Thursday, April 19, 2012

What is a Navy Press Gang?

If you're a history lover or have seen any of the Hornblower series, you may already know the answer to this question, though most movies and books do not give a completely accurate account of the practice.

Impressment was a brutal tactic in which the Royal (British) Navy would send bands of seamen, armed with cudgels, and led by a Navy lieutenant, onto shore to kidnap men and bring them aboard for service. Yes, you heard me right. Some poor fellow is simply out for a stroll or on his way to work or maybe heading to see his lady love, when a mob of men attack him and drag him on board a ship where he must serve the extension of that ship's commission. (which could be years!)   You see see why the press gangs were feared!

So what would prompt a country to do this?  Although the press gang seems to have originated in the thirteenth century, it was the Quota Act of 1795 that increased its occurrence. The Act forced every county in Britain to provide a certain number of recruits according to its population. Though civic authorities offered bounties and even freed criminals and debtors to fill the quota, they still did not have enough men.

But these gangs wouldn't just take anyone. They were looking for the following:
Men between the ages of 18 and 55
Not apprentices or gentlemen
No landsmen. The men must have some experience on board a ship.

So if you were a farmer or shopkeeper or tradesmen who had never set foot on a ship, you were probably safe. Or if you were part of the upper class or nobility. Or a woman, of course!

You were particularly vulnerable, however, if you were a merchant with vast experience at sea.  These men were often stolen right off their ships before they even made port!

Before you get too upset, once these men were made to "volunteer", they were treated like anyone else in the Navy. They were given training and pay and clothing and food. Whether they were happy or not about their new career, we may never know, though I imagine their emotions ran the gambit from furiously miserable to happy to have a job.

And just so you know, America never really picked up this practice at large, although individual states did practice impressment from time to time depending on the local law. 


  1. Thurs Apr 19th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    And hence ... you have shared the stories of 'naval press gangs' in some of your novels ... with us.
    This is 'one time' during past history ... when women were probably glad and thankful to be 'a woman' !
    And as for the men who were 'foricibly kidnapped' ... it gives a whole new meaning to the wording .... 'volunteer' !!!
    And as to being a 'lover of history' ... no I never was ... until now. I am appreciating history far more today, than I ever did growing up as a child !
    Thanks again for sharing ... you bring it to life for me, and I find the details and explanations interesting and intriguing.
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  2. Perfect timing for a history lesson. I just finished reading "Lady in the Mist" by Laurie Alice Eakes.

    "He sounded friendly, even warm, and not threatening. Yet no one should be about this strech of the beach in the wee hours of the morning. No Englishman should be about on the Atlantic coast, where young men disapeared with regularity, unless he were -
    "Press - gang."'
    "Lady in the Mist"

    Just had to share!

  3. Interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  4. You're welcome, Brenda, and yes, in this case, it was better to be a woman back then.. however if you were a woman on board a ship that was seized.. it was possible they took you as well.

    Jennie.. what timing, eh? I loved Lady in the Mist!

    Thanks for dropping by, Heather!

  5. Wow, in all my research of the Colonial Era, I know little of the activities of seafaring. VERY interesting! Thank you for sharing your research!

  6. That would have been so horrible! Just think of the families at home, too, who might have "lost" their loved ones and had no idea what happened to them or if they would ever see them again... :/