New Scholarship on the Press Gang – Part 1 of 2

PressgangsWhen I undertook a PhD project on sailors back in 1993, work on impressment per se was scarce.  One of the more memorable works had been published in 1913. [1] The secondary literature that is available now amounts to an Aladdin’s Cave of riches compared to what I had to work with two decades ago.

The books I’ll discuss in today’s post (part one of two) are Nicholas Rogers’ The Press Gang: Naval Impressment and its Opponents in Georgian Britain and Denver Brunsman, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. [2] Rogers and Brunsman address the press gang in terms of the Royal Navy’s needs and policies and both make use of Admiralty archives, but they also set it firmly in contexts that include politics, law, society, culture, and philosophy; they consider race, class, and gender in some depth; they draw upon parish records, municipal records, poor law records, newspaper accounts, first-person accounts from various perspectives, lawsuits, Home Office archives, as well as Colonial Office archives.

Without, of course, doing justice to either of these books in this short format, I have pulled out particularly interesting material under four subheadings: The Press Gang and Civic Life; Women and Impressment; Masculinity and Impressment; and Wider Resonances. What we can see here are the ways that impressment is becoming integrated into mainstream history.  I use that term advisedly; it’s the kind of history you see practised at the largest conferences, in the profession’s flagship journals, and the sort of perspective that prevails in the magisterial “big picture” textbooks that cover long time periods and synthesize work from a multitude of subfields.

The Press Gang and Civic Life

51PRESAlHjL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If the press gang was a fact of life, why get upset over it?  Brunsman remarks that “Areas new to impressment generally posed the strongest resistance” and that after a peacetime lull, the press gangs found that they sometimes had to “renegotiate their authority” in places where the memory had faded. [3] Scotland did not experience press gangs before 1707, and the practice was not phased in immediately. [4] Various North American colonies, from the Caribbean on up, also considered themselves zones of exception in one sense or another.  At times those wishes were respected in practice, or even temporarily sanctioned by Parliament. [5] The rules changed a number of times, so disputes often arose over occupational or territorial exemptions which had come to carry the force of local tradition. [6] Brunsman refers to these as not laws, but cherished “legalities”; communities often quoted custom at naval officers and resented the intrusion of these ignorant “foreign agents.” [7] His examples of this are primarily from the Western Hemisphere, but I would add to that list the Channel Islands, Scilly, and the Isle of Man. [8] People who did accept the letter of the law resented the fact that in a “hot press,” even that could be suspended. [9]

On a more intellectually substantive level, some communities believed that the burden of impressment fell disproportionately upon them, or questioned the need for a mobilization.  Boston, Massachusetts occupied a strategic position near French Canada for much of the eighteenth century and endured especially frequent visits from the Royal Navy.  The imperial benefits were clear, but the local costs seemed exorbitantly high; Boston merchants argued that even the fear of press gangs acted to suppress their coastal trade and harmed their economy. [10] In cases where foreign invasion seemed plausible or imminent, cooperation might be forthcoming, but Rogers offers a very interesting statistic that in Britain, riots against the press gang were sharply higher during the “phony war” mobilization over the Falkland Islands crisis. [11] This suggests a more sophisticated public than we sometimes imagine.

I have repeatedly used the word “community” in describing the resistance to impressment, and one important takeaway from the Rogers and Brunsman volumes is that this word is amply justified.  It wasn’t just sailors and their families who were indignant; the personnel of riots and rescue attempts included “weavers, draymen, pitmen, tinners, stonemasons, ironworkers, butchers, and even printer’s devils” as well as bricklayers, carpenters, coachmen, and woolcombers. [12] If we think of this as perhaps horizontal or neighborly solidarity, vertical cohesion up and down the social scale was also much in evidence.  While mayors and magistrates preferred to avoid an open confrontation with the gang, they could drag their feet, refuse to guarantee the gang’s safety, or encourage lawsuits against members of the gang. [13] Tavern-keepers who catered to sailors locked their doors when the gang showed up; smugglers allowed sailors to slip behind their concealed panels; merchant captains marked hiding men as “Run” on their books. [14]

