The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore
John R. Hutchinson

Part 1 out of 6

Steve Schulze, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
This file was produced from images generously made available by the CWRU
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MANNING THE NAVY. Reproduced by kind permission from a rare print in
the collection of Mr. A. M. BROADLEY.



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.





ADMIRAL YOUNG'S TORPEDO. 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 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
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 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
forcibly pressed.]

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
_prêt_, 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
foreign seaman.

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,
and endorsement.]

The incident of 1776, known as the Duncan case, occurred, or rather
began, at North Shields. Lieutenant 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

The matter did not end there. Duncan's friends espoused his cause and
took energetic steps for his release. Threatened with an action at
law, and averse from incurring either unnecessary risks or opprobrium
where pressed men were concerned, the Admiralty referred the case to
Mr. Attorney-General (afterwards Lord) Thurlow for his opinion.

The point of law Thurlow was called upon to resolve was, "Whether
being a freeholder is an exception from being pressed;" and as Duncan
was represented in counsel's instructions--on what ground, other than
his "appearance," is not clear--to be a man Who habitually used the
sea, it is hardly matter for surprise that the great jurist's opinion,
biassed as it obviously was by that alleged fact, should have been
altogether inimical to the pressed man and favourable to the

"I see no reason," he writes, in his crabbed hand and nervous diction,
"why men using the sea, and being otherwise fit objects to be
impressed into His Majesty's service, should be exempted only because
they are Freeholders. Nor did I ever read or hear of such an
exemption. Therefore, unless some use or practice, which I am ignorant
of, gives occasion to this doubt, I see no reason for a Mariner being
discharged, seriously, because he is a Freeholder. It's a
qualification easily attained: a single house at Wapping would ship a
first-rate man-of-war. If a Freeholder is exempt, _eo nomine_, it
will be impossible to go on with the pressing service. [Footnote: It
would have been equally impossible to go on with the naval service had
the fleet contained many freeholders like John Barnes. Granted leave
of absence from his ship, the _Neptune,_ early in May, "in order
to give his vote in the city," he "return'd not till the 8th of
August."--_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2653--Capt. Whorwood, 23 Aug.
1741.] There is no knowing a Freeholder by sight: and if claiming that
character, or even showing deeds is sufficient, few Sailors will be
without it." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 299--Law Officers'
Opinions, 1756-77, No. 64.]

Backed by this opinion, so nicely in keeping with its own
inclinations, the Admiralty kept the man. Its views, like its
practice, had undergone an antipodal change since the Kingston
incident of fifty years before. And possession, commonly reputed to be
nine points of the law, more than made up for the lack of that element
in Mr. Attorney-General's sophistical reasoning.

In this respect Thurlow was in good company, for although Coke, who
lived before violent pressing became the rule, had given it as his
opinion that the king could not lawfully press men to serve him in his
wars, the legal luminaries who came after him, and more particularly
those of the eighteenth century, differed from him almost to a man.
Blackstone, whilst admitting that no statute expressly legalised
pressing, reminded the nation--with a leer, we might almost say--that
many statutes strongly implied, and hence--so he put it--amply
justified it. In thus begging the question he had in mind the
so-called Statutes of Exemption which, in protecting from impressment
certain persons or classes of persons, proceeded on the assumption, so
dear to the Sea Lords, that the Crown possessed the right to press
all. This also was the view taken by Yorke, Solicitor-General in 1757.
"I take the prerogative," he declares, "to be most clearly legal."
[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 298--Law Officers' Opinions,
1733-56, No. 102.]

Another group of lawyers took similar, though less exalted ground. Of
these the most eminent was that "great oracle of law," Lord Mansfield.
"The power of pressing," he contends, "is founded upon immemorial
usage allowed for ages. If not, it can have no ground to stand upon.
The practice is deduced from that trite maxim of the Constitutional
Law of England, that private mischief had better be submitted to than
that public detriment should ensue."

The sea-lawyer had yet to be heard. With him "private mischief"
counted for much, the usage of past ages for very little. He lived and
suffered in the present. Of common law he knew nothing, but he
possessed a fine appreciation of common justice, and this forced from
him an indictment of the system that held him in thrall as scathing in
its truth, its simplicity and its logic as it is spontaneous and
untutored in its diction.

"You confidently tell us," said he, dipping his pen in the gall of
bitterness, "that our King is a father to us and our officers friends.
They are so, we must confess, in some respects, for Indeed they use us
like Children in Whiping us into Obedience. As for English Tars to be
the Legitimate Sons of Liberty, it is an Old Cry which we have
Experienced and Knows it to be False. God knows, the Constitution is
admirable well Callculated for the Safety and Happiness of His
Majesty's Subjects who live by Employments on Shore; but alass, we are
not Considered as Subjects of the same Sovereign, unless it be to Drag
us by Force from our Families to Fight the Battles of a Country which
Refuses us Protection." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1.
5125--Petitions of the Seamen of the Fleet, 1797.]

Such, in rough outline, was the Impress System of the eighteenth
century. In its inception, its development, and more especially in its
extraordinary culmination, it perhaps constitutes the greatest
anomaly, as it undoubtedly constitutes the grossest imposition, any
free people ever submitted to. Although unlawful in the sense of
having no foundation in law, and oppressive and unjust in that it
yearly enslaved, under the most noxious conditions, thousands against
their will, it was nevertheless for more than a hundred years
tolerated and fostered as the readiest, speediest and most effective
means humanly devisable for the manning of a fleet whose toll upon a
free people, in the same period of time, swelled to more than thrice
its original bulk. Standing as a bulwark against aggression and
conquest, it ground under its heel the very people it protected, and
made them slaves in order to keep them free. Masquerading as a
protector, it dragged the wage-earner from his home and cast his
starving family upon the doubtful mercies of the parish. And as if
this were not enough, whilst justifying its existence on the score of
public benefit it played havoc with the fisheries, clipped the wings
of the merchant service, and sucked the life-blood out of trade.

It was on the rising tide of such egregious contradictions as these
that the press-gang came in; for the press-gang was at once the
embodiment and the active exponent of all that was anomalous or bad in
the Impress System.



The root of the necessity that seized the British sailor and made of
him what he in time became, the most abject creature and the most
efficient fighting unit the world has ever produced, lay in the fact
that he was island-born.

In that island a great and vigorous people had sprung into being--a
people great in their ambitions, commerce and dominion; vigorous in
holding what they had won against the assaults, meditated or actual,
of those who envied their greatness and coveted their possessions. Of
this island people, as of their world-wide interests, the "chiefest
defence" was a "good fleet at sea." [Footnote: This famous phrase is
used, perhaps for the first time, by Josiah Burchett, sometime
Secretary to the Admiralty, in his _Observations on the Navy_,

The Peace of Utrecht, marking though it did the close of the
protracted war of the Spanish Succession, brought to the Island
Kingdom not peace, but a sword; for although its Navy was now as
unrivalled as its commerce and empire, the supreme struggle for
existence, under the guise of the mastery of the sea, was only just
begun. Decade after decade, as that struggle waxed and waned but went
remorselessly on, the Navy grew in ships, the ships in tonnage and
weight of metal, and with their growth the demand for men, imperative
as the very existence of the nation, mounted ever higher and higher.
In 1756 fifty thousand sufficed for the nation's needs. By 1780 the
number had reached ninety-two thousand; and with 1802 it touched
high-water mark in the unprecedented total of one hundred and
twenty-nine thousand men in actual sea pay. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 7. 567-Navy Progress, 1756-1805. These figures are below
rather than above the mark, since the official returns on which they
are based are admittedly deficient.]

Beset by this enormous and steadily growing demand, the Admiralty, the
defensive proxy of the nation, had perforce to face the question as to
where and how the men were to be obtained.

The source of supply was never at any time in doubt. Here, ready to
hand, were some hundreds of thousands of persons using the sea, or
following vocations merging into the sea in the capacity of colliers,
bargemen, boatmen, longshoremen, fishermen and deep-sea sailors or
merchantmen, who constituted the natural Naval Reserve of an Island
Kingdom--a reserve ample, if judiciously drawn upon, to meet, and more
than meet, the Navy's every need.

The question of means was one more complicated, more delicate, and
hence incomparably more difficult of solution. To draw largely upon
these seafaring classes, numerous and fit though they were, meant
detriment to trade, and if the Navy was the fist, trade was the
backbone of the nation. The sufferings of trade, moreover, reacted
unpleasantly upon those in power at Whitehall. Methods of procuration
must therefore be devised of a nature such as to insure that neither
trade nor Admiralty should suffer--that they should, in fact, enjoy
what the unfortunate sailor never knew, some reasonable measure of

In its efforts to extricate itself and trade from the complex
difficulties of the situation, Admiralty had at its back what an
eighteenth century Beresford would doubtless have regarded as the
finest talent of the service. Neither the unemployed admiral nor the
half-pay captain had at that time, in his enforced retirement at Bath
or Cheltenham, taken seriously to parliamenteering, company promoting,
or the concocting of pedigrees as a substitute for walking the
quarter-deck. His occupation was indeed gone, but in its stead there
had come to him what he had rarely enjoyed whilst on the active
service list--opportunity. Carried away by the stimulus of so
unprecedented a situation as that afforded by the chance to make
himself heard, he rushed into print with projects and suggestions
which would have revolutionised the naval policy and defence of the
country at a stroke had they been carried into effect. Or he devoted
his leisure to the invention of signal codes, semaphore systems,
embryo torpedoes, gun carriages, and--what is more to our
point--methods ostensibly calculated to man the fleet in the easiest,
least oppressive and most expeditious manner possible for a free
people. Armed with these schemes, he bombarded the Admiralty with all
the pertinacity he had shown in his quarter-deck days in applying for
leave or seeking promotion. Many, perhaps most, of the inventions
which it was thus sought to father upon the Sea Lords, were happily
never more heard of; but here and there one, commending itself by its
seeming practicability, was selected for trial and duly put to the

