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The Impress Service



The Royal Navy always had trouble recruiting enough men to man all the ships. This was especially so in wartime. At the beginning of the year war broke out Parliament increased the size of the Navy to 45,000 (the population of Britain at the time was around 9 million). In 1794 this was increased to to 85,000 and in 1799 to 120,000.
The Navy gained seamen by three means, Volunteers, The Impress Service, and (from1795) the Quota acts.


Volunteers
On the surface Volunteers speak for themselves. If a man volunteered for the Navy he would receive conduct money and two months wages in advance, from which he was expected to buy clothes and a hammock, known as slops, from the Purser. The regulations said of volunteers,'At their coming on board they may be supplied by slop clothes, but the value thereof must be deducted out of the said two months advance.'  However not all Volunteers had volunteered willingly, frequently a man taken by the Press Gang would be offered the chance to volunteer and so receive the bounty, he would then be entered on the ships muster book as V instead of P for pressed. Volunteers in fact made up the backbone of the Navy 'Better one volunteer than three pressed men,' was an expression used widely at the time.
Joining the navy was also a way to escape from the threat of the debtors prison. The navy would protect any man from his creditors if his debt was less than 20.


The Impress Service
The organisation at the ports charged with obtaining seamen was known as the Impress Service. The Impress service was limited to seizing men who were seamen, a word given a broad interpretation. The age limits were set at 18 to 55 years of age, frequently these limits were ignored. The word 'press' itself was a corruption, in regular use at the end of the Eighteenth Century, of the word prest. It came from the old French prest which was a loan or advance. A man paid the Kings shilling to enlist became an imprest or prest man.

The Impress Service covered every port in Great Britain. Each major port had a captain in charge, while smaller ports had a lieutenant. These officers were rarely seagoing men, and often this was the only alternative to being on half pay. The senior officer was known as the Regulating Officer, and the headquarters chosen was called the Rendezvous. Having set up the Rendezvous, the Regulating officer would then hire some of the local hard men as 'gangers', to form the Press Gang (on land the press gang was rarely formed by sailors).
Being one of the gangers was perhaps the only sure fire way of not being pressed. The Gang was then sent out and roamed the surrounding countryside in search of suitable recruits.The gang were paid money for travel, 3d per mile for officers 1d for men, and money per man pressed, anything up to 10 shillings. The scope for corruption was large, many men would bribe their way out of the gangs clutches, for a prosperous man a £10 bribe to the press gang was a small price to pay for his continued liberty.
press gang

The press was not new at the time of the Napoleonic wars, it had been in existance in one form or another for centuries, and slowly certain rules had evolved about the taking of men for service at sea. Merchant ships provided obvious targets for the press gang and captains would board merchant ships to take off any men he might want, officers and apprentices were exempt. Many merchant captains built hideaways for one or two particularly valuable men to hide in if the press gang came aboard. The rule was that the captain had to leave enough men on board to 'navigate the ship', again a phrase open to wide interpretation.

press warrant An example of a press warrant, issued to a ships captain in 1809.

Although the system of impressment seems harsh and arbitrary to us now, at the time it was accepted if not popular. The civil authorities on shore would often do everything in their power to disrupt the operations of the Press Gang. Many men were pressed into service, and reading their descriptions we can see that once caught they usually accepted their fate with equanimity, at least until they had a chance to escape. The Navy knew that the chances of a man running were highest at the start of his service, desertion rates progressively dropped off up to 18 months in service. After 18 months the desertion rate was very low. If a man deserted his ship an R was put against his name for Run.
Avoidance of the Press Gang was a practiced art form and they were unlikely to pick up many men by storming around a town flaming brands in hand. Running battles were frequently fought between the Press Gang and locals, often trying to retrieve a man captured by the Gang.

A system of prisoner exchange was in operation between Britain and France. The exchange was occasional because the British captured more prisoners than the French. Royal Navy frigates would intercept these ships carrying freed Britons and press as many men as they needed. An unfortunate event for any man looking forward to being reunited with his family. The press gangs in the ports where the ships were returning also kept a look out for them. But the exchange ships were hired merchantmen and the crews were sympathetic to the former prisoners often landing them in places they knew there was no press gang. One ship ran up the river into Rye at night and let 300 men flee into the countryside long before the press gang from Folkestone could catch them.

Officially no foreigner could be pressed into service, although he could volunteer. However if he married a Briton or worked in a British merchant ship for two years, he became liable for pressing. The impressment of Americans was one of the factors that lead to the war of 1812. To protect them the American Government issued Protections, a sort of passport with a general description of the man, to American seamen. However all one had to do to get a Protection was to go before a Notary and swear that he was an American citizen born in such and such state on date whatever. This was not the only objection that the British Government had to Protections, they maintained that any man born British could not change his nationality simply by moving to another country. In an age with no birth certificates and no photographs it was very difficult to prove you were or were'nt a citizen or subject of a particular country, and the Americans had the disadvantage of speaking english so they didn't even sound foreign.

Protections were also issued in Britain, there were several types ranging from those issued by Trinity House (who controlled pilots) to ones issued by the Admiralty. Unlike the American protections they had to accurately describe the man they were issued to. They had to be carried all the time and produced upon demand. Even these protections were likely to be ignored at a time of major crisis, known as a hot press, when the Admiralty gave the order to 'press from all Protections.'


Quota Men
In 1795 William Pitt brought in two Quota Acts, which laid down that each county had to provide a quota of men depending on its population and number of seaports, for service at sea. London had to produce 5,704 men, whilst Yorkshire, the largest county in area, had to provide 1081. Counties offered a bounty for men to sign up but few came forward. So instead men convicted of petty crimes were given the option go to sea or go to jail. Since the Georgian code of justice at the time prescribed a harsh jail sentence or death for what we would consider quite trivial offences, the option of going to sea and a pension at the end was more attractive than it at first might seem. The most unfortunate effect of the Quota system was that it frequently brought Typhus or gaol fever to otherwise healthy ships.

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