Press gangs

Liverpool Mercury 1913

The terrible Press Gang

During the 18thC of struggle [naval needs having grown in volume and urgency] their net was cast wider, practically every class of population was subject to its merciless inroads.

Unlawful, oppressive and unjust, it was nevertheless tolerated and fostered for more than a hundred years, standing a bulwark against aggression and lest, it ground under its heel the people it protected, making slaves in order to keep them free masquerading as a protector, it dragged the wage owner from his house and left a starving family to the mercies of the parish.

In the merchant navy life was hard enough in all conscience, systematic and unspeakably inhuman brutality made the merchant seaman’s lot an inferno.

Traders sailing out of Liverpool and Bristol and a score of other British ports depended almost entirely for their crews, with drugged rum, so evil was their reputation in this respect amongst seafaring men, the sailor on the merchant ship, though, ? of these bitternesses freely, could not call his sail his own. Life on a man ‘o’ war whilst not many degrees worse than life on a trader, had the additional element of absolute loss of free will and the additional fears of being shot as an enemy or hanged as a deserter.

Some of the instances given as disciplinary methods on board British naval vessels in the days when press gangs operated makes startling reading.

For the slightest offence, Jack was scrubbed at the gears, for serious offences, from ship to ship, if when reefing sails on a dark night or in the deeth of a sudden squall, he did not handle the canvas with all the celerity desired by the officer of the watch, he and his fellow yards-men were flogged en bloc. He was made to run the gauntlet, often with blood running from nose and ears, as a result of a previous dose of the cat, until he fell to the deck comatose and at the point of death.

Flogged for smiling.

Some things too were reckoned sins, aboard ship, which unhappily for the sailor, could not well be avoided. Laughing or even permitting the features to relax into a smile, in the official presence was such a sin. “He beats us for laughing.” Declare the company of the SOLEBAY in a complaint against their commander, “More like dogs than men.” One of the NYMPH’S company, on or around the year 1797, received three dozen for what was officially termed, “Silent contempt.” – “which was nothing more than, when flogged by the boatswain’s mate the man smiled.” This was the unpardonable crime of the service.

Systematic bad treatment was not the only probability, the sailor’s pay was withheld sometimes for long periods in order to stop him from deserting. For the same reason leave to go ashore was refused and instances have been known of crews who had left their ships for a year or even two.

What the press gang was to the navy, the crimp was to the merchant service – a kind of universal provider. But the methods used, while the gang used the hanger or cudget, the crimp used dollars – and rum.

Liverpool was infested with them, the getting of a press gang together proved little difficulty. The first business of the officer charged with its formation was to find suitable quarters, rent not to exceed 20s a week inclusive of fire and kindle. Here he hung out a flag as a sign of authority and bait for volunteers.

The town was at his disposal and if it did not yield material enough, a drummer was hired at half a crown a day, or loaned from the nearest barracks.

Gangs raised in this way were of exceedingly mixed character. The gang operating at Godalming in 1782, may be cited as typical of the average inland gang. It consisted of, 3 farmers, a weaver, a bricklayer, a labourer and two others occupations not divulged.

In theory an authority for taking of seafaring men only, the press warrant was in practice invested with all the force of a writ, requiring every able bodied male to show what right he remained at large.

Many a salesman, as a consequence, shared the fate of an Irish country farmer who went into Waterford to sell his corn, and was there pressed.

It was when returning from over seas that the British sailor ranked at the greatest risk of being pressed, and it became no uncommon thing for the whole crew of a returning vessel to slip overboard into the ship’s boats when land was in reach and row ashore, leaving the Captain and officers to make port the best they could.

It was natural that the Captain and owners should join forces with the men in efforts to outwit the gangs. One clever stratagem was to have an emergency crew, composed of utterly unsuitable men. These men, too old, too feeble, or too young for the navy, and so when they took the place of the regular crew of the homeward bound ship they were not molested when port was reached, whilst the sailors would, of course, have made good their landing.

Sometimes a press-smack would appear when the transfers were being made.

Then it was :-

“Cheerily, lads cheerily! there’s a ganger hard to wind’ard;

Cheerily, lads cheerily! there’s a ganger hard a-lee;

Cheerily, lads cheerily! else ‘tis farewell home and kindred,

And the bosun’s mate a-raisin’ hell in the King’s Navee.

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

Cheerily, lads cheerilee we’ll leave an R in pawn,”

As an explanation of the last line it may be pointed out that when Jack deserted his ship under other conditions than those here described, an R was written against his name to denote that he had, "Run" so when he shirked an obligation, monetary or moral, by running away from it, he was said to, "Leave an R in pawn"

The Gangsmen in Chester and Liverpool

Within Chester gates the sailor for many years slept as securely as upon the high seas. No householder would admit the gangsmen beneath his roof, and when at length they succeeded in gaining a foothold in the city, all who were likely to the press immediately deserted it – "as they do every town where there is a gang" – and went, "to reside at Parkgate".

Parkgate in this way became a resort of seafaring men without parallel in the kingdom – a “nest” whose hornet bands where long, and with good reason, notorious for their ferocity and aggressiveness. An attempt to establish a rendezvous here in 1804 proved it could be done, and the officer and gang were soon withdrawn.

