Author Topic: The Press Gang  (Read 858 times)

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Offline John

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The Press Gang
« on: March 13, 2012, 11:28:35 am »
An article that appeared in the July 1953 issue of 'The Navy' magazine.


IT MAY COME as a surprise to some of the readers of The Navy, it was certainly news to the author of this article, that the device of the Press Gang as a method of manning Her Majesty's Navy could still be enforced! The Press Gang was the popular (and execrated) name for the small body, usually consisting of an officer and a small number of trustworthy men who carried out the duty of impressment for the armed forces of the Crown. King John issued a warrant for an impressment in 1208. At first this method was used to raise men for both the Army and Navy, but after the Army had experienced the result of a general press in 1779 "of all rogues and vagabonds in London" the then junior service abandoned this idea.

After 1815 the press was never again used and in 1853 voluntary service for five years was introduced. Nevertheless, as recently as 1835 the then First Lord of the Admiralty declared in Parliament that the power to press was still available and an inquiry in official circles in 1953 elicited the information that in strict law the Royal prerogative to press stll exists. Fortunately, the difficulty to-day is one of selection for the Royal Navy and not that of operating the system which was the subject of criticism in Parliament nearly 200 years ago.

On 11th March 1777, Mr. Temple Luttrell, Member of Parliament for Milborne Port, rose in the House of Commons to ask leave to introduce a Bill for the more easy and effectual manning of the Navy. In a lengthy speech exposing the evils of the system of manning the Navy by means of the use of the press gang he said: "Is it not an abominable sight in a free country like ours to have a number of sailors, with fire-arms and cutlasses, frequently in the dead of night, sometimes intoxicated with liquor, making their way into the dwellings of peaceable inhabitants, dragging a sober, unoffending subject from his home and settled means of livelihood, to convey him on board an impress tender, from thence to a guard-ship, imprisoned amidst the moral and physical contagion of a miscellaneous kidnapped crew, to be driven across the seas no mortal can tell where, nor for how long a time; and what is still worse, seized by surprise, not suffered to bid a kind farewell to his wife and family, nor have a thought of their future subsistence when deprived of his care; to adopt a new way of life, perhaps that for which his limbs and faculties are the worst calculated and fashioned by his Creator?"

Passing from the general to the particular, Mr. Luttrell disclosed: "In 1770, the Lord Mayor of London represented to the Board of Admiralty that the City of London was so infested with press gangs that tradesmen and servants were prevented from following their lawful business. A gentleman in Yorkshire of rank and veracity (who was formerly a member of this House) sends me word that such is at this time the general impression in that part of England from a press gang at Tadcaster that the labourers on his estate are dispensed abroad like a covey of partridges: neither could half of them be brought back to their work till the steward had given them assurance of his master's protection: still it seems they are afraid to return to their own homes at night and, therefore, constantly beg leave to sleep upon straw in the stables and outhouses of their landlord. In the West of England, the public are now so prejudiced by press gangs that I have read a letter from Exeter which observes that there had been no fish in their town for upwards of a fortnight - a circumstance scarce known within the memory of man. And another correspondent of mine paints the miseries of the neighbouring coasts in as strong colours as if there were famine, pestilence, or some other awful visitation of Providence - markets deserted, the price of the most urgent necessities of life thereby greatly enhanced, and numbers of families among the inferior classes of mankind, from the insecurity of the masters of those families by whose toil and industry they had long been maintained in comfort, reduced at once to the verge of poverty and wretchedness! How shameful has this unconstitutional license of the impress been abused at the town of Leicester, where men, the most unfit in every respect for the sea service, were kidnapped, collared with iron and manacled with cords or fetters, sent up to London, in the basket of the stage-coach under command of a serjeant of militia, in violation of the most sacred laws of your constitution, with heavy local expense and to no better end than to have 'them at length put at large as totally incapable of the errand they set out upon!"

