had to say, but refused his demand in
terms that left scant room for doubt as to his sincerity
of purpose, and none for protracted ''conversations."
" Every Prince," he declared for sole answer, '' can
take what he likes out of his own havens."^ The
position thus taken up was unassailable. Centuries
of usage hedged the prerogative in, and Queen Anne
herself, in the few years she had been on the throne,
had not only exercised it with a free hand, but had
laid that hand without scruple upon many a foreign

The lengths to which the system had gone by the
end of the third quarter of the century is thrown into
vivid relief by two incidents, one of which occurred in
1726, the other fifty years later.

In the former year one William Kingston, pressed
in the Downs — a man who hailed from Lyme Regis
and habitually "used the sea" — was, notwithstanding
that fact, discliarged by express Admiralty order
because he was a " substantial man and had a landed
estate." 2

^ Ad. I. 1436 — Capt. J. Anderson's letters and enclosures ; State
Papers, Russia^ vol. iv. — V^hitworth to Secretary Harley.

2 Ad. I. 1473 — Capt Charles Browne, 25 March 1726, and


The incident of 1776, known as the Duncan case,
occurred, or rather began, at North Shields. Lieu-
tenant Oaks, captain of the press-gang in that town,
one day met in the streets a man who, unfortunately
for his future, " had the appearance of a seaman."
He accordingly pressed him ; whereupon the man,
whose name was Duncan, produced the title-deeds of
certain house property in London, down Wapping
way, worth some six pounds per annum, and claimed
his discharge on the ground that as a freeholder and
a voter he was immune from the press. The lieutenant
laughed the suggestion to scorn, and Duncan was
shipped south to the fleet.

The matter did not end there. Duncan's friends

Online LibraryJohn Robert HutchinsonThe press-gang afloat and ashore → online text (page 1 of 25)