Of course, sometimes interference with impressment took more self-serving forms.  Lieutenant William Dillon came to Hull to press men in 1803.  He remarked that in his six week stay, he “never dined alone” and that the merchants who feted him, and even supplied him with women, did so in the hope that he would take sailors—just not ones from their particular ships.[15]

One way to think about an incident of resistance or interference is in terms of the net outcome.  A few towns (Rogers mentions Whitby and Poole) established themselves as no-go areas for the gang, and Brunsman argues that in New England, riots forced impressment offshore for a time. [16] Yet expecting decisive consequences like these may set an unrealistically high standard for crowd action, and miss the point in other ways.

Most of the incidents that make their way into the historical record occurred in a public setting with many spectators.  Consider the officer in Liverpool who fled the mob, was fired upon, and escaped only by climbing over the rooftops. [17] This was a spectacle for a much larger group than participated directly.  It was also a story that could be retold, one imagines, and if Robert Darnton’s apprentices relished their Great Cat Massacre for months afterward, what laughter and gloating may have attended the memory of this single incident? [18]

Rogers notes that Liverpool was a particularly tough port for the press gangs; he found 66 “serious acts of violence” there from 1739-1805, an almost annual event (although in fact, there would have been peacetime intermissions). [19] This implies well-practiced crowds, and bystander audiences whose appetite had been whetted by past performances.  It also suggests several generations of children who grew up witnessing press gang chases, press gang brawls, press gang riots, and press gang escapes, and quite likely carried on the tradition when they had grown.  In Bristol, the gangs learned to avoid trouble spots where riots had occurred in the past, a concession to an enduring civic memory, and the expectant greed of a neighborhood waiting for a little fun at the gang’s expense. [20]

All this went on notwithstanding the sometimes ingenious efforts by individual naval officers to reach accommodations with local magnates, commercial exigencies, and popular sentiment, while still getting the men they needed.  In November 1790, the Greenock Merchants’ Society wrote to Captain Brinton to commend him for his skill and moderation in the conduct of the Impress Service; a playbill from North Shields in 1794 contained a pledge from three lieutenants that “no Seaman whatever shall be molested by their People, on Play-Nights, from the Hours of Four in the Afternoon to Six the following Morning…” [21] It may seem counterintuitive, but as David Garrioch’s Making of Revolutionary Paris has shown, it is sometimes exactly the enlightened, modernizing regimes that elicit fierce popular resistance. [22]

In certain communities, a custom emerged of parading trophies from the gang, even the captured press tenders themselves, through the streets. [23] In 1793, the inhabitants of Greenock hauled a tender to the middle of the public square and burnt it there.  In South Shields, they captured the press gang and force-marched them down the middle of the street, with their jackets turned inside out, under a banner that read “Liberty for Ever.”[24] It is instructive that these examples come from the same communities, and the same decade, also mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

Women and Impressment

Mary Wollstonecraft argued that impressment was a women’s issue. [25] One of the Navy’s attempts at enlightened and sensitive impressment had unintended negative consequences for women.  To reduce uncertainty for merchants, vessels were stopped upon their return, not on their way out, and they would be left with enough of a crew to get the ship into harbor. Thus the ports got their cargo, the merchants got their profits, and the Navy got their men. [26] This was not such good news for sailors who had just finished (as they thought) a long voyage.

Brunsman relates how William Skill, having just completed a three-year voyage to India and back and “pleasing himself with the idea of soon beholding those he held most dear (a mother and sister) for whom he had brought presents many a long mile” was taken by a press gang instead. His shipmate recalled how Skill held onto the presents for his mother and sister. He later fell overboard and drowned in the Mediterranean without seeing them again. [27] Such anecdotes can be read profitably in the context of Joanne Bailey’s work on the “Sailor’s Farewell” and “Sailor’s Return” genres. Brunsman uses the term “heartbreak,” and in most cases one imagines that this applied to the sailors and their loved ones alike. [28]