Fair to look upon while still in the air, these fruits of leisured
superannuation proved deceptively unsound when plucked by the hand of
experiment. Registration, first adopted in 1696, held out undeniable
advantages to the seaman. Under its provisions he drew a yearly
allowance when not required at sea, and extra prize-money when on
active service. Yet the bait did not tempt him, and the system was
soon discarded as useless and inoperative. Bounty, defined by some
sentimentalist as a "bribe to Neptune," for a while made a stronger
appeal; but, ranging as it did from five to almost any number of
pounds under one hundred per head, it proved a bribe indeed, and by
putting an irresistible premium on desertion threatened to decimate
the very ships it was intended to man. In 1795 what was commonly known
as the Quota Scheme superseded it. This was a plan of Pitt's devising,
under which each county contributed to the fleet according to its
population, the quota varying from one thousand and eighty-one men for
Yorkshire to twenty-three for Rutland, whilst a minor Act levied
special toll on seaports, London leading the way with five thousand
seven hundred and four men. Like its predecessor Bounty, however, this
mode of recruiting drained the Navy in order to feed it. Both systems,
moreover, possessed another and more serious defect. When their
initial enthusiasm had cooled, the counties, perhaps from force of
habit as component parts of a country whose backbone was trade, bought
in the cheapest market. Hence the Quota Man, consisting as he
generally did of the offscourings of the merchant service, was seldom
or never worth the money paid for him. An old man-o'-war's-man,
picking up a miserable specimen of this class of recruit by the slack
of his ragged breeches, remarked to his grinning messmates as he
dangled the disreputable object before their eyes: "'Ere's a lubber as
cost a guinea a pound!" He was not far out in his estimate.

As in the case of the good old method of recruiting by beat of drum
and the lure of the king's shilling, system after system thus failed
to draw into its net, however speciously that net was spread, either
the class or the number of men whose services it was desired to
requisition. And whilst these futilities were working out their own
condemnation the stormcloud of necessity grew bigger and bigger on the
national horizon. Let trade suffer as it might, there was nothing for
it but to discard all new-fangled notions and to revert to the system
which the usage of ages had sanctioned. The return was imperative.
Failing what Junius stigmatised as the "spur of the Press," the right
men in the right numbers were not to be procured. The wisdom of the
nation was at fault. It could find no other way.

There were, moreover, other reasons why the press-gang was to the Navy
an indispensable appendage--reasons perhaps of little moment singly,
but of tremendous weight in the scale of naval necessity when lumped
together and taken in the aggregate.

Of these the most prominent was that fatal flaw in naval
administration which Nelson was in the habit of anathematising as the
"Infernal System." Due partly to lack of foresight and false economy
at Whitehall, partly to the character of the sailor himself, it
resolved itself into this, that whenever a ship was paid off and put
out of commission, all on board of her, excepting only her captain and
her lieutenants, ceased to be officially connected with the Navy. Now,
as ships were for various reasons constantly going out of commission,
and as the paying off of a first-second-or third-rate automatically
discharged from their country's employ a body of men many hundreds in
number, the "lowering" effects of such a system, working year in, year
out, upon a fleet always in chronic difficulties for men, may be more
readily imagined than described.

To a certain limited extent the loss to the service was minimised by a
process called "turning over"; that is to say, the company of a ship
paying off was turned over bodily, or as nearly intact as it was
possible to preserve it, to another ship which at the moment chanced
to be ready, or making ready, for sea. Or it might be that the
commander of a ship paying off, transferred to another ship fitting
out, carried the best men of his late command, commonly known as "old
standers," along with him.

Unfortunately, the occasion of fitting out did not always coincide
with the occasion of paying off; and although turnovers were
frequently made by Admiralty order, there were serious obstacles in
the way of their becoming general. Once the men were paid off, the
Admiralty had no further hold upon them. By a stretch of authority
they might, it is true, be confined to quarters or on board a
guardship; but if in these circumstances they rose in a body and got
ashore, they could neither be retaken nor punished as deserters,
but--to use the good old service term--had to be "rose" again by means
of the press-gang. Turnovers, accordingly, depended mainly upon two
closely related circumstances: the goodwill of the men, and the
popularity of commanders. A captain who was notorious for his use of
the lash or the irons, or who was reputed unlucky, rarely if ever got
a turnover except by the adoption of the most stringent measures. One
who, on the other hand, treated his men with common humanity, who
bested the enemy in fair fight and sent rich prizes into port, never
wanted for "followers," and rarely, if ever, had recourse to the gang.
[Footnote: In his Autobiography Lord Dundonald asserts that he was
only once obliged to resort to pressing--a statement so remarkable,
considering the times he lived in, as to call for explanation. The
occasion was when, returning from a year's "exile in a tub," a
converted collier that "sailed like a hay-stack," he fitted out the
_Pallas_ at Portsmouth and could obtain no volunteers. Setting
his gangs to work, he got together a scratch crew of the wretchedest
description; yet so marvellous were the personality and disciplinary
ability of the man, that with only this unpromising material ready to
his hand he intercepted the Spanish trade off Cape Finisterre and
captured four successive prizes of very great value. The _Pallas_
returned to Portsmouth with "three large golden candlesticks, each
about five feet high, placed upon the mast-heads," and from that time
onward Dundonald's reputation as a "lucky" commander was made. He
never again had occasion to invoke the aid of the gang.] Under such
men the seaman would gladly serve "even in a dung barge." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2733--Capt. Young, 28 Sept. 1776.]
Unhappily for the service, such commanders were comparatively few, and
in their absence the Infernal System drained the Navy of its best
blood and accentuated a hundred-fold the already overwhelming need for
the impress.

The old-time sailor, [Footnote: The use of the word "sailor" was long
regarded with disfavour by the Navy Board, who saw in it only a
colourless substitute for the good old terms "seaman" and "mariner."
Capt. Bertie, of the _Ruby_ gunship, once reported the pressing
of a "sailor," Thomas Letting by name, out of a collier in Yarmouth
Roads, and was called upon by My Lords to define the new-fangled term.
This he did with admirable circumlocution. "As for explaining the word
'sailor,'" said he, "I can doe it no otherwise than (by) letting of
you know that Thomas Letting is a Sailor."--_Admiralty Records_
1. 1468--Capt. Bertie, 6 May 1706.] again, was essentially a creature
of contradictions. Notorious for a "swearing rogue," who punctuated
his strange sea-lingo with horrid oaths and appalling blasphemies, he
made the responses required by the services of his Church with all the
superstitious awe and tender piety of a child. Inconspicuous for his
thrift or "forehandedness," it was nevertheless a common circumstance
with him to have hundreds of pounds, in pay and prize-money, to his
credit at his bankers, the Navy Pay-Office; and though during a voyage
he earned his money as hardly as a horse, and was as poor as a church
mouse, yet the moment he stepped ashore he made it fly by the handful
and squandered it, as the saying went, like an ass. When he was sober,
which was seldom enough provided he could obtain drink, he possessed
scarcely a rag to his back; but when he was drunk he was himself the
first to acknowledge that he had "too many cloths in the wind."
According to his own showing, his wishes in life were limited to
three: "An island of tobacco, a river of rum, and--more rum;" but
according to those who knew him better than he knew himself, he would
at any time sacrifice all three, together with everything else he
possessed, for the gratification of a fourth and unconfessed desire,
the dearest wish of his life, woman. Ward's description of him,
slightly paraphrased, fits him to a hair: "A salt-water vagabond, who
is never at home but when he is at sea, and never contented but when
he is ashore; never at ease until he has drawn his pay, and never
satisfied until he has spent it; and when his pocket is empty he is
just as much respected as a father-in-law is when he has beggared
himself to give a good portion with his daughter." [Footnote: Ward,
_Wooden World Dissected_, 1744.] With all this he was brave
beyond belief on the deck of a ship, timid to the point of cowardice
on the back of a horse; and although he fought to a victorious finish
many of his country's most desperate fights, and did more than any
other man of his time to make her the great nation she became, yet his
roving life robbed him of his patriotism and made it necessary to
wring from him by violent means the allegiance he shirked. It was at
this point that he came in contact with what he hated most in life,
yet dearly loved to dodge--the press-gang.

That such a creature of contradictions should be averse from serving
the country he loved is perhaps the most consistent trait in his
character; for here at least the sailor had substantial grounds for
his inconsistency.

For one thing, his aversion to naval service was as old as the Navy
itself, having grown with its growth. We have seen in what manner King
John was obliged to admonish the sailor in order to induce him to take
his prest-money; and Edward III., referring to his attitude in the
fourteenth century, is said to have summed up the situation in the
pregnant words: "There is navy enough in England, were there only the
will." Raleigh, recalling with bitterness of soul those glorious
Elizabethan days when no adventurer ever dreamt of pressing, scoffed
at the seamen of King James's time as degenerates who went on board a
man-of-war "with as great a grudging as if it were to be slaves in the
galleys." A hundred years did not improve matters. The sailors of
Queen Anne entered her ships like men "dragged to execution."
[Footnote: Justice, _Dominion and Laws of the Sea_, 1705,
Appendix on Pressing.]

In the merchant service, where the sailor received his initiation into
the art and mystery of the sea, life during the period under review,
and indeed for long after, was hard enough in all conscience.
Systematic and unspeakably inhuman brutality made the merchant
seaman's lot a daily inferno. Traders sailing out of Liverpool,
Bristol and a score of other British ports depended almost entirely
for their crews upon drugged rum, so evil was their reputation in this
respect amongst seafaring men. In the East India Company's ships,
even, the conditions were little short of unendurable. Men had rather
be hanged than sail to the Indies in them. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1463, 1472--Letters of Captains Bouler and Billingsley,
and numerous instances.]

