The Press and Other Forms of Recruitment in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

“The press brings in all sorts.” – Captain Jack Aubrey, Master and Commander

England’s sailors, while the first line of defense for the small island nation, were notorious for being the dregs of English society. At the time of war, there was always a shortage of trained sailors. These trained men were important because untrained men could be used to pull ropes and manhandle guns, but only a trained seaman could work as a “topman”. It took skill to work 30 to 40 feet off the deck hanging on the swinging rigging.

The British, in peace, did not maintain a large navy, so when war came there was a continued need to increase. The following table shows the number of seamen and marines serving in the English Navy:

1793 1794 1797 1800
45,000 85,000 120,000 130,000

Only about half of the seamen were even English. A large number of Irish, Scots and blacks from the West Indies and the Americas served in the Navy. The English navy had no prejudice where their seamen came from, what language they spoke or what country they owed their allegiance to. They all served as a “Jolly Tar”.

The Press

The “press” was the center of the Royal Navy’s recruiting process. One third of the crew of a ship at the start of a cruise needed to be trained sailors. These men came from recruiting ( a few), taking crews off merchant men and from the “press”.

The press was the Impress Service. Originally, the word was Imprest; meaning money paid in advance for State or government service. This evolved over the years to become impress or just press. The press gang goes back in English history to at least the 11th century, if not before.

The Impress Service sent out press gangs of 8 to 12 men, with an officer, to locate anyone between 18 and 55 with sea experience, and try to convince them to join the navy. Very few could be persuaded, so they were forced (pressed) into Navy service. Knocked unconscious, threatened with sword, pistol and musket, plied with alcohol were some of the different techniques used to secure crews for the King’s ships.

When a press gang found a volunteer, they were offered the “King’s Shilling”, a bounty for joining. Some men would join, get the bounty, then escape to do it all over again. Others would find a shilling slipped in their pocket and find someone saying that they had taken the King’s Shilling and therefore were under contract to serve in the military. Others would find a shilling at the bottom of their tankard of ale and, since they were in procession of the King’s shilling, they were in the military. This led some landlord’s to use glass bottom tankards.

It was widely believed that one sailor from a merchant ship was worth 3 men secured from the press gang from ships. Men aboard merchant ships, except officers and apprentices were available as long as the ships had enough men to navigate the ship. Some seamen were exempt, having “tickets” that exempted them from the press. Those were seamen who had spent less than 2 years at sea. These “tickets” were like gold, for a sailor on a merchant ship could make 4 times the money as a sailor in the navy. The pay for a merchant sailor went from a guinea and 27s before the war to 40s and 3 pounds per month during the war.

Some smart captains found ways to gain protected seamen from passing merchant ships and get rid of trouble makers and malcontents. They would board a merchant ship at sea and press the best topmen then replace them with the worst men they had on their war ships. As long as the Navy replaced the men, it was legal.

Another source for sailors after the war started was to press men who were prisoners returning after being exchanged with the French. Needless to say that these men just released from a French goal did not enjoy being sent to English prison hulks (old ships without masts or sails, sitting in harbor).

After pressing seamen into service the Royal Navy preferred to get them away from shore where there was less chance of a rescue attempt or legal action freeing a pressed man. So tenders were used, being moored in the area where press gangs operated, to store the pressed men until there were enough to warrant moving them to a receiving ship. These receiving ships were usually old man-of-wars in too poor shape to go to sea. Then the men would be sent to ships having vacancies.

Within a year of the war starting the navy still couldn’t get enough men to man its ships, so parliament passed the Quota Acts. This Quota Act required that each county produce a quota of men, depending on its population and the number of ports it had. At first the counties offered a bounty of £5. This soon doubled and tripled within a year as men became harder to find. Next the counties went to the justices of the peace who would reduce sentences of men in jail so they could “volunteer” for the navy, or offer criminals at their trial an option of jail or the navy. The smart ones would take jail because a press man was in until the war was over with no leave or visits to the shore. The war lasted 22 years.

