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THE PRESS-GANG AFLOAT AND ASHORE
BY J. R. HUTCHINSON
I. HOW THE PRESS-GANG CAME IN.
II. WHY THE GANG WAS NECESSARY.
III. WHAT THE PRESS-GANG WAS.
IV. WHOM THE GANG MIGHT TAKE.
V. WHAT THE GANG DID AFLOAT.
VI. EVADING THE GANG.
VII. WHAT THE GANG DID ASHORE.
VIII. AT GRIPS WITH THE GANG.
IX. THE GANG AT PLAY.
X. WOMEN AND THE PRESS-GANG.
XI. IN THE CLUTCH OF THE GANG.
XII. HOW THE GANG WENT OUT.
APPENDIX: ADMIRAL YOUNG’S TORPEDO.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS:
AN UNWELCOME VISIT FROM THE PRESS GANG.
MANNING THE NAVY. Reproduced by kind permission from a rare print in the collection of Mr. A. M. BROADLEY.
THE PRESS-GANG SEIZING A VICTIM.
SEIZING A WATERMAN ON TOWER HILL ON THE MORNING OF HIS WEDDING DAY.
JACK IN THE BILBOES. From the Painting by MORLAND.
ONE OF THE RAREST OF PRESS-GANG RECORDS. A play-bill announcing the suspension of the Gang’s operations on “Play Nights,” in the collection of Mr. A. M. BROADLEY, by whose kind permission it is reproduced.
SAILORS CAROUSING. From the Mezzotint after J. IBBETSON.
ANNE MILLS WHO SERVED ON BOARD THE _MAIDSTONE_ IN 1740.
MARY ANNE TALBOT.
MARY ANNE TALBOT DRESSED AS A SAILOR.
THE PRESS GANG, OR ENGLISH LIBERTY DISPLAYED.
ADMIRAL YOUNG’S TORPEDO. Reproduced from the Original Drawing at the Public Record Office.
HOW THE PRESS-GANG CAME IN.
The practice of pressing men–that is to say, of taking by intimidation or force those who will not volunteer–would seem to have been world-wide in its adoption.
Wherever man desired to have a thing done, and was powerful enough to insure the doing of it, there he attained his end by the simple expedient of compelling others to do for him what he, unaided, could not do for himself.
The individual, provided he did not conspire in sufficient numbers to impede or defeat the end in view, counted only as a food-consuming atom in the human mass which was set to work out the purpose of the master mind and hand. His face value in the problem was that of a living wage. If he sought to enhance his value by opposing the master hand, the master hand seized him and wrung his withers.
So long as the compelling power confined the doing of the things it desired done to works of construction, it met with little opposition in its designs, experienced little difficulty in coercing the labour necessary for piling its walls, excavating its tanks, raising its pyramids and castles, or for levelling its roads and building its ships and cities. These were the commonplace achievements of peace, at which even the coerced might toil unafraid; for apart from the normal incidence of death, such works entailed little danger to the lives of the multitudes who wrought upon them. Men could in consequence be procured for them by the exercise of the minimum of coercion–by, that is to say, the mere threat of it.
When peace went to the wall and the pressed man was called upon to go to battle, the case assumed another aspect, an acuter phase. Given a state of war, the danger to life and limb, the incidence of death, at once jumped enormously, and in proportion as these disquieting factors in the pressed man’s lot mounted up, just in that proportion did his opposition to the power that sought to take him become the more determined, strenuous, and undisguised.
Particularly was this true of warlike operations upon the sea, for to the extraordinary and terrible risks of war were here added the ordinary but ever-present dangers of wind and wave and storm, sufficient in themselves to appal the unaccustomed and to antagonise the unwilling. In face of these superlative risks the difficulty of procuring men was accentuated a thousand-fold, and with it both the nature and the degree of the coercive force necessary to be exercised for their procuration.
In these circumstances the Ruling Power had no option but to resort to more exigent means of attaining its end. In times of peace, working through myriad hands, it had constructed a thousand monuments of ornamental or utilitarian industry. These, with the commonweal they represented, were now threatened and must be protected at all costs. What more reasonable than to demand of those who had built, or of their successors in the perpetual inheritance of toil, that they should protect what they had reared. Hitherto, in most cases, the men required to meet the national need had submitted at a threat. They had to live, and coercive toil meant at least a living wage. Now, made rebellious by a fearful looking forward to the risks they were called upon to incur, they had to be met by more effective measures. Faced by this emergency, Power did not mince matters. It laid violent hands upon the unwilling subject and forced him, _nolens volens_, to sail its ships, to man its guns, and to fight its battles by sea as he already, under less overt compulsion, did its bidding by land.
It is with this phase of pressing–pressing open, violent and unashamed–that we purpose here to deal, and more particularly with pressing as it applies to the sea and sailors, to the Navy and the defence of an Island Kingdom.
At what time the pressing of men for the sea service of the Crown was first resorted to in these islands it is impossible to determine. There is evidence, however, that the practice was not only in vogue, but firmly established as an adjunct of power, as early as the days of the Saxon kings. It was, in fact, coeval with feudalism, of which it may be described as a side-issue incidental to a maritime situation; for though it is impossible to point to any species of fee, as understood of the tenure of land, under which the holder was liable to render service at sea, yet it must not be forgotten that the great ports of the kingdom, and more especially the Cinque Ports, were from time immemorial bound to find ships for national purposes, whenever called upon to do so, in return for the peculiar rights and privileges conferred upon them by the Crown. The supply of ships necessarily involved the supply of men to sail and fight them, and in this supply, or, rather, in the mode of obtaining it, we have undoubtedly the origin of the later impress system.
With the reign of John the practice springs into sudden prominence. The incessant activities of that uneasy king led to almost incessant pressing, and at certain crises in his reign commission after commission is directed, in feverish succession, to the sheriffs of counties and the bailiffs of seaports throughout the kingdom, straitly enjoining them to arrest and stay all ships within their respective jurisdictions, and with the ships the mariners who sail them. [Footnote: By a plausible euphemism they were said to be “hired.” As a matter of fact, both ships and men were retained during the royal pleasure at rates fixed by custom.] No exception was taken to these edicts. Long usage rendered the royal lien indefeasible. [Footnote: In more modern times the pressing of ships, though still put forward as a prerogative of the Crown, was confined in the main to unforeseen exigencies of transport. On the fall of Louisburg in 1760, vessels were pressed at that port in order to carry the prisoners of war to France (_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1491–Capt. Byron, 17 June 1760); and in 1764, again, we find Capt. Brereton, of the _Falmouth_, forcibly impressing the East India ship _Revenge_ for the purpose of transporting to Fort St. George, in British India, the company, numbering some four hundred and twenty-one souls, of the _Siam_, then recently condemned at Manilla as unseaworthy.–_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1498–Letters of Capt. Brereton, 1764.]
In the carrying out of the royal commands there was consequently, at this stage in the development of pressing, little if any resort to direct coercion. From the very nature of the case the principle of coercion was there, but it was there only in the bud. The king’s right to hale whom he would into his service being practically undisputed, a threat of reprisals in the event of disobedience answered all purposes, and even this threat was as yet more often implied than openly expressed. King John was perhaps the first to clothe it in words. Requisitioning the services of the mariners of Wales, a notoriously disloyal body, he gave the warrant, issued in 1208, a severely minatory turn. “Know ye for certain,” it ran, “that if ye act contrary to this, we will cause you and the masters of your vessels to be hanged, and all your goods to be seized for our use.”
At this point in the gradual subjection of the seaman to the needs of the nation, defensive or the contrary, we are confronted by an event as remarkable in its nature as it is epoch-