On Tyneside in the 1790s, poor relief had to triple because of missing wage-earners taken up by the press gangs. [29] Brunsman coins the term “impressment widow” and remarks on the ethical uncertainties involved with this status. [30] Rogers opens his book with the story of a woman who was driven to crime after she lost her husband to a press gang.  The story was popular enough to embellish and be retold in variant forms, but it resonated because it spoke to a familiar issue. [31] Songs such as “Oh the Weary Cutters” with its eerie, dirge-like tune formed a sort of subgenre of their own, and are still performed today; here is a “press gang medley” of songs written from a woman’s point of view.

Not surprisingly, women fought back in creative ways.  They participated in crowd actions, forcing press gangs to run a gauntlet of verbal abuse, sometimes punctuated by jostling and brickbats. [32] It was legally possible to arrest a sailor for debts of a certain size, and during the Napoleonic Wars the Navy had to contend with a sudden upsurge of sham arrests by, or on behalf of, a spouse. Of the habeas corpus protests filed in the last four decades of the eighteenth century, impressment cases made up the “single largest constituency,” and half of these were filed by sailors’ spouses or other intimates. [33] The problem of how sailor’s families could support themselves spurred much discussion about government’s duties, and the transmission of a serviceman’s wages, and attempts at reform that foreshadowed more modern experiments in bureaucratized social welfare provision. [34]

Masculinity and Impressment

Caricature-1780-press_gangThe standard answer to “why bother to resist?” has been resentment over the lost wages that sailors could have earned elsewhere.  To some, impressment seemed like theft.  Merchants paid high wages in wartime.  Wartime also meant a chance to serve on privateers; this promised excitement and esprit de corps, but with more freedom than the Navy could offer, and possibly more money. [35] As I discussed above, we should also remember sailors like William Skill, eager to reunite with loved ones. Yet there is room for a more wide-ranging consideration of masculinity here.

A press gang officer in Ireland remarked: “I know Mankind don’t love to be compelled to any Thing.” [36] Brunsman delves into what may have been at stake for sailors here. It probably went deeper than conscious plans, intentions, or an objective cost-benefit analysis.  He points out that “the one thing, short of property, that made [sailors] independent adult men” was their freedom of movement, something that was inseparable from the allure of a seafaring life and to the dream of self-betterment in the Atlantic World. [37]

Adam Smith, writing of prize money, referred to “the lottery of the sea.” [38] This is a helpful analogy, bearing in mind that lottery participation is not rational behavior and has a lot to do with the immediate pleasure of contemplating a quite unlikely future outcome.  The Navy offered one lottery option (we might capture a prize and you’ll get a share) but closed off the chance to chase others.  It’s hard to quantify the loss of a pleasant daydream, or indeed the almost consumerist pleasure of “I’ll take a little of this, and then a little of that.”  One sailor, interviewed by an abolitionist about what motive had prompted him to sign up for a slave trade voyage to the fever-ridden African tropics, replied that he’d done all the other kinds of voyages, so he thought he’d give this one a try. [39]

Brunsman draws attention to different aspects of what he calls “the impressment paradox.”  For example, sailors who led the press gang on a merry chase often fought valiantly in the Navy afterwards.  He argues that we need to take a more limber and capacious approach to agency here, and develop a better ear for how “naval service returned to impressed seamen some of what their capture had taken away.” [40] He even develops a concept of “delayed patriotism” to address this. [41] There are difficulties, though, in trying to infer a motive when all we have to go on—in most cases—is the behavior itself.

It’s possible that Brunsman is overthinking this.  The sailors sought by the press gang were young men in top physical condition with ample experience in a line of work that put a premium on agility.  If they thought it would be fun to outrun the gang (out the window! down the alley! over the rooftops!), is that so surprising?  Port towns supplied a large, admiring audience, an audience that might include family members young and old, and certainly an audience that would include many women.