There were also times when the urgent need of men for the war was not met by the standard recruiting practices. At these times, such as in 1803, permission was given to press from “protections”. The press gangs would grab almost any male, regardless of occupation, and take them to their base of operations. There they would sort through them and take anyone connected with the sea regardless whether they had “protections” or not. They would release those they didn’t want.

Volunteers

There were some men who earnestly volunteered, not for the bounties or because they were forced but because they wanted to be there. Sometimes they would follow a particular officer.

Others would be landsmen and boys who wanted the life of adventure and fortune (prize money). The landsmen were adults who had never been to sea before. It took approximately 2 years to turn a landsman into a sailor. Landsmen were used a great deal since there was ample supply. But landsmen were not particularly liked by either the officers or sailors even though they were necessary.

One organization that aided in the recruitment of landsmen and boys was the Marine Society, formed in 1756. They recruited the poor and destitute, giving them a minimum of training and sea clothes, and provided 22,973 landsmen and boys to the Navy.

As far as boys went, 500 to 600 were sent by the Marine Society each year. These boys, usually from the street served as cabin boys and powder monkeys.

One captain who never seemed to want for volunteers was Lord Captain Cochrane. After his capture of 3 Spanish treasure ships containing £250,000 of treasure, his advertising circular allowed him to pick and choose those people he used to man his ship.

It is often said that the Royal Navy emptied the jails and goals of the prisoners. This is not true. Hardened criminals were not sought or welcome in the navy. Those that were welcomed were those convicted of minor offences, smugglers, debtors, victims of the prison system itself and those who were convicted of public nuisance offences, such as public urination and drunkenness. The unemployed were also fair game.

Foreigners

Many foreigners volunteered for service in the Royal Navy, but others were pressed. Americans made up the largest segment of foreign serving seamen, followed by Scandinavians, Italians, and Africans. There were even French seamen, both Royalist and Revolutionaries, who preferred the life at sea over a life in a prison hulk. One reason so many volunteered was that with the war so many of the ports had their trade cut.

In fact it could be said that the pressing of foreign sailors brought about the War of 1812. By a law passed in 1740, foreigners could not be pressed. But due to the shortage of manpower, the Admiralty found lots of ways around this law. If a foreigner served more than 2 years on a British merchantman he could then be pressed. If he married a British citizen then he became a British citizen by naturalization.

There was also the disagreement with the United States over what made a citizen. The British held that anyone, born a British subject, was always a British subject. That meant that everyone over 23 in the U.S. were British subjects. Where as the United States was willing to claim just about anyone as a citizen, all it took was serving on an American ship for 2 years.

To protect their citizens, the US issued a piece of paper called a “Protection”. A sample of this document read:

I, John Keefe, a public notary in and for the State of New York…. do hereby certify that Daniel Robertson, mariner … personally appeared before me, and being duly sworn according to the law, deposed that he is a citizen of the United States of America and a native of the State of Delaware, five feet ten and a half inches high and aged about twenty four years, and I do further certify that the said Daniel Robertson being a citizen of the United States of America and liable to be called in service of his country is to be respected accordingly at all times by sea and land.

Now all this may seem reasonable except that Daniel Robertson could hit every Notary in the area and then sell them to British seamen for a good amount of money. Also anyone could walk into a notary and get a Protection just by saying they were a citizen. Then there was the vagueness of the description. With only height and apparent age being listed on the Protection, it could apply to 20% of a ships crew. Because of this, the British objected and allowed their officers to use their own discretion.

The British version of the protection was much more detailed giving not only height and age, but also complexion, hair colour and place of birth. The protections were also issued by the government and signed by the First Lord of the Admiralty and two or more Lords of the Admiralty and the secretary.

Protections were not used only by foreigners, also harvesters, who traveled from town to town picking crops, fisherman, pilots from the Trinity House and ferrymen/boatmen.

Courtesy of Kevin Stall.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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