The press gang is deeply imbedded in our perception of the 18th century Royal Navy. The popular view is of warships, ever hungry for manpower, sending club-wielding thugs to raid sleepy coastal villages at dawn, or to round up the inebriated from taverns to be taken away to a life at sea. Yet many songs of the time, like Rule Britannia composed in 1740 and Hearts of Oak in 1759 make much of the navy as a defender of British freedom. How ironic that freedom should come at the expense of the liberty of her citizens?
The legal basis for Impressment (the formal name for the practice) dates back to the medieval period, when during times of war, the crown had the right to call on the services of merchant vessels and their crews. By the 16th century, developments in naval gunnery meant that merchant ships were no longer suitable for use in fighting. Instead governments maintained a fleet of specialist warships that would be manned with sailors drawn from merchant ships when war broke out. Just as in earlier times, this was considered to be a right of the crown, and these powers were formally laid down in an Act of Parliament "touching political considerations for the maintenance of the navy" in 1563.
Other acts followed; each formally refined the limits of who could be taken. The Act of 1740, for example, stated that those liable to be pressed should be seafarers, between the ages of 18 and 55, and either British citizens, foreigners married to British women, or foreign nationals who had served for a minimum of two years on a British ship. Landsmen, apprentices and “gentlemen” were excluded, as were those carrying certificates of exemption – such as dockyard workers. The act also supplied the authorities with a convenient loophole, however. In time of crisis, it gave the Admiralty the right to order a “hot press,” when these restrictions could be ignored, without fully defining what constituted a “crisis.”
The numbers of impressed sailors could be large, and the proportion grew steadily as the 18th century Royal Navy expanded. In the Seven Years War the evidence is that impressment was mainly used to top up numbers, with about a quarter of sailors being pressed. By the Napoleonic Wars this figure had risen to be over half. Naval historians also suspect that many of those listed as ‘volunteering’ may have done so to avoid the threat of impressment. Men who volunteered gained several useful advantages, including exemption from debt, a signing on bonus, and some say over which ship they would serve on.
As the need for manpower on ships grew, some of the excesses of press gangs began to appear. Fights could break out, particularly when the press gangs instituted a "hot press" and ignored the usual protections against the impressment of non-seamen. In 1803 a press gang raided the village of Easton on the Isle of Portland, attempting to take quarrymen. They were opposed by an angry crowd which they fired on, killing four people. In 1808, Thomas Urquhart, a gentleman, was saved by passers-by from the press gang who tried to seize him in a London street. Urquhart went on to campaign against the evils of manning the navy in this way.
Impressment also caused friction with Britain’s North American colonies. It was listed as one of the colonial grievances in the run up to the War of Independence, and was a major issue in the War of 1812. Ironically the US Continental Navy went on to have many of the same manning issues, when they found themselves unable to compete with the wages on offer to sailors who joined US privateers, and had to resort to some impressment of their own. Captain James Nicholson, who commanded USS Virginia was forced to release thirty sailors from Baltimore that he had seized in 1777. He subsequently completed his crew by taking sailors from American merchant ships he encountered at sea.
The end of the Napoleonic War saw the abandonment of the use of impressment. Britain would not fight another major naval war for decades, by which time the navy was able to man itself with volunteers. This was driven mainly by the degree of specialism and training that was now required onboard modern warships. An 18th century sailing warship was essentially a scaled-up version of a sailing merchantman, but the same could not be said of a steam-powered ironclad. This forced the navy to resort to more imaginative solutions to the manning problem, such as properly trained long service volunteers and the formation of a naval reserve.
While the idea of a Press Gang may seem barbaric to us today, the concept of forced participation in warfare was common at the time. Most European powers had conscription for both army and navy in the 18th century, so that in some ways Britain restricting the use of compulsion to just sailors might be regarded as quite mild. Indeed conscription – the modern equivalent of impressment – was used by all sides in both World Wars, and remains in place in some countries, such as Switzerland, Austria and Finland, to this day.