Of all these bitternesses the sailor tasted freely. Cosmopolite that
he was, he wandered far a-sea and incurred the blows and curses of
many masters, happy if, amid his manifold tribulations, he could still
call his soul his own. Just here, indeed, was where the shoe of naval
service pinched him most sorely; for though upon the whole life on
board a man-of-war was not many shades worse than life aboard a
trader, it yet introduced into his already sadly circumscribed vista
of happiness the additional element of absolute loss of free-will, and
the additional dangers of being shot as an enemy or hanged as a
deserter. These additional things, the littles that yet meant so much,
bred in him a hatred of the service so implacable that nothing less
drastic than the warrant and the hanger could cope with or subdue it.
Eradicated it never was.

The keynote to the sailor's treatment in the Navy may be said to have
been profane abuse. Officers of all ranks kept the Recording Angel
fearfully busy. With scarcely an exception they were men of blunt
speech and rough tongue who never hesitated to call a spade a spade,
and the ordinary seaman something many degrees worse. These were
technicalities of the service which had neither use nor meaning
elsewhere. But to the navigation of the ship, to daily routine and the
maintenance of that exact discipline on which the Navy prided itself,
they were as essential as is milk to the making of cheese. Nothing
could be done without them. Decent language was thrown away upon a set
of fellows who had been bred in that very shambles of language, the
merchant marine. To them "'twas just all the same as High Dutch." They
neither understood it nor appreciated its force. But a volley of
thumping oaths, bellowed at them from the brazen throat of a
speaking-trumpet, and freely interlarded with adjectives expressive of
the foulness of their persons, and the ultimate state and destination
of their eyes and limbs, saved the situation and sometimes the ship.
Officers addicted to this necessary flow of language were sensible of
only one restraint. Visiting parties caused them embarrassment, and
when this was the case they fell back upon the tactics of the
commander who, unable to express himself with his usual fluency
because of the presence of ladies on the quarter-deck, hailed the
foreyard-arm in some such terms as these: "Foreyard-arm there! God
bless you! God bless you! God bless you! _You know what I mean!_"

Hard words break no bones, and to quarter-deck language, as such, the
sailor entertained no rooted objection. What he did object to, and
object to with all the dogged insistence of his nature, was the fact
that this habitual flow of profane scurrility was only the prelude to
what, with grim pleasantry, he was accustomed to describe as "serving
out slops." Anything intended to cover his back was "slops" to the
sailor, and the punishments meted out to him covered him like a

The old code of naval laws, the _Monumenta Juridica_ or _Black
Book_ of the Admiralty, contained many curious disciplinary
methods, not a few of which too long survived the age they originated
in. If, for instance, one sailor robbed another and was found guilty
of the crime, boiling pitch was poured over his head and he was
powdered with feathers "to mark him," after which he was marooned on
the first island the ship fell in with. Seamen guilty of undressing
themselves while at sea were ducked three times from the yard-arm--a
more humane use of that spar than converting it into a gallows. On
this code were based Admiral the Earl of Lindsay's "Instructions" of
1695. These included ducking, keel-hauling, fasting, flogging,
weighting until the "heart or back be ready to break," and "gogging"
or scraping the tongue with hoop-iron for obscene or profane swearing;
for although the "gentlemen of the quarter-deck" might swear to their
heart's content, that form of recreation was strictly taboo in other
parts of the ship. Here we have the origin of the brutal discipline of
the next century, summed up in the Consolidation Act of George II.
[Footnote: 22 George II. c. 33.]--an Act wherein ten out of thirty-six
articles awarded capital punishment without option, and twelve death
or minor penalties.

Of the latter, the one most commonly in use was flogging at the
gangway or jears. This duty fell to the lot of the boatswain's mate.
[Footnote: "As it is the Custom of the Army to punish with the Drums,
so it is the known Practice of the Navy to punish with the Boatswain's
Mate."--_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1482--Capt. (afterwards Admiral)
Boscawen, 25 Feb. 1746-7.] The instrument employed was the
cat-o'-nine-tails, the regulation dose twelve lashes; but since the
actual number was left to the captain's discretion or malice, as the
case might be, it not infrequently ran into three figures. Thus John
Watts, able seaman on board H.M.S. _Harwich,_ Capt. Andrew
Douglas commander, in 1704 received one hundred and seventy lashes for
striking a shipmate in self-defence, his captain meanwhile standing by
and exhorting the boatswain's mate to "Swinge the Dog, for hee has a
Tough Hide"--and that, too, with a cat waxed to make it bite the
harder. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5265--Courts-Martial,

It was just this unearned increment of blows--this dash of bitter
added to the regulation cup--that made Jack's gorge rise. He was not
the sort of chap, it must be confessed, to be ruled with a feather.
"An impudent rascal" at the best of times, he often "deserved a great
deal and had but little." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1.
1472--Capt. Balchen, 26 Jan. 1716-7.] But unmerited punishment, too
often devilishly devised, maliciously inflicted and inhumanly carried
out, broke the back of his sense of justice, already sadly
overstrained, and inspired him with a mortal hatred of all things

For the slightest offence he was "drubbed at the gears"; for serious
offences, from ship to ship. If, when reefing topsails on a dark night
or in the teeth of a sudden squall, he did not handle the canvas with
all the celerity desired by the officer of the watch, he and his
fellow yardsmen were flogged _en bloc_. He was made to run the
gauntlet, often with the blood gushing from nose and ears as the
result of a previous dose of the cat, until he fell to the deck
comatose and at the point of death. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1466--Complaint of ye Abuse of a Sayler in the
_Litchfield_, 1704. In this case the man actually died.] Logs of
wood were bound to his legs as shackles, and whatever the nature of
his offence, he invariably began his expiation of it, the preliminary
canter, so to speak, in irons. If he had a lame leg or a bad foot, he
was "started" with a rope's-end as a "slacker." If he happened to be
the last to tumble up when his watch was called, the rattan [Footnote:
Carried at one time by both commissioned and warrant officers.] raised
weals on his back or drew blood from his head; and, as if to add
insult to injury, for any of these, and a hundred and one other
offences, he was liable to be black-listed and to lose his allowance
of grog.

Some things, too, were reckoned sins aboard ship which, unhappily for
the sailor, could not well be avoided. Laughing, or even permitting
the features to relax in a smile in the official presence, was such a
sin. "He beats us for laughing," declare the company of the
_Solebay_, in a complaint against their commander, "more like
Doggs than Men." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1435--Capt.
Aldred, 29 Feb. 1703-4.] One of the _Nymph's_ company, in or
about the year 1797, received three dozen for what was officially
termed "Silent Contempt"--"which was nothing more than this, that when
flogged by the boatswain's mate the man smiled." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 5125--Petitions, 1793-7.] This was the
"Unpardonable Crime" of the service.

Contrariwise, a man was beaten if he sulked. And as a rule the sailor
was sulky enough. Works of supererogation, such as polishing
everything polishable--the shot for the guns, in extreme cases, not
even excepted--until it shone like the tropical sun at noonday, left
him little leisure or inclination for mirth. "Very pretty to look at,"
said Wellington, when confronted with these glaring evidences of
hyper-discipline, "but there is one thing wanting. I have not seen a
bright face in the ship."

A painful tale of discipline run mad, or nearly so, is unfolded by
that fascinating series of sailor-records, the Admiralty Petitions.
Many of them, it must in justice be owned, bear unqualified testimony
to the kindness and humanity of officers; but in the great majority of
cases the evidence they adduce is overwhelmingly to the contrary. And
if their language is sometimes bombastic, if their style is almost
uniformly illiterate, if they are the productions of a band of
mutinous dogs standing out for rights which they never possessed and
deserving of a halter rather than a hearing, these are circumstances
that do not in the least detract from the veracity of the allegations
they advance. The sailor appealed to his king, or to the Admiralty,
"the same as a child to its father"; and no one who peruses the story
of his wrongs, as set forth in these documents, can doubt for a moment
that he speaks the truth with all a child's simplicity.

The seamen of the _Reunion_ open the tale of oppression and
ill-usage. "Our Captain oblidges us to Wash our Linnen twice a week in
Salt Water and to put 2 Shirts on every Week, and if they do not look
as Clean as if they were washed in Fresh Water, he stops the person's
Grog which has the misfortune to displease him; and if our Hair is not
Tyd to please him, he orders it to be Cutt Off." On the
_Amphitrite_ "flogging is their portion." The men of the
_Winchelsea_ "wold sooner be Shot at like a Targaite than to
Remain." The treatment systematically meted out to the _Shannon's_
crew is more than the heart "can Cleaverly Bear"--enough, in
short, to make them "rise and Steer the Ship into an Enemies
Port." The seamen of the _Glory_ are made wretched by "beating,
blacking, tarring, putting our heads in Bags," and by being
forced to "drink half a Gallon of Salt Water" for the most trivial
breaches of discipline or decorum. On the _Blanch,_ if they get
wet and hang or spread their clothes to dry, the captain "thros them
overboard." The _Nassau's_ company find it impossible to put the
abuse they receive on paper. It is "above Humanity." Though put on
board to fight for king and country, they are used worse than dogs.
They have no encouragement to "face the Enemy with a chearful Heart."
Besides being kept "more like Convicts than free-born Britons," the
_Nymph's_ company have an unspeakable grievance. "When Engaged
with the Enemy off Brest, March the 9th, 1797, they even Beat us at
our Quarters, though on the Verge of Eternity." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 5l25--Petitions, 1793-7.]