Mr. Luttrell then gave the House some general observations upon the inhuman manner in which the whole profession of seafaring men was treated. Their hardships were such he said that: "A multitude of pressed seamen have been drowned by attempting to swim ashore from their ships, or have been shot by the sentinels while they endeavoured to escape under cover of midnight darkness; being driven to frenzy and despair for want even of a shadow of hope that they might one day or other be entitled to a legal discharge... One Robert Fosper, a gunner's mate... who, having been forcibly detained in the King's Service, without remission upwards of 17 years, twice endeavoured to hang himself, was cut down and cruelly restored to the same endless bondage. Some die through a gradual vexation and despondence, while others ere they can be seized on shore, torture and mutilate their limbs to incapacitate themselves for the yoke."

Mr. Luttrell said he had authentic information that the ill-effects of the impress system on British sailors accounted for more deaths in the Navy than had the first few years of the war. He further declared that as a consequence of seamen being impressed from ships at sea many ships were left on the ocean with only a master in command and perhaps three or four boys, and ships and cargoes were as a consequence exposed to grave perils.

In bringing his speech to an end, Mr. Luttrell criticised the state of the Fleet, whilst admitting: "You have a goodly show of pendants and streamers waving at Spithead, but so far are they from being formidable, as their appearance bespeaks, that your ships hardly ride secure against the equinoctial gales of the present season much less are they in any condition to put to sea and bid defiance to an enemy. They may serve for a May day pageant, or a pantomime, regatta-like parade during the serene of the approaching summer!"

Amongst those members who opposed the motion was Lord Mulgrave, who said quite frankly that "it was not to be expected that anything but compulsion would bring seamen at the usual wages into the Navy."

Mr. Luttrell's arguments failed to convince the House, especially as the Attorney-General pointed out that the honourable member had not seen fit to give the House any particulars of his proposed Bill to reform the methods of joining the Navy. This he said was most unparliamentary and suggested that on these grounds alone the House should reject the motion. His views influenced members - the final figures were: "Yeas 52; Noes 106," or in the quaint language of the period "so it passed in the negative."
"You know, if you don’t read history, you’re a bloody idiot." - James Clavell

Online Pete

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Re: The Press Gang
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2023, 09:15:31 am »
THE LAST OF NELSON'S CREW.—A veteran sailor named John Groombridge, above 100 years of age, and said to be the last survivor of Lord Nelson's crew at Copenhagen, made a call a few days ago on some of his old Kentish friends. It appears that he was born at Yalding, was apprenticed at Chatham to a Quaker, named White, and was married at twenty years of age; but on the day of his wedding was seized by a pressgang and hurried off to Hull, whence he was sent to sea, and remained in the service through the was sent to sea, and remained in the service through the long succeeding wars. commencing with that against the revolted American colonies, now the United States. Among the engagements in which he took part was one against the now historical privateer, or rather buccaneer, Paul Jones. Subsequently he served under Nelson, both at Copenhagen and Trafalgar, and has sailed with our present Baltic and Black Sea admirals, Napier and Dundas, the former a boy lieutenant. He is now an in-pensioner of Greenwich Hospital. the oldest on the college books, and is, he says, the sole survivor of the crew sailing in the Victory when Nelson met his death wound. He retains a perfect command of his faculties. He adds that he never saw his wife after the day that he was torn from her, fresh from nuptial rites at the  church, by the ruthless pressgang: but she lived some fifty years afterwards; and then he learnt the particulars of her death shortly after it happened, some thirty years ago.

Pembrokeshire Herald  1 May 1854

—Among the applicants at the meeting of the Greenwich board of guardians on Thursday last was a man named Groombridge, from Yalding, in this county, aged 102. It appeared from his statement that he had attended the Board of Admiralty with a view of being admitted an inpensioner of Greenwich Hospital, having served in the Royal Navy during the greater part of his early years, and for which service he was in receipt of a pension. Arriving in Greenwich he became ill, and was obliged to seek refuge in the workhouse, and now came before the guardians, stating that if he had a little relief he could get to Yalding, with a person who was in the habit of visiting the town on Saturdays he would there be taken care of. The board granted him 2s. and an offer to remain in the house till Saturday, for which he appeared thankful. The old man is in possession of all his faculties, having a very retentive memory, is able to read without the aid of spectacles and walked out of the board-room with a tolerably firm step

The Welshman 21 July 1854

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