The evidence is clear that sailors loved to pull these stunts.  The evidence is also clear that they loved to talk about them later.  Captain Marryat recorded: “The conversation among the crew… generally turns upon the ‘hair-breadth ‘scapes,’ the difficulties and dangers they have encountered, the means they have employed to desert, &c.” [42] This suggests a friendly contest for whose exploits were the most daring, but also the risk of challenges to the spinners of tall tales.  Feats of derring-do in port—like escaping a press gang or fighting one off—carried with them the advantage of many witnesses to corroborate the story for years afterwards.

Possibly the impressment paradox doesn’t seem so odd when viewed through a masculinity lens.  That does leave us with some men who ran and/or fought against the press gang; then served with distinction in battle; then deserted.  From a certain point of view, those lads would have three things to boast about later.

It is striking that much of the recent academic debate about sailors’ motivations has turned on wages, rations, working conditions and retirement benefits, as if these young men thought like actuaries.  Some will have, of course, but it is worth remembering the proverb:  “Jack will have his joke though Death stands staring him in the face.” [43] Robert Darnton’s suggestion that we should listen more to early modern laughter may be more salient here than we’ve realized.  Deserters were marked “R,” for Run.  Brunsman quotes from a song that ends:

Cheerily, lads, cheerily! the warrant’s out, the hanger’s drawn;

Cheerily, lads, cheerily! we’ll leave ‘em an R in pawn! [44]

Wider Resonances

Stories about impressment circulated even more widely than the press gangs themselves.  There is now an entire book about the press gang in eighteenth-century literature, with separate chapters on the press gang in plays and the press gang in ballads. [45] Brunsman, ever conscious of Atlantic World parallels, offers the fresh suggestion that press gang stories were popular for some of the same reasons as captivity narratives. [46] Of the many ways that we might quantify the impact or relevance of the press gang, the sheer number of publications about it deserves some mention.

The philosophical issues at stake here were not small ones.  “Liberty,” Brunsman writes, “was the protean ideological glue that helped hold together the British Atlantic world in the eighteenth century.”[47] This may help explain why the troubling moral issues posed by impressment drew attention from King George II upon his accession to the throne, and later from Voltaire, David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine. [48] The Magna Carta and other constitutional documents were often invoked against impressment, correctly or not. [49] Brunsman notes that impressment was “the most consistent cause of violence against British imperial officers in North America before the American revolutionary era.”[50] The moral evil of conscripting a man to fight against his country and comrades is mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. [51] I should mention that Christopher P. Magra is at work on a monograph entitled Poseidon’s Curse: Naval Impressment and the Atlantic Origins of the American Revolution.

Rogers offers some other ways to measure the press gang’s resonance.  “I was hiding from the press gang” appeared in a surprising number of alibis at the Old Bailey; he notes that judges were rarely convinced, but the fact that this leapt to mind as an extenuating circumstance is interesting. [52] Rogers also went through the papers of the Admiralty’s solicitor, which are a quick path to the highest-profile impressment-related litigation. [53]

Most notably, though, Rogers offers some grand totals.  Where do impressment riots stand in comparison to their better-known cousins, the grain riot and the labor dispute?  Here are his numbers [54]:

Food/grain riots:    900+                                      for 1740-1801

Impressment riots and affrays: 602                 for 1738-1805

Violent/intimidatory labor disputes: 383        for 1717-1800

Those of us who teach—even in passing—about “moral economy” riots, or assign E.P. Thompson’s essay on them, may want to consider adding press gang riots into the conversation.  Rogers adds that “about one in four (N=150) impressment affrays ended in a death or a serious injury.” [55] This also may be something worthy of mention in the classroom, since it differs from the moral economy tradition of mostly nonviolent crowd action.

In part two of this discussion of new scholarship, I’ll consider Jeremiah Dancy’s The Myth of the Press Gang.



[1] J.R. Hutchinson, The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore (London: E. Nash, 1913).

[2] Published, respectively, by (London: Continuum, 2007) and (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

[3] Brunsman, Evil, 215.

[4] Brunsman, Evil, 79.

[5] Brunsman, Evil, 82-83, 112.