On the principle advanced by Rochefoucault, that there is something
not displeasing to us in the misfortunes of our friends, the sailor
doubtless derived a sort of negative satisfaction from the fact that
he was not the only one on shipboard liable to the pains and penalties
of irascibility, brutality and excessive disciplinary zeal.
Particularly was this true of his special friend the "sky-pilot" or
chaplain, that super-person who perhaps most often fell a victim to
quarter-deck ebullitions. Notably there is on record the case of one
John Cruickshank, chaplain of H.M.S. _Assurance,_ who was clapped
in irons, court-martialled and dismissed the service merely because he
happened to take--what no sailor could ever condemn him for-a drop too
much, and whilst in that condition insisted on preaching to the ship's
company when they were on the very point of going into action.
[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5265--Courts-Martial, 1704-5.
His zeal was unusual. Most naval chaplains thought "of nothing more
than making His Majesty's ships sinecures"] There is also that other
case of the "saucy Surgeon of the _Seahorse_" who incurred his
captain's dire displeasure all on account of candles, of which
necessary articles he, having his wife on board, thought himself
entitled to a more liberal share than was consistent with strict naval
economy; and who was, moreover, so "troblesome about his Provisions,
that if he did not always Chuse out of ye best in ye whole Ship," he
straightway got his back up and "threatened to Murder the Steward."
[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1470--Capt. Blowers, 3 Jan.
1710-11.] Such interludes as these would assuredly have proved highly
diverting to the foremast-man had it not been for the cat and that
savage litter of minor punishments awaiting the man who smiled.

In the matter of provisions, there can be little doubt that the sailor
shared to the full the desire evinced by the surgeon of the
_Seahorse_ to take blood-vengeance upon someone on account of
them. His "belly-timber," as old Misson so aptly if indelicately
describes it, was mostly worm-eaten or rotten, his drink indescribably

Charles II. is said to have made his breakfast off ship's diet the
morning he left the _Naseby,_ and to have pronounced it good; and
Nelson in 1803 declared it "could not possibly be improved upon."
[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 580-Memorandum on the State of
the Fleet, 1803.] Such, however, was not the opinion of the chaplain
of the _Dartmouth,_ for after dining with his captain on an
occasion which deserves to become historic, he swore that "although he
liked that Sort of Living very well, as for the King's Allowance there
was but a Sheat of Browne Paper between it and Hell." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1464--Misdemenors Comited by Mr Edward
Lewis, Chapling on Board H. M. Shipp Dartmouth, 1 Oct. 1702.] Which of
these opinions came nearest to the truth, the sequel will serve to

On the face of it the sailor's dietary was not so bad. A ship's
stores, in 1719, included ostensibly such items as bread, wine, beef,
pork, peas, oatmeal, butter, cheese, water and beer, and if Jack had
but had his fair share of these commodities, and had it in decent
condition, he would have had little reason to grumble about the king's
allowance. Unhappily for him, the humanities of diet were little
studied by the Victualling Board.

Taking the beef, the staple article of consumption on shipboard,
cooking caused it to shrink as much as 45 per cent., thus reducing the
sailor's allowance by nearly one-half. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1495--Capt. Barrington, 23 Dec. 1770.] The residuum was
often "mere carrion," totally unfit for human consumption. "Junk," the
sailor contemptuously called it, likening it, in point of texture,
digestibility and nutritive properties, to the product of picked
oakum, which it in many respects strongly resembled. The pork, though
it lost less in the cooking, was rancid, putrid stuff, repellent in
odour and colour-particulars in which it found close competitors in
the butter and cheese, which had often to be thrown overboard because
they "stunk the ship." [Footnote: To disinfect a ship after she had
been fouled by putrid rations or disease, burning sulphur and vinegar
were commonly employed. Their use was preferable to the means adopted
by the carpenter of the _Feversham_, who in order to "sweeten
ship" once "turn'd on the cock in the hould" and through forgetfulness
"left it running for eighteen howers," thereby not only endangering
the vessel's safety, but incidentally spoiling twenty-one barrels of
powder in the magazine.--_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2653--Capt.
Watson, 18 April 1741.] The peas "would not break." Boiled for eight
hours on end, they came through the ordeal "almost as hard as shott."
Only the biscuit, apart from the butter and cheese, possessed the
quality of softness. Damp, sea-water, mildew and weevil converted
"hard" into "soft tack" and added another horror to the sailor's mess.
The water he washed these varied abominations down with was frequently
"stuff that beasts would cough at." His beer was no better. It would
not keep, and was in consequence both "stinking and sour." [Footnote:
According to Raleigh, old oil and fish casks were used for the storing
of ship's beer in Elizabeth's reign.] Although the contractor was
obliged to make oath that he had used both malt and hops in the
brewing, it often consisted of nothing more stimulating than "water
coloured and bittered," and sometimes the "stingy dog of a brewer"
even went so far as to omit the "wormwood."

Such a dietary as this made a meal only an unavoidable part of the
day's punishment and inspired the sailor with profound loathing. "Good
Eating is an infallible Antidote against murmuring, as many a
Big-Belly Place-Man can instance," he says in one of his petitions.
Poor fellow! his opportunities of putting it to the test were few
enough. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the so-called Banyan days
of the service, when his hateful ration of meat was withheld and in
its stead he regaled himself on plum-duff--the "plums," according to
an old regulation, "not worse than Malaga"--he had a taste of it.
Hence the banyan day, though in reality a fast-day, became indelibly
associated in his simple mind and vocabulary with occasions of
feasting and plenty, and so remains to this day.

If the sailor's only delicacy was duff, his only comforts were rum and
tobacco, and to explore some unknown island, and discover therein a
goodly river of the famous Jamaica spirit, flowing deep and fragrant
between towering mountains of "pig tail," is commonly reputed to have
been the cherished wish of his heart. With tobacco the Navy Board did
not provide him, nor afford dishonest pursers opportunity to "make
dead men chew," [Footnote: Said of pursers who manipulated the Muster
Books, which it was part of their duty to keep, in such a way as to
make it appear that men "discharged dead" had drawn a larger quantity
of tobacco than was actually the case, the difference in value of
course going into their own pockets.] until 1798; but rum they allowed
him at a comparatively early date. When sickness prevailed on board,
when beer ran short or had to be turned over the side to preserve a
sweet ship, rum or wine was issued, and although the Admiralty at
first looked askance at the innovation, and at times left commanders
of ships to foot the bill for spirits thus served out, the practice
made gradual headway, until at length it ousted beer altogether and
received the stamp of official approval. Half a pint, dealt out each
morning and evening in equal portions, was the regular allowance--a
quantity often doubled were the weather unusually severe or the men
engaged in the arduous duty of watering ship. At first the ration of
rum was served neat and appreciated accordingly; but about 1740 the
practice of adding water was introduced. This was Admiral Vernon's
doing. Vernon was best known to his men as "Old Grog," a nickname
originating in a famous grogram coat he affected in dirty weather; and
as the rum and water now served out to them was little to their
liking, they marked their disapproval of the mixture, as well as of
the man who invented it, by dubbing it "grog." The sailor was not
without his sense of humour.

The worst feature of rum, from the sailor's point of view, worse by
far than dilution, was the fact that it could be so easily stopped.
Here his partiality for the spirit told heavily against him. His grog
was stopped because he liked it, rather than because he deserved to
lose it. The malice of the thing did not make for a contented ship.

The life of the man-o'-war's-man, according to Lord Nelson, was on an
average "finished at forty-five years." [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 580--Memorandum on the State of the Fleet, 1803.] Bad
food and strenuous labour under exceptionally trying conditions sapped
his vitals, made him prematurely old, and exposed him to a host of
ills peculiar to his vocation. He "fell down daily," to employ the old
formula, in spotted or putrid fevers. He was racked by agues,
distorted by rheumatic pains, ruptured or double-ruptured by the
strain of pulling, hauling and lifting heavy weights. He ate no meal
without incurring the pangs of acute indigestion, to which he was
fearfully subject. He was liable to a "prodigious inflammation of the
head, nose and eyes," occasioned by exposure. Scurvy, his most
inveterate and merciless enemy, "beat up" for him on every voyage and
dragged his brine-sodden body down to a lingering death. Or, did he
escape these dangers and a watery grave, protracted disease sooner or
later rendered him helpless, or a brush with the enemy disabled him
for ever from earning his bread.

His surgeons were, as a rule, a sorry lot. Not only were they
deficient in numbers, they commonly lacked both professional training
and skill. Their methods were consequently of the crudest description,
and long continued so. The approved treatment for rupture, to which
the sailor was painfully liable, was to hang the patient up by the
heels until the prolapsus was reduced. Pepys relates how he met a
seaman returning from fighting the Dutch with his eye-socket "stopped
with oakum," and as late at least as the Battle of Trafalgar it was
customary, in amputations, to treat the bleeding stump with boiling
pitch as a cauterant. In his general attitude towards the sick and
wounded the old-time naval surgeon was not unlike Garth, Queen Anne's
famous physician. At the Kit Cat Club he one day sat so long over his
wine that Steele ventured to remind him of his patients. "No matter,"
said Garth. "Nine have such bad constitutions that no physician can
save them, and the other six such good ones that all the physicans in
the world could not kill them."

Many were the devices resorted to in order to keep the
man-o'-war's-man healthy and fit. As early as 1602 a magic electuary,
invented by one "Doctor Cogbourne, famous for fluxes," was by
direction of the Navy Commissioners supplied for his use in the West
Indies. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1464--Capt. Barker, 14
Oct. 1702.] By Admiral Vernon and his commanders he was dosed freely
with "Elixir of Vitriol," which they not only "reckoned the best
general medicine next to rhubarb," but pinned their faith to as a
sovereign specific for scurvy and fevers. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 161--Admiral Vernon, 31 Oct. 1741.] Lime-juice, known
as a valuable anti-scorbutic as early as the days of Drake and
Raleigh, was not added to his rations till 1795. He did not find it
very palatable. The secret of fortifying it was unknown, and oil had
to be floated on its surface to make it keep. Sour-crout was much more
to his taste as a preventive of scurvy, and in 1777, at the request of
Admiral Montagu, then Governor and Commander-in-Chief over the Island
of Newfoundland, the Admiralty caused to be sent out, for the use of
the squadron on that station, where vegetables were unprocurable, a
sufficient quantity of that succulent preparation to supply twelve
hundred men for a period of two months. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 471--Admiral Montagu, 28 Feb. 1777, and endorsement.]

