- Forced Recruitment into the Royal Navy
The ‘pressing’ of men into the service of the Crown was very much a contentious issue during its time of operation and there was much comment passed. The overwhelming modern understanding is of all and sundry being picked up by less than discerning press gangs. This is not unnatural considering that this was a perception put over by contemporaneous opponents of the press. However, it is far from the reality, which was very much more complicated.
Already by the 17th century sailing ships were highly complex machines, which required skilled hands to operate their mechanisms and this would continue into the 18th and 19th centuries. Sailors learned their skills through time and experience, in the main begun as boys. Whether on naval warships, privateers, merchantmen of the great chartered companies, or lesser merchantmen, the ‘people’ (that is to say all who were not held ‘officers’ rank) were drawn from the same pool of labour. All signed on per voyage and theoretically could choose whom they served. However, even if war on land was the concern of relatively small groups of often-mercenary groups of professional warriors, war at sea already required more of a mass participation. As warships grew both in number and size, very large numbers of men were needed to prosecute state wishes when required in long and frequent periods of war. (Men-o-war were generally laid up in the shorter periods of peace in between.)
The traditional perspective of the Royal Navy during these centuries is of crews receiving unremitting hell. Whilst some good modern research has shown this to be not entirely accurate, life was far from luxurious for anyone at sea in these centuries, whether ‘officer’ or one of the ‘people’, on warships or merchantmen. It is true that a great many men genuinely ‘took the sovereign’s shilling’ and if sailors’ songs are to be believed, perhaps for reasons which may often have reflected a nationalistic defence which is not apparent elsewhere in society at this time. Nevertheless, a great many men did not want to serve the monarch, whether they had already spent time on warships, or not.
This was, however, immaterial to commands of warships that needed seamen as crews. If merchant seamen could be induced, through bounties, to join voluntarily - well and good. But if not, men still had to be procured. Interestingly, far more men were pressed at sea than on shore. Homeward bound merchantmen on their final approaches to discharge were often boarded and ‘volunteers’ were called for. If not gaining the requisite number, men were simply pressed and this included individuals who were theoretically ‘protected’ from just such an eventuality.
The more traditional view of the press-gang is on shore though. Far from having great power, those charged with the task of obtaining men by pressing had to operate in conditions that were less than ideal. If they were not careful they themselves could end up in prison and some were even murdered. Skilled seamen were sought after, preferably from merchantmen, but not uncommonly from other warships. Landsmen were not wanted, as they required long training in the basics. Nevertheless, though it was necessary to make up the numbers onboard with landsmen it seems that these were mostly volunteers in the true sense of the word. It was most unusual, though not absolutely out of the question, for press-gangs to range the countryside picking up any able-bodied males they encountered.
For excellent detailed analysis of conditions in the R.N. during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) including the press, currently in print, see N.A.M. Rodger’s The Wooden World: An Anatomy the Georgian Navy (London: Fontana Press, 1986).