In 1779 in a debate concerning the Royal Navy in the Lords, the Duke of Richmond defined impressment as “a compulsory mode of obliging persons to take up arms, to become either soldiers or sailors.” This form of coercion was widely deemed necessary as the navy struggled to recruit the required quantity of men to man its fleets during such engagements as the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, according to Historian Nicholas Rogers, Britain was “at war approximately one in every two years from 1690-1815, and within the timeframe of 1739-1815, just under two in every three...The wartime demand for seaman outstripped supply by almost two to one.” He also points out that impressment was much more common in the navy than in the army - for soldiers’ enlistment entailed a justice of the peace to be present in order to confirm it was voluntary, whereas there existed no such formalities when a sailor was deemed to be a fit recruit for the navy by a press officer.
|'Manning the Navy' (caricature) - a coloured etching by Collings|
Impressing at sea was a time-honoured practice within the navy, but during the eighteenth century, impressing one shore became increasingly common. It is difficult to determine what proportion of sailors in the eighteenth-century navy were there owing to impressment. Figures vary, but an alarming 1803-1805 survey conducted by the Admiralty reveals that in those years, 48% of 11,600 surveyed recruits were impressed into the navy. During the first half of the eighteenth century, impressment was largely centred in the south – in London, the Downs, Portsmouth and Plymouth. However, as the century wore on and with the instigation of the Seven Years War, press warrants began to be issued more often in Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle, Hull and Yarmouth. In the year 1780, the impress services constituted a major operation that employed some 30 captains, 105 lieutenants and 215 petty officers. Seaman – merchant sailors for example - were mainly targeted, though technically any man between the ages of 18 and 55 who ‘used the sea’ were eligible. In an age where tin-miners and Scottish farmers alike were known at times to take to their boats in pursuit of fish, this latter category encompassed a great multitude of men. It is little wonder then that William Lovett recorded that
Indeed, records from the Old Bailey in London reveal that the press gangs were even used as a form of alibi – a thief named John Flat who stole from a lighter on the Thames claimed he was only aboard the vessel because ‘the Press-Gang’ was come’ . In 1776, Bere Alston lightermen who carried lime stone up the river were targeted by the press gangs, according to a local publication they “were dragged out of their craft like dogs...leaving their families in great distress.”The cry that ‘press gang was coming’ was sufficient to cause all the young and eligible men of the town to flock up the hills and away to the country as far as possible, and to hide themselves in all manner of places till the danger was supposed to be over.
Exemptions were rare. Some ‘protections’ were offered to a specific number of seaman in a designated area in order to protect that area’s commercial activity. Certain industries such as whaling were also protected – statutory exemptions were extended to sea apprenctices, Greenland harpooners, Thames watermen and Tyne and Wear colliers.
|Hogarth: An execution at Tyburn, much like Mary Jones' would have been|
The effects of impressment was felt not only by the victim, but also by their family. In 1771, on the 11th of September under the Shoplifting Act, a young mother of two named Mary Jones was sentenced to death. Her husband, the family’s principal ‘bread-winner’ had been impressed during the Falkland Islands crisis of 1770, and deprived of an income, Mary had been driven to slip ‘the remnants of worked muslin’ valued at £5. 10s. (£5.50) under her cloak – a crime she paid for with her life as the value of the goods stolen exceeded five shillings (25p). Six years later, Whig MP Sir William Meredith would argue:
The state bereaved the woman of her husband, and the children of a father....The law deprived the woman of her life, and the children of their remaining parent. Take all the circumstances together, I do not believe that a fouler murder was ever committed against law than the murder of this woman by law.