Rice the sailor detested. Of all species of "soft tack" it was least
to his liking. He nicknamed it "strike-me-blind," being firmly
convinced that its continued use would rob him of his eyesight. Tea
was not added to his dietary till 1824, but as early as 1795 he could
regale himself on cocoa. For the rest, sugar, essence of malt, essence
of spruce, mustard, cloves, opium and "Jesuits'" or Peruvian bark were
considered essential to his well-being on shipboard. He was further
allowed a barber-one to every hundred men-without whose attentions it
was found impossible to keep him "clean and healthy."

With books he was for many years "very scantily supplied." It was not
till 1812, indeed, that the Admiralty, shocked by the discovery that
he had practically nothing to elevate his mind but daily association
with the quarter-deck, began to pour into the fleet copious supplies
of literature for his use. Thereafter the sailor could beguile his
leisure with such books as the _Old Chaplains Farewell Letter_,
Wilson's _Maxims, The Whole Duty of Man_, Seeker's _Duties of
the Sick_, and, lest returning health should dissipate the piety
begotten of his ailments, Gibson's _Advice after Sickness_.
Thousands of pounds were spent upon this improving literature, which
was distributed to the fleet in strict accordance with the amount of
storage room available at the various dockyards. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ Accountant-General, Misc. (Various), No.
l06--Accounts of the Rev. Archdeacon Owen, Chaplain-General to the
Fleet, 1812-7.]

A fundamental principle of man-o'-war routine was that the sailor
formed no part of it for hospital purposes. Hence sickness was not
encouraged. If the sailor-patient did not recover within a reasonable
time, he was "put on shore sick," sometimes to the great terror of the
populace, who, were he supposed to be afflicted with an infectious
disease, fled from him "as if he had the plague." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2732--Capt. Young, 24 June 1740.] On shore
he was treated for thirty days at his country's charges. If incurable,
or permanently disabled, he was then turned adrift and left to shift
for himself. A clean record and a sufficiently serious wound entitled
him to a small pension or admission to Greenwich Hospital, an
institution which had religiously docked his small pay of sixpence a
month throughout his entire service. Failing these, there remained for
him only the streets and the beggar's rôle.

His pay was far from princely. From 3d. a day in the reign of King
John it rose by grudging increments to 20s. a month in 1626, and 24s.
in 1797. Years sometimes elapsed before he touched a penny of his
earnings, except in the form of "slop" clothing and tobacco. Amongst
the instances of deferred wages in which the Admiralty records abound,
there may be cited the case of the _Dreadnought_, whose men in
1711 had four years' pay due; and of the _Dunkirk_, to whose
company, in the year following, six and a half years' was owing.
[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1470--Capt. Bennett, 8 March
1710-11. _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1471--Capt. Butler, 19 March,
1711-12,] And at the time of the Nore Mutiny it was authoritatively
stated that there were ships then in the fleet which had not been paid
off for eight, ten, twelve and in one instance even fifteen years.
"Keep the pay, keep the man," was the policy of the century--a sadly
mistaken policy, as we shall presently see.

In another important article of contentment the sailor was hardly
better off. The system of deferred pay amounted practically to a
stoppage of all leave for the period, however protracted, during which
the pay was withheld. Thus the _Monmouth's_ men had in 1706 been
in the ship "almost six years, and had never had the opportunity of
seeing their families but once." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_
1. 1468-Capt. Baker, 3 Nov. 1706.] In Boscawen's ship, the
_Dreadnought_, there were in 1744 two hundred and fifty men who
"had not set foot on shore near two year." Admiral Penrose once paid
off in a seventy-four at Plymouth, many of whose crew had "never set
foot on land for six or seven years"; [Footnote: Penrose (Sir V. C.,
Vice-Admiral of the Blue), _Observations on Corporeal Punishment,
Impressment, etc.,_ 1824.] and Brenton, in his _Naval History_,
instances the case of a ship whose company, after having been
eleven years in the East Indies, on returning to England were
drafted straightway into another ship and sent back to that quarter of
the globe without so much as an hour's leave ashore.

What was true of pay and leave was also true of prize-money. The
sailor was systematically kept out of it, and hence out of the means
of enjoyment and carousal it afforded him, for inconscionable periods.
From a moral point of view the check was hardly to his detriment. But
the Navy was not a school of morals, and withholding the sailor's
hard-earned prize-money over an indefinite term of years neither made
for a contented heart nor enhanced his love for a service that first
absorbed him against his will, and then, having got him in its
clutches, imposed upon and bested him at every turn.

Although the prime object in withholding his pay was to prevent his
running from his ship, so far from compassing that desirable end it
had exactly the contrary effect. Both the preventive and the disease
were of long standing. With De Ruyter in the Thames in 1667, menacing
London and the kingdom, the seamen of the fleet flocked to town in
hundreds, clamouring for their wages, whilst their wives besieged the
Navy Office in Seething Lane, shrieking: "This is what comes of not
paying our husbands!"

Essentially a creature of contradictions, the sailor rarely, if he
could avoid it, steered the course laid down for him, and in nothing
perhaps was this idiosyncrasy so glaringly apparent as in his
behaviour as his country's creditor. He "would get to London if he
could." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2732--Capt. Young, 12
Dec. 1742.] "An unaccountable humour" impelled him "to quit His
Majesty's service without leave." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_
1. 480--Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, 12 Sept. 1746.] Once the
whim seized him, no ties of deferred pay or prize-money had power to
hold him back. The one he could obtain on conditions; the other he
could dispose of at a discount which, though ruinously heavy, still
left him enough to frolic on.

The weapon of deferred pay was thus a two-edged one. If it hurt the
sailor, it also cut the fingers of those who employed it against him.
So exigent were the needs of the service, he could "run" with
impunity. For if he ran whilst his pay was in arrears, he did so with
the full knowledge that, barring untimely recapture by the press-gang,
he would receive a free pardon, together with payment of all dues, on
the sole condition, which he never kept if he could help it, of
returning to his ship when his money was gone. He therefore deserted
for two reasons: First, to obtain his pay; second, to spend it.

The penalty for desertion, under a well-known statute of George I.,
[Footnote: 13 George I., art. 7.] was death by hanging. As time went
on, however, discipline in this respect suffered a grave relapse, and
fear of the halter no longer served to check the continual exodus from
the fleet. If the runaway sailor were taken, "it would only be a
whipping bout." So he openly boasted. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1479--Capt. Boscawen, 26 April 1743.] The "bout," it is
true, at times ran to six, or even seven hundred lashes--the latter
being the heaviest dose of the cat ever administered in the British
navy; [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 482--Admiral Lord
Colvill, 12 Nov. 1765.] but even this terrible ordeal had no power to
hold the sailor to his duty, and although Admiral Lord St. Vincent,
better known in his day as "hanging Jervis," did his utmost to revive
the ancient custom of stretching the sailor's neck, the trend of the
times was against him, and within twenty-five years of the reaffirming
of the penalty, in the 22nd year of George II., hanging for desertion
had become practically obsolete.

In the declining days of the practice a grim game at life and death
was played upon the deck of a king's ship lying in the River St.
Lawrence. The year was 1760. Quebec had only recently fallen before
the British onslaught. A few days before that event, at a juncture
when every man in the squadron was counted upon to play his part in
the coming struggle, and to play it well, three seamen, James Mike,
Thomas Wilkinson and William M'Millard by name, deserted from the
_Vanguard_. Retaken some months later, they were brought to
trial; but as men were not easy to replace in that latitude, the
court, whilst sentencing all three to suffer the extreme penalty of
the law, added to their verdict a rider to the effect that it would be
good policy to spare two of them. Admiral Lord Colvill, then
Commander-in-Chief, issued his orders accordingly, and at eleven
o'clock on the morning of the 12th of July the condemned men, preceded
to the scaffold by two chaplains, were led to the _Vanguard's_
forecastle, where they drew lots to determine which of them should
die. The fatal lot fell to James Mike, who, in presence of the
assembled boats of the squadron, was immediately "turned off" at the
foreyard-arm. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 482--Admiral Lord
Colvill, 10 July 1760; Captains' Logs, 1026--Log of H.M.S.

Encouraged in this grim fashion, desertion assumed alarming
proportions. Nelson estimated that whenever a large convoy of merchant
ships assembled at Portsmouth, at least a thousand men deserted from
the fleet. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 580--Memorandum on
the State of the Fleet, 1803.] This was a "liberty they would take,"
do what you could to prevent it.

Of those who thus deserted fully one-third, according to the same high
authority, never saw the fleet again. "From loss of clothes, drinking
and other debaucheries" they were "lost by death to the country." Some
few of the remainder, after drinking His Majesty's health in a final
bowl, voluntarily returned on board and "prayed for a fair wind"; but
the majority held aloof, taking their chances and their pleasures in
sailorly fashion until, their last stiver gone, they fell an easy prey
to the press-gang or the crimp.

While the crimp was to the merchant service what the press-gang was to
the Navy, a kind of universal provider, there was in his method of
preying upon the sailor a radical difference. Like his French compeer,
the recruiting sergeant of the Pont Neuf in the days of Louis the
Well-Beloved, wherever sailors congregated the crimp might be heard
rattling his money-bags and crying: "Who wants any? Who wants any?"
Where the press-gang used the hanger or the cudgel, the crimp employed
dollars. The circumstance gave him a decided "pull" in the contest for
men, for the dollars he offered, whether in the way of pay or bounty,
were invariably fortified with rum. The two formed a contraption no
sailor could resist. "Money and liquor held out to a seaman," said
Nelson, "are too much for him."

