THE PRESS-GANG AFLOAT AND ASHORE
THE PRESS-GANG AFLOAT AND ASHORE
JOHN R. HUTCHINSON
BY J. R. HUTCHINSON
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.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS:
AN UNWELCOME VISIT FROM THE PRESS GANG.
MANNING THE NAVY. Reproduced by kind permission from a rare print in
the collection of Mr. A. M. BROADLEY.
THE PRESS-GANG SEIZING A VICTIM.
SEIZING A WATERMAN ON TOWER HILL ON THE MORNING OF HIS WEDDING DAY.
JACK IN THE BILBOES. From the Painting by MORLAND.
ONE OF THE RAREST OF PRESS-GANG RECORDS. A play-bill announcing the
suspension of the Gang's operations on "Play Nights" in the
collection of Mr. A. M. BROADLEY by whose kind permission it is
SAILORS CAROUSING. From the Mezzotint after J. IBBETSON.
ANNE MILLS WHO SERVED ON BOARD THE _MAIDSTONE_ IN 1740.
MARY ANNE TALBOT.
MARY ANNE TALBOT DRESSED AS A SAILOR.
THE PRESS GANG OR ENGLISH LIBERTY DISPLAYED.
ADMIRAL YOUNG'S TORPEDO. Reproduced from the Original Drawing at the
Public Record Office.
HOW THE PRESS-GANG CAME IN.
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 adoption.
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 compelling 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 construction 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 roads and building its
ships and cities. These were the commonplace achievements of peace at
which even the coerced might 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 unaccustomed 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
commission 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.
[Footnote: 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.] No exception was taken to these
edicts. Long usage rendered the royal lien indefeasible. [Footnote: In
more modern times the pressing of ships though still put forward as a
prerogative of the Crown was confined in the main to unforeseen
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 (_Admiralty Records_ 1. 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 unseaworthy.--_Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1498--Letters of Capt. Brereton 1764.]
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 13th of June 1215 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 misconstruction nor compromise to
arrest all ships and to assemble those ships together with their
companies in the River of Thames before a certain day. [Footnote:
Hardy _Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum_ 1833.] 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 constitutional interest. In what sense and to what extent was
the Charter of English Liberties intended to apply to the seafaring
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 1208; but neither his tyranny his
faithlessness 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 explanation 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 denned and firmly seated prerogative which the great charter
he had so recently put his hand to was in no sense intended to limit
This view of the case is confirmed by subsequent events. Press
warrants identical in every respect save one with the historic
warrant of 1216 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--produced 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
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 hapless sailor-man. The root-principle of direct coercion
necessarily inherent in any system that seeks to foist an arbitrary
and obnoxious status upon any considerable 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 compulsion 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
unashamed. 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."
[Footnote: _State Papers_ Henry VIII.--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
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 as "prest" money--"prest" being
the English equivalent of the obsolete French _prest_ now
_pret_ meaning "ready." In the recruiter's vocabulary therefore
"prest" money stood for what is nowadays 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 contract
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
pronunciation 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 [Footnote: 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.] 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" for _prest_ or one more grimly
appropriate in its application 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
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. [Footnote: 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. lxxvii.--Macartney
Nov. 16-27 1766.] 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 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." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1436--Capt. J. Anderson's letters and
enclosures; _State Papers Russia_ vol. iv.--Whitworth to
Secretary Harley.] 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
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 discharged by express Admiralty order
because he was a "substantial man and had a landed estate." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1473--Capt Charles Browne 25 March 1726
The incident of 1776 known as the Duncan case occurred or rather