In comparison with the seething Deeside hamlet, Liverpool was tameness itself. Now and then, as in 1745, the sailor element rose in arms, demanding who was masters; but as a rule it suffered the gang, if not gladly, at least with exemplary patience.

Homing seamen who desired to evade the press in the city – and they were many – fled ashore from their ship at Highlake, a spot so well adapted to their purpose that it required “strict care to catch them.” From Highlake they made their way to Parkgate, swelling still further the sailor population of that far-famed nest of skulkers.

The gangsmen were by no means above using stratagems, and some of the dodges they employed in order to secure “recruits” were very ingenious.

One not uncommon stratagem was the impersonation of a recruiting party beating up for volunteers. With cockades in their hats, drums rolling and fifes shrilling; and of course their arms concealed, the gangsmen were able to march through the streets of some sizeable country town and draw huge crowds. Presently they threw of their disguise, and secured every pressable person they could lay hands on.

At Liverpool, where the seafaring element was always a large one, it was common practice for the gangs to lie low for a time, thus inducing the sailor to believe himself safe of molestation. He immediately indulged in a desperate drinking bout, and so put himself entirely in their power. Whether rolling about the towns, “very much in liquor” or “snugly moored in Sot’s bay,” he was any easy victim.

There are records of many terrible fights between gangsmen and sailors whom they had cornered, and it is not suprising to learn that the weapon the seaman was most partial to was the familiar capstan-bar. It was with a capstan-bar that Paul JONES, when hard pressed by a gang on board his ship in Liverpool, was reputed to have stretched three of his assailants dead on the deck.

A good story

One night in the winter of 1780, whilst Capt WORTH, of the Liverpool rendezvous, sat lamenting the temporary dearth of seamen, Lieut HAYGARTH came rushing in with a rare piece of news. On the road from Lancaster it was reported, there was a coach load of sailors.

The chance was too good to be lost, and instant steps were taken to intercept the travellers. The gangs turned out fully armed, and took up their position, at a strategic point, just outside the town, commanding the road by which the sailors had to pass. By and by came along the coach, the horses weary, the occupants nodding, or asleep, in a trice they were surrounded. Some of the gangsmen sprang at the horses heads, others threw themselves on the drowsy passengers. Shouts, curses, and the thud of blows broke the silence of the night. Then the coach rumbled on again empty.

Its late occupants, 50 in number, sulkily followed on foot, surrounded by their captors, who, as soon as the town was reached, locked them into the press-room for the rest of the night, it being the Captain’s intention to put them on the tender in the Mersey, at break of day.

In this however he was frustrated in a remarkable development on the situation, unknown to him, a coach load of seamen had been designed for the STAG privateer, a vessel just on the point of sailing. News of the capture reached the ship soon after their arrival in the town. SPENCE her 1st Lieut, at once roused all his available men, armed them to the number of 80, with cutlass and pistol, and led them ashore.

There all was quiet favouring their design. The hour was still early, and the silent, swift march through the deserted streets attracted no attention and exited no alarm.

At the rendezvous the opposition of the weary sentinels counted for little. It was quickly brushed aside, the room door gave way beneath a few well directed blows, and by the time Liverpool went to breakfast the STAG privateer, was standing out at sea, her crew not only complete, but ably supplemented by 8 additional occupants of the press-room who had never, so far as is known, travelled in the commodious vehicle, the Lancaster coach.

The neighbouring city of Chester in 1803 matched this exploit by another of great audacity. Chester had long been noted for its hostility to the gangs and the fact that the local volunteer corps – the Royal Chester Artillery – was composed mainly of ropemakers, riggers, shipwrights and sailmakers who had enlisted for the sole purpose of evading the press, did not tend to allay existing friction. Hence, when Capt BIRCHALL brought over a gang from Liverpool for he could not form one from Chester itself, and when he further signalised his arrival by pressing Daniel JACKSON a well-known volunteer, matters at once came to an ugly head.

The day happened to be a field-day, and as BIRCHALL crossed the Market Square to wait upon the magistrates at City Hall, he was “given to understand what might be expected in the evening,” for one of the artillery men, striking his pieces, called out to his fellows; “Now for a running ball! There he goes!” with hissing, booing and execrations.

At 7 o’ clock one of the gang ran into the Captain’s lodgings, with disquieting news. The volunteers were attacking the rendezvous. He hurried out but by the time he reached the scene the mischief was already done.

The enraged volunteers, after first driving the gang into the City Hall, had torn down the rendezvous colours and staff, and broke open the gaol and rescued their comrade; whom they were then in the act of carrying shoulder-high through the streets, through the centre of a howling mob that even the magistrates feared to face.

By request BIRCHALL and his men returned to Liverpool, counting themselves lucky to have escaped the, “running ball” they had been threatened with earlier in the day.

Another town that gave the gang a hot reception was Whitby. As in the case of Chester, the gang there was an importation having been brought in from Tyneside by Lieut’s ATKNISON and OAKES. As at Chester, too, a place of rendezvous had been procured with difficulty, for at first no landlord could be found courageous enough to let a house for so dangerous a purpose.

At length, however, one Cooper was prevailed upon to take the risk, and the flag was hung out. This would seem to have been the only provocative act of which the gang was guilty. It's sufficed anticipation did the rest, for just as in some individuals gratitude exists in a lively sense of favours to come, so the resentment of mobs sometimes avenges a wrong before it has been inflicted.


Copyright 2002 / To date