In law the offence of enticing seamen to desert His Majesty's service,
like desertion itself, was punishable with death; [Footnote: 22 George
n. cap. 33.] but in fact the penalty was either commuted to
imprisonment, or the offender was dealt with summarily, without
invoking the law. Crimps who were caught red-handed had short shrift.
Two of the fraternity, named respectively Henry Nathan and Sampson
Samuel, were once taken in the Downs. "Send Nathan and Samuel," ran
the Admiralty order in their case, "to Plymouth by the first
conveyance. Admiral Young is to order them on board a ship going on
foreign service as soon as possible." Another time an officer,
boarding a boat filled with men as it was making for an Indiaman at
Gravesend, found in her six crimps, all of whom suffered the same
fate. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1542--Capt. Bazeley, 7
Feb. 1808. _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1513--Capt. Bowater, 12 June

Men seduced by means of crimpage bounty were said to be "silver
cooped," and the art of silver cooping was not only practised at home,
it was world-wide. In whatever waters a British man-o'-war cast
anchor, there the crimp appeared, plying his crafty trade. His
assiduity paid a high compliment to the sterling qualities of the
British seaman, but for the Navy it spelt wholesale depletion.

In home ports he was everywhere in evidence. No ship of war could lie
in Leith Roads but she lost a good part of her crew through his
seductions. "M'Kirdy & M'Lean, petty-fogging writers," were the chief
crimps at Greenock. Sheerness crimps gave "great advance money."
Liverpool was infested with them, all the leading merchant shippers at
Bristol, London and other great ports having "agents" there, who
offered the man-o'-war's-man tempting bounties and substantial wages
to induce him to desert his ship. A specially active agent of Bristol
shipowners was one Vernon Ley, who plied his trade chiefly at Exeter
and Plymouth, whence he was known to send to Bristol, in the space of
six months, as many as seventy or eighty men, whom he provided with
postchaises for the journey and 8 Pounds per man as bounty. James
White, a publican who kept the "Pail of Barm" at Bedminster, made a
close second in his activity and success. Spithead had its regular
contingent of crimps, and many an East India ship sailing from that
famous anchorage was "entirely manned" by their efforts, of course at
the expense of the ships of war lying there. At Chatham, crimpage
bounty varied from fifteen to twenty guineas per head; and at Cork, a
favourite recruiting ground for both merchantmen and privateers, the
same sum could be had any day, with high wages to boot.

In the Crown Colonies a similar state of things prevailed. Queen's
ships visiting Jamaica in or about the year 1716 lost so heavily they
scarce dared venture the return voyage to England, their men having
"gone a-wrecking" in the Gulf of Florida, where one armed sloop was
reputed to have recovered Spanish treasure to the value of a hundred
thousand dollars. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1471--Capt.
Balchen, 13 May 1716.] Time did not lessen desertion in the island,
though it wrought a change in the cause. When Admiral Vernon was
Commander-in-Chief there in the forties, he lost five hundred men
within a comparatively short time--"seduced out," to use his own
words, "through the temptations of high wages and thirty gallons of
rum, and conveyed drunk on board from the punch-houses where they are
seduced." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 233--Admiral Vernon,
5 Sept. 1742. A rare recruiting sheet of 1780, which has for its
headpiece a volunteer shouting: "Rum for nothing!" describes Jamaica
as "that delightful Island, abounding in Rum, Sugar and Spanish
Dollars, where there is delicious living and plenty of GROGG and

At Louisberg, in the Island of Cape Breton, the North American
Squadron in 1746 lost so many men through the seductions practised by
New England skippers frequenting that port, that Townsend, the admiral
in command, indited a strongly worded protest to Shirley, then
Governor of Massachusetts; but the latter, though deploring the "vile
behaviour" of the skippers in question, could do nothing to put a stop
to it. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 480--Townsend, 17 Aug.;
Shirley, 12 Sept. 1746.] As a matter of fact he did not try.

On the coast of Carolina many of the English merchantmen in 1743 paid
from seventeen to twenty guineas for the run home, and in addition "as
many pounds of Sugar, Gallons of Rum and pounds of Tobacco as pounds
in Money." [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1 1479-Capt. Bladwell,
1 July 1743.]

The lust for privateering had much to answer for in this respect. So
possessed were the Virginians by the desire to get rich at the expense
of their enemies that they quite "forgot their allegiance to the
King." By the offer of inordinately high wages and rich prizes they
did their utmost to seduce carpenters, gunners, sailmakers and able
seamen from His Majesty's ships. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_
1. 1480--Capt. Lord Alexander Banff, 21 Oct. 1744.] Any ship forced to
winter at Rhode Island, again, always counted upon losing enough men
to "disable her from putting to sea" when the spring came. Here, too,
the privateering spirit was to blame, Rhode Island being notorious for
its enterprise in that form of piracy. Another impenitent sinner in
her inroads upon the companies of king's ships was Boston, where "a
sett of people made it their Business" to entice them away. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1440--Capt. Askew, 27 Aug. 1748.] No ship
could clean, refit, victual or winter there without "the loss of all
her men." Capt. Young, of the _Jason_, was in 1753 left there
with never a soul on board except "officers and servants, widows' men,
the quarter-deck gentlemen and those called idlers." The rest had been
seduced at 30 Pounds per head. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1.
2732--Capt. Young, 6 Oct. 1753. The "widows' men" here humorously
alluded to would not add much to the effectiveness of the depleted
company. They were imaginary sailors, borne on the ship's books for
pay and prize-money which went to Greenwich Hospital.]

So it went on. Day in, day out, at home and abroad, this ceaseless
drain of men, linking hands in the decimation of the fleet with those
able adjutants Disease and Death, accentuated progressively and
enormously the naval needs of the country. For the apprehension and
return of deserters from ships in home ports a drag-net system of
rewards and conduct-money sprang into being; but this the sailor to
some extent contrived to elude. He "stuck a cockade in his hat" and
made shift to pass for a soldier on leave; or he laid furtive hands on
a horse and set up for an equestrian traveller. In the neighbourhood
of all great seaport towns, as on all main roads leading to that
paradise and ultimate goal of the deserter, the metropolis,
horse-stealing by sailors "on the run" prevailed to an alarming
extent; and although there was a time when the law strung him up for
the crime of borrowing horses to help him on his way, as it had once
hanged him for deserting, the naval needs of the country eventually
changed all that and brought him a permanent reprieve. Thenceforth,
instead of sending the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care felon to the
gallows, they turned him over to the press-gang and so re-consigned
him, penniless and protesting, to the duty he detested.



From the standpoint of a systematic supply of men to the fleet, the
press-gang was a legitimate means to an imperative end. This was the
official view. In how different a light the people came to regard the
petty man-trap of power, we shall presently see.

Designed as it was for the taking up of able-bodied adults, the main
idea in the formation of the gang was strength and efficiency. It was
accordingly composed of the stoutest men procurable, dare-devil
fellows capable of giving a good account of themselves in fight, or of
carrying off their unwilling prey against long odds. Brute strength
combined with animal courage being thus the first requisite of the
ganger, it followed--not perhaps as a matter of course so much as a
matter of fact--that his other qualities were seldom such as to endear
him to the people. Wilkes denounced him for a "lawless ruffian," and
one of the newspapers of his time describes him, with commendable
candour and undeniable truth, as a "profligate and abandoned wretch,
perpetually lounging about the streets and incessantly vomiting out
oaths and horrid curses." [Footnote: _London Chronicle,_ 16 March

The getting of a gang together presented little difficulty. The first
business of the officer charged with its formation was to find
suitable quarters, rent not to exceed twenty shillings a week,
inclusive of fire and candle. Here he hung out a flag as the sign of
authority and a bait for volunteers. As a rule, they were easily
procurable. All the roughs of the town were at his disposal, and when
these did not yield material enough recourse was had to beat of drum,
that instrument, together with the man who thumped it, being either
hired at half-a-crown a day or "loaned" from the nearest barracks.
Selected members of the crowd thus assembled were then plied with
drink "to invite them to enter"--an invitation they seldom refused.

It goes without saying that gangs raised in this manner were of an
exceedingly mixed character. On the principle of setting a thief to
catch a thief, seafaring men of course had first preference, but
landsmen were by no means excluded. The gang operating at Godalming in
1782 may be cited as typical of the average inland gang. It consisted
of three farmers, one weaver, one bricklayer, one labourer, and two
others whose regular occupations are not divulged. They were probably
sailors. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1502--Capt. Boston,
Report on Rendezvous, 1782.]

Landsmen entered on the express understanding that they should not be
pressed when the gang broke up. Sailor gangsmen, on the contrary,
enjoyed no such immunity. The most they could hope for, when their
arduous duties came to an end, was permission to "choose their ship."
The concession was no mean one. By choosing his ship discreetly the
gangsman avoided encounters with men he had pressed, thus preserving
his head unbroken and his skin intact.

Ship-gangs, unlike those operating on land, were composed entirely of
seamen. For dash, courage and efficiency, they had no equal and few

Apart from the officers commanding it, the number of men that went to
the making of a gang varied from two to twenty or more according to
the urgency of the occasion that called it into being and the
importance or ill-repute of the centre selected as the scene of its
operations. For Edinburgh and Leith twenty-one men, directed by a
captain, two lieutenants and four midshipmen, were considered none too
many. Greenock kept the same number of officers and twenty men fully
employed, for here there was much visiting of ships on the water, a
fast cutter being retained for that purpose. The Liverpool gang
numbered eighteen men, directed by seven officers and backed by a
flotilla of three tenders, each under the command of a special
lieutenant. Towns such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Great Yarmouth, Cowes
and Haverfordwest also had gangs of at least twenty men each, with
boats as required; and Deal, Dover and Folkstone five gangs between
them, totalling fifty men and fifteen officers, and employing as many
boats as gangs for pressing in the Downs.