[6] Brunsman, Evil, 230, 239.

[7] Brunsman, Evil, 97.

[8] For the Channel Islands, see TNA HO 28/29: 24 March 1803, Admiralty Office to Sir George Shee; 1 April 1803, William Marsden to John King; 13 March 1803, J.A. Wood to Evan Nepean; 5 April 1803, Evan Nepean to Sir George Shee.

[9] Brunsman, Evil, 216,220.

[10] Brunsman, Evil, 123, 127, 222-3.

[11] Rogers, Press, 46.

[12] Rogers, Press, 41, 46.

[13] Rogers, Press, 23-29, 62-63; see also Brunsman, Evil, 234.

[14] Isaac Land, “The Humours of Sailortown: Atlantic History Meets Subculture Theory,” in City Limits: Perspectives on the Historical European City, ed. Glenn Clark et al. (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010), 325-347, see pages 334-342.

[15] Brunsman, Evil, 81.

[16] Rogers, Press, 56; Brunsman, Evil, 242.

[17] Rogers, Press, 65.

[18] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage, 1985).

[19] Rogers, Press, 73.

[20] Rogers, Press,78-9.

[21] Glasgow City Archives, T-ARD 3/9: Greenock Merchants Society minutes, 25 November 1790; the 1794 playbill is reproduced in Hutchinson, Press Gang, facing page 188.

[22] David Garrioch, The Making of Revolutionary Paris (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[23] Brunsman, Evil, 231.

[24] Rogers, Press, 106.  Something similar took place in Boston, Massachusetts in 1768; see Christopher P. Magra, “Anti-Impressment Riots and the Origins of the Age of Revolution,” International Review of Social History 58 (2013) Special Issue, 131-151, see page 146.

[25] Brunsman, Evil, 156.

[26] Brunsman, Evil, 62, 114; in the Caribbean, however, this practice had to be modified out of concern that inbound slave trade vessels, if left with a skeleton crew, might be at risk for an uprising from below decks.

[27] Brunsman, Evil, 151.

[28] Brunsman, Evil, 90.

[29] Rogers, Press, 118.

[30] Brunsman, Evil, 153.

[31] Rogers, Press, 1-2.

[32] Rogers, Press, 41, 47, 51.

[33] Brunsman, Evil, 193; Rogers, Press, 32-33, 194.

[34] I believe there is new scholarship on this coming down the pike, but see Patricia Y.C. E. Lin, “Extending Her Arms: Military Families and the Transformation of the British State, 1793-1815,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1997; Margaret R. Hunt, “Women and the Fiscal-Imperial State in Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” in Kathleen Wilson, ed. A New Imperial History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 29-47.

[35] Rogers, Press, 69-71, 85, 96-97.

[36] Brunsman, Evil, 188.

[37] Brunsman, Evil, 143, 145.

[38] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 10.

[39] Thomas Clarkson, “The Substance of the Evidence of Sundry Persons on the Slave Trade,” in The British Transatlantic Slave Trade, Vol. 3: The Abolitionist Struggle: Opponents of the Slave Trade, ed. John Oldfield (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003), 222.

[40] Brunsman, Evil, 140-141.

[41] Brunsman, Evil, 168.

[42] Brunsman, Evil, 179; also 202.

[43] Rogers, Press, 111.

[44] Brunsman, Evil, 180.

[45] Daniel James Ennis, Enter the Press-Gang: Naval Impressment in Eighteenth-Century British Literature (London: Associated University Presses, 2002).

[46] Brunsman, Evil, 86.

[47] Brunsman, Evil, 37.

[48] Brunsman, Evil, 38-39.

[49] London Magazine (June 1750), 267; Gentleman’s Magazine (November 1770), 525, 527.

[50] Brunsman, Evil, 13.

[51] Brunsman, Evil, 244.

[52] Rogers, Press, 9.

[53] Rogers, Press, 29.

[54] Rogers, Press, 39, 41.

[55] Rogers, Press, 48.


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Port Towns and Urban Cultures

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading