Impressment and the British Merchant Service

An explanation to the discussion of the potential effects of the Impress on the skilled labor force of the British merchant marine.

Impressment and the British Merchant Service
By Mitch Williamson

The ‘Prest’ was originally a small sum of money given to seamen on recruitment, however this word was corrupted into ‘to press’ and became the popular notion of the ‘press gang’, nasty groups of seamen, more often with an experienced officer, grabbing innocent victims from the streets and forcing them into the evils of navy service.

All trained British seamen were liable to impressment (and nobody else, contrary to popular myth–an officer on press duty could be sued for damages if he impressed anyone who was not at least an ordinary seaman), so in theory British merchant ships could be left with no crews at all besides their officers (who were also exempt). Indeed, most non-seamen caught up in the Impress were soon released on proving their identity, with some still being sent to ships. Ships’ captains needed skilled seamen not unskilled landsmen, there is no doubt that the great majority of pressed men were seamen, usually from the merchant marine.

The reason that this did not paralyze the country’s overseas trade, was that British merchant companies were expected to hire foreign seamen in the stead of their pressed British crew. Seamen from any neutral nation could be engaged. Quoting Adam Smith in the volume I of Wealth of Nations 1853: ‘In time of war, when forty or fifty thousand sailors are forced from the merchant service into that of the King, the demand for sailors to merchant ships necessarily rises with their scarcity, and their wages commonly rise from a guinea and 27s to 40s and 3 pound per month.’ Thus there was a considerable incentive for seamen from other nations to serve in the British merchant marine.

The British merchants would, of course, have to outbid ship-owners in the neutral countries, and it would take a little time for the foreign seamen to get to England. A possible explanation however, is that word of a new press would be carried quickly to Denmark, the Netherlands (when neutral, as in the Seven Years War and the first years of the War of American Independence), and the German states on the North Sea coast, such as the independent cities of Hamburg and Bremen. We can also conjecture, that seamen of allies could be hired, as well. To our knowledge the British Navy never required the entire body of British deep-sea sailors, especially all at one time. The worst problem would have been during the Napoleonic Wars, when neutrals were in short supply. In theory, U.S. sailors could have been hired, but of course we know that officers of the Royal Navy were quite willing to press them, so hiring them would have provided no security to British merchants that their services could be retained, and they would have been foolish to undertake the hazard. No present analysis is available, but it is possible that American seamen hired on to British merchant ships when the American overseas merchant marine was shut down by President Jefferson’s embargo in 1807-09.

Was the impressment of the majority of merchant seaman necessary, or in fact occur, due to the demand of the personnel establishment?

The statement that the British navy never needed all qualified British merchant sailors is purely speculative. In the discussion of the British Navy’s manning problem in N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986), esp. 148ff. Rodger believes (149) “there may have been as many as 80,000 seamen and fishermen outside the Navy before the [Seven Years’] war, of whom at least 60,000 were needed in wartime.” Initially, he believes, 20,000 or so were also employed in privateers, making the demand for seaman a total of 160,000 or double the available supply of 80,000. Note that it is not possible to measure the number of seamen needed by the navy from the total number of men borne on the ships’ books, even after deducting widows’ men and marines, because a portion of them could be unskilled (from a naval point of view) landsmen. BTW, in looking over this I found the definition of who was liable for impressment (p. 150): “seamen, seafaring men and persons whose occupations or callings are to work in vessels and boats upon rivers.” “It was neither legally nor practically possible to press anyone who did not fit this description, and suggestions to the contrary are quite wrong, at least as relating to the mid-eighteenth century. It is true that pressed landsmen are occasionally found in ships’ musters, but they can be accounted for either as watermen and river boatmen, who were liable for impressment but effectively quite unskilled in seafaring, or as landsmen pressed by constables and magistrates. The importance of the press to the Navy lay not so much in its numerical contribution as in its selective ability to take skilled seamen, the class the Navy stood most in need of.” (ibid.) The use of “landsmen pressed by constables and magistrates” was institutionalized by the Quota Act of 1795, which required every county to furnish a certain number of men to the Navy, including inland counties who would have had no chance to provide qualified seamen from their local populations. {Brian Lavery, Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793-1815 ([Annapolis]: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 124-28.} Rodger insists that the Navy did not want and would not accept career felons. Local magistrates used it as means of ridding their jurisdictions of “paupers, idiots, cripples, vagabonds, and petty criminals” even though pressing them was illegal, but the Navy was chary about accepting such types, and “they were very likely to be sent back by the first flag officer who saw them,” although the Marines might take them. “In no part of the Sea Service were criminals ever accepted,…Nothing more quickly destroyed the mutual trust of a happy ship’s company than the presence of a thief among them” (Rodger, Wooden World, 170.)


1. British Privateering Enterprises in the Eighteenth Century

David J. Sharkey 359.000941 1990 BRI

2. Parameters of British Naval Power 1650-1850

Edited by Michael Duffy 359.941 1992 PAR

3. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization 1793-1815

Brian Lavery ISBN 0 85177 521 7 Revised Edition 1990

The author wishes to thank Albert C.E. Parker for the invaluable additional information and his insightful suggestions.

Courtesy of Mitch Williamson.

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1 Comment on Impressment and the British Merchant Service

  1. Ellen K. Plummer // January 25, 2013 at 12:46 pm //

    Can you tell me the original source of the b/w image of impressed sailors crossing a gangplank from one vessel to another? I am looking for such an image for use in an upcoming War of 1812 exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD, USA. I would like to know the artist, where and when it was originally published and the copyright holder. And does the original source indicate whether the men are Americans? Many thanks for your help. Ellen Plummer

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