In the case of ship-gangs, operating directly from a ship of war in
harbour or at sea, the officers in charge were as a matter of course
selected from the available ward or gun-room contingent. Few, if any,
of the naval men whose names at one time or another spring into
prominence during the century, escaped this unpleasant but necessary
duty in their younger days. But on shore an altogether different order
of things prevailed.

[Illustration: MANNING THE NAVY. Reproduced by kind permission from a
rare print in the collection of Mr. A. M. Broadley.]

The impress service ashore was essentially the grave of promotion.
Whether through age, fault, misfortune or lack of influence in high
places, the officers who directed it were generally disappointed men,
service derelicts whose chances of ever sporting a second "swab," or
of again commanding a ship, had practically vanished. Naval men afloat
spoke of them with good-natured contempt as "Yellow Admirals," the
fictitious rank denoting a kind of service quarantine that knew no

Like the salt junk of the foremast--man, the Yellow Admiral got
fearfully "out of character" through over-keeping. With the service he
lost all touch save in one degrading particular. His pay was better
than his reputation, but his position was isolated, his duties and his
actions subject to little official supervision. With opportunity came
peculiar temptations to bribery and peculation, and to these he often
succumbed. The absence of congenial society frequently weighed heavy
upon him and drove him to immoderate drinking. Had he lived a
generation or so later the average impress officer ashore could have
echoed with perfect truth, and almost nightly iteration, the crapulous
sentiment in which Byron is said to have toasted his hosts when dining
on board H.M.S. _Hector_ at Malta:--

"Glorious Hector, son of Priam,
Was ever mortal drunk as I am!"

[Footnote: The authenticity of the anecdote, notwithstanding the fact
that it was long current in naval circles, is more than doubtful. When
Bryon visited Malta in 1808 the _Hector_ was doing duty at
Plymouth as a prison-ship, and naval records disclose no other ship of
that name till 1864.]

A lieutenant attached to the gang at Chester is responsible for a
piece of descriptive writing, of a biographical nature, which perhaps
depicts the impress officer of the century at his worst. Addressing a
brother lieutenant at Waterford, to which station his superior was on
the point of being transferred, "I think but right," says he, "to give
you a character of Capt. P., who is to be your Regulating Captain. I
have been with him six months here, and if it had not been that he is
leaving the place, I should have wrote to the Board of Admiralty to
have been removed from under his command. At first you'll think him a
Fine old Fellow, but if it's possible he will make you Quarrel with
all your Acquaintance. Be very Careful not to Introduce him to any
Family that you have a regard for, for although he is near Seventy
Years of Age, he is the greatest Debauchee you ever met with--a Man of
No Religion, a Man who is Capable of any Meanness, Arbitrary and
Tyrannicall in his Disposition. This City has been several times just
on the point of writing against him to the Board of Admiralty. He has
a wife, and Children grown up to Man's Estate. The Woman he brings
over with him is Bird the Builder's Daughter. To Conclude, there is
not a House in Chester that he can go into but his own and the
Rendezvous, after having been Six Months in one of the agreeablest
Cities in England." [Footnote: _Ad,_ 1. 1500--Lieut. Shuckford, 7
March 1780.]

Ignorant of the fact that his reputation had thus preceded him, Capt.
P. found himself assailed, on his arrival at Waterford, by a "most
Infamous Epitaph," emanating none knew whence, nor cared. This
circumstance, accentuated by certain indiscretions of which the
hectoring old officer was guilty shortly after his arrival, aroused
strong hostility against him. A mob of fishwives, attacking his house
at Passage, smashed the windows and were with difficulty restrained
from levelling the place with the ground. His junior officers
conspired against him. Piqued by the loss of certain perquisites which
the newcomer remorselessly swept away, they denounced him to the
Admiralty, who ordered an inquiry into his conduct. After a hearing of
ten days it went heavily against him, practically every charge being
proved. He was immediately superseded and never again employed--a sad
ending to a career of forty years under such men as Anson, Boscawen,
Hawke and Vernon. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1500--Capt.
Bennett, 13 Nov. 1780, and enclosures constituting the inquiry.] Yet
such was the ultimate fate of many an impress officer. A stronger
light focussed him ashore, and habits, proclivities and weaknesses
that escaped censure at sea, were here projected odiously upon the
sensitive retina of public opinion.

Of the younger men who drifted into the shore service there were some,
it need scarcely be said, who for obvious reasons escaped, or, rather,
did not succumb to the common odium. A notable example of this type of
officer was Capt. Jahleel Brenton, who for some years commanded the
gangs at Leith and Greenock. Though a man of blunt sensibilities and
speech, he possessed qualities which carried him out of the stagnant
back-water of pressing into the swim of service afloat, where he
eventually secured a baronetcy and the rank of Vice-Admiral.
Singularly enough, he was American-born.

The senior officer in charge of a gang, commonly known as the
Regulating Captain, might in rank be either captain or lieutenant. It
was his duty to hire, but not to "keep" the official headquarters of
the gang, to organise that body, to direct its operations, to account
for all moneys expended and men pressed, and to "regulate" or inspect
the latter and certify them fit for service or otherwise. In this
last-named duty a surgeon often assisted him, usually a local
practitioner, who received a shilling a head for his pains. One or
more lieutenants, each of whom had one or more midshipmen at his beck
and call, served under the Regulating Captain. They "kept" the
headquarters and led the gang, or contingents of the gang, on pressing
forays, thus coming in for much of the hard work, and many of the
harder knocks, that unpopular body was liable to. Sometimes, as in the
case of Dover, Deal and Folkestone, several gangs were grouped under a
single regulating officer.

The pay of the Regulating Captain was 1 Pound a day, with an
additional 5s. subsistence money. Lieutenants received their usual
service pay, and for subsistence 3s. 6d. In special cases grants were
made for coach-hire [Footnote: Capt. William Bennett's bill for the
double journey between Waterford and Cork, on the occasion of the
inquiry into the conduct of the Regulating Officer at the former
place, over which he presided, amounted to forty-three guineas--a sum
he considered "as moderate as any gentleman's could have been, laying
aside the wearing of my uniform every day." Half the amount went in
chaise and horse hire, "there being," we are told, "no chaises upon
the road as in England," and "only one to be had at Cork, all the rest
being gone to Dublin with the Lawyers and the Players, the Sessions
being just ended and the Play House broke up" (_Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1503--Capt. Bennett, 24 March 1782). Nelson's bill for
posting from Burnham, Norfolk, to London and back, 260 miles, in the
year 1789, amounted to 19 Pounds, 55. 2d. (_Admiralty Records_
Victualling Dept, Miscellanea, No. 26).] and such purposes as
"entertainments to the Mayor and Corporation, the Magistrates
and the Officers of the Regulars and the Militia, by way of return
for their civilities and for their assistance in carrying on the
impress." The grant to the Newcastle officers, under this head, in
1763 amounted to upwards of 93 Pounds. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1493--Capt. Bover, 6 March 1763, and endorsement.]

"Road-money" was generally allowed at the rate of 3d. a mile for
officers and 1d. a mile for gangers when on the press; but as a matter
of fact these modest figures were often largely exceeded--to the no
small emolument of the regulating officer. Lieut. Gaydon, commanding
at Ilfracombe, in 1795 debited the Navy Board with a sum of 148 Pounds
for 1776 miles of travel; Capt. Gibbs, of Swansea, with 190 Pounds for
1561 miles; and Capt. Longcroft, of Haverfordwest, with 524 Pounds for
8388 miles--a charge characterised by Admiral M'Bride, who that year
reported upon the working of the impress, as "immense." [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 579--Admiral M'Bride, 19 March 1795.] He
might well have used a stronger term.

An item which it was at one time permissible to charge, possesses a
special interest. This was a bonus of 1s. a head on all men pressed--a
bonus that was in reality nothing more than the historic prest
shilling of other days, now no longer paid to pressed men, diverted
into the pockets of those who did the pressing. The practice, however,
was short-lived. Tending as it did to fill the ships with
unserviceable men, it was speedily discontinued and the historic
shilling made over to the certifying surgeon.

The shore midshipman could boast but little affinity with his namesake
of the quarter-deck. John Richards, midshipman of the Godalming gang,
had never in his life set foot on board a man-of-war or been to sea.
His age was forty. The case of James Good, of Hull, is even more
remarkable. He had served as "Midshipman of the Impress" for thirty
years out of sixty-three. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1.
1455--Capt. Acklom, 6 Oct. 1814. _Admiralty Records_ 1.1502--
Capt. Boston, Report on Rendezvous, 1782.] The pay of these
elderly youths at no time exceeded a guinea a week.

The gangsman was more variously, if not more generously remunerated.
At Deal, in 1743, he had 1s. per day for his boat, and "found
himself," or, in the alternative, "ten shillings for every good seaman
procured, in full for his trouble and the hire of the boat." At Dover,
in 1776, he received 2s. 6d. a day; at Godalming, six years later,
10s. 6d. a week; and at Exeter, during the American War of
Independence, when the demand for seamen was phenomenal, 14s. a week,
5s. for every man pressed, and clothing and shoes "when he deserved
it." Pay and allowances were thus far from uniform. Both depended
largely upon the scarcity or abundance of suitable gangsmen, the
demand for seamen, and the astuteness of the officer organising the
gang. Some gangs not on regular wages received as much as "twenty
shillings for each man impressed, and six-pence a mile for as many
miles as they could make it appear each man had travelled, not
exceeding twenty, besides (a noteworthy addition) the twelve-pence
press-money "; but if a man pressed under these conditions were found
to be unserviceable after his appearance on shipboard, all money
considerations for his capture were either withheld or recalled. On
the whole, considering the arduous and disagreeable nature of the
gangsman's calling, the Navy Board cannot be accused of dealing any
too generously by him.

"If ever you intend to man the fleet without being cheated by the
captains and pursers," Charles II. is credited with having once said
to his council, "you may go to bed." What in this sense was true of
the service afloat was certainly not less true of that loosely
organised and laxly supervised naval department, the impress ashore.
Considering the repute of the officers engaged in it, and the
opportunities they enjoyed for peculation and the taking of
bribes--considering, above all, the extreme difficulty of keeping a
watchful eye upon officers scattered throughout the length and breadth
of the land, the wonder is, not that irregularities crept in, but that
they should have been, upon the whole, so few and so venial.

To allow the gangsmen to go fishing for sea-fish or dredging for
oysters, as was commonly done when there was little prospect of a
catch on land, was no more heinous than the custom prevailing--to
everybody's knowledge--at King's Lynn in Norfolk, where the gang had
no need to go a-fishing because, regularly as the cobbles came in, the
midshipman attached to the gang appeared on the quay and had the
"insolence to demand Three of the Best Fysh for the Regulating
Captain, the Lieutenant and himself." [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 1. 1546--Petition of the Owners of the Fishing Cobbles of
Lynn, 3 March 1809.] And if, again, rating a gangsman in choicest
quarterdeck language were no serious offence, why should not the
Regulating Captain rate his son as midshipman, even though "not proper
to be employed as such." And similarly, granting it to be right to
earn half a sovereign by pressing a man contrary to law, where was the
wrong in "clearing him of the impress" for the same amount, as was
commonly done by the middies at Sunderland and Shields. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1557--Capt. Bell, 27 June 1806, enclosure.]
These were works of supererogation rather than sins against the
service, and little official notice was taken of them unless, as
in the case of Liverpool, they were carried to such lengths as to
create a public scandal. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 579
--Admiral Child, 30 Jan. 1800.]

There were, as a matter of course, some officers in the service who
went far beyond the limits of such venial irregularities and, like
Falstaff, "misused the king's press damnably." Though according to the
terms of their warrant they were "to take care not to demand or
receive any money, gratuity, reward, or any other consideration
whatsoever for the sparing, exchanging or discharging any person or
persons impressed or to be impressed," the taking of "gratifications"
for these express purposes prevailed to a notorious extent. The
difficulty was to fasten the offence upon the offenders. "Bailed men,"
as they were called, did not "peach." Their immunity from the press
was too dearly bought to admit of their indulging personal animus
against the officer who had taken their money. It was only through
some tangle of circumstance over which the delinquent had no control
that the truth leaked out. Such a case was that of the officer in
command of the _Mary_ tender at Sunderland, a lieutenant of over
thirty years' standing. Having pressed one Michael Dryden, a master's
mate whom he ought never to have pressed at all, he so far "forgot"
himself as to accept a bribe of 15 Pounds for the man's release, and
then, "having that day been dining with a party of military officers,"
forgot to release the man. The double lapse of memory proved his ruin.
Representations were made to the Admiralty, and the unfortunately
constituted lieutenant was "broke" and black-listed. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2740--Lieut. Atkinson, 24 June 1798, and

Another species of fraud upon which the Admiralty was equally severe,
was that long practised with impunity by a certain regulating officer
at Poole. Not only did he habitually put back the dates on which men
were pressed, thus "bearing" them for subsistence money they never
received, he made it a further practice to enter on his books the
names of fictitious pressed men who opportunely "escaped" after adding
their quota to his dishonest perquisites. So general was
misappropriation of funds by means of this ingenious fraud that
detection was deservedly visited with instant dismissal. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1526--Capt. Boyle, 2 Oct. 1801, and

Though to the gangsman all things were reputedly lawful, some things
were by no means expedient. He could with impunity deprive almost any
ablebodied adult of his freedom, and he could sometimes, with equal
impunity, add to his scanty earnings by restoring that freedom for a
consideration in coin of the realm; but when, like Josh Cooper,
sometime gangsman at Hull, he extended his prerogative to the
occupants of hen-roosts, he was apt to find himself at cross-purposes
with the law as interpreted by the sitting magistrates.

Amongst less questionable perquisites accruing to the gangsman two
only need be mentioned here. One was the "straggling-money" paid to
him for the apprehension of deserters--20s. for every deserter taken,
with "conduct" money to boot; the other, the anker of brandy
designedly thrown overboard by smugglers when chased by a gang engaged
in pressing afloat. Occasionally the brandy checked the pursuit; but
more often it gave an added zest to the chase and so hastened the
capture of the fugitive donors.

To the unscrupulous outsider the opportunities for illicit gain
afforded by the service made an irresistible appeal. Sham gangs and
make-believe press-masters abounded, thriving exceedingly upon the
fears and credulity of the people until capture put a term to their
activities and sent them to the pillory, the prison or the fleet they
pretended to cater for.

Their mode of operation seldom varied. They pressed a man, and then
took money for "discharging" him; or they threatened to press and were
bought off. One Philpot was in 1709 fined ten nobles and sentenced to
the pillory for this fraud. He had many imitators, amongst them John
Love, who posed as a midshipman, and William Moore, his gangsman, both
of whom were eventually brought to justice and turned over to His
Majesty's ships.

The rôle adopted by these last-named pretenders was a favourite one
with men engaged in crimping for the merchant service. Shrewsbury in
1780 received a visit from one of these individuals--"a Person named
Hopkins, who appeared in a Lieutenant's Uniform and committed many
fraudulant Actions and Scandalous Abuses in raising Men," as he said,
"for the Navy." Two months later another impostor of the same type
appeared at Birmingham, where he scattered broadcast a leaflet, headed
with the royal arms and couched in the following seductive terms:
"Eleven Pounds for every Able Seaman, Five Pounds for every ordinary
Seaman, and Three Pounds for every Able-bodied Landsman, exclusive of
a compleat set of Sea Clothing, given by the Marine Society. All Good
Seamen, and other hearty young Fellows of Spirit, that are willing to
serve on board any of His Majesty's Vessels or Ships of War, Let them
with Chearfulness repair to the Sailors' Head Rendezvous in this Town,
where a proper Officer attends, who will give them every encouragement
they can desire. Now my Jolly Lads is the time to fill your Pockets
with Dollars, Double Doubloon's & Luidores. Conduct Money allowed,
Chest and Bedding sent Carriage Free." Soon after, the two united
forces at Coventry, whither Capt. Beecher desired to "send a party to
take them," but to this request the Admiralty turned a deaf ear. In
their opinion the game was not worth the candle. [Footnote:
_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1500--Letters of Capt. Beecher, 1780]

Ex-midshipman Rookhad, who when dismissed the service took to boarding
vessels in the Thames and extorting money and liquor from the masters
as a consideration for not pressing their men, did not escape so
lightly. Him the Admiralty prosecuted. [Footnote: _Admiralty
Records_ 7. 298--Law Officers' Opinions, 1733-56, No. 12. Process
was by information in the Court of King's Bench, for a misdemeanour.]

It was in companies, however, that the sham ganger most frequently
took the road, for numbers not only enhanced his chances of obtaining
money, they materially diminished the risk of capture. One such gang
was composed of "eighteen desperate villians," who were nevertheless
taken. Another, a "parcel of fellows armed with cutlasses like a
pressgang," appeared at Dublin in 1743, where they boldly entered
public-houses on pretence of looking for sailors, and there extorted
money and drink. What became of them we are not told; but in the case
of the pretended gang whose victim, after handing over two guineas as
the price of his release, was pressed by a regularly constituted gang,
we learn the gratifying sequel. The real gang gave chase to the sham
gang and pressed every man of them.

According to the "Humble Petition of Grace Blackmore of Stratford le
Bow, widow," on Friday the 29th of May, in an unknown year of Queen
Anne's reign, "there came to Bow ffaire severall pretended
pressmasters, endeavouring to impress." A tumult ensued. Murder was
freely "cryed out," apparently with good reason, for in the mêlée
petitioner's husband, then constable of Bow, was "wounded soe that he
shortly after dyed." [Footnote: _State Papers Domestic,_ Anne,
xxxvi. No. 17.]

There were occasions when the sham gang operated under cover of a real
press-warrant, and for this the Admiralty was directly to blame. It
had become customary at the Navy Office to send out warrants, whether
to commanders of ships or to Regulating Captains, in blank, the person
to whom the warrant was directed filling in the name for himself. Such
warrants were frequently stolen and put to irregular uses, and of this
a remarkable instance occurred in 1755.

In that year one Nicholas Cooke, having by some means obtained
possession of such a warrant, "filled up the blank thereof by
directing it to himself, by the name and description of Lieutenant
Nicholas Cooke, tho' in truth not a Lieutenant nor an Officer in His
Majesty's Navy," hired a vessel--the _Providence_ snow of
Dublin--and in her cruised the coasts of Ireland, pressing men. After
thus raising as many as he could carry, he shaped his course for
Liverpool, no doubt intending, on his arrival at that port, to sell
his unsuspecting victims to the merchant ships in the Mersey at so
much a head. Through bad seamanship, however, the vessel was run
aground at Seacombe, opposite to Liverpool, and Capt. Darby, of H.M.S.
_Seahorse_, perceiving her plight, and thinking to render
assistance in return for perhaps a man or two, took boat and rowed
across to her. To his astonishment he found her full of Irishmen to
the number of seventy-three, whom he immediately pressed and removed
to his own ship. The circumstance of the false warrant now came to
light, and with it another, of worse omen for the mock lieutenant. In
the hold a quantity of undeclared spirits was discovered, and this
fact afforded the Admiralty a handle they were not slow to avail
themselves of. They put the Excise Officers on the scent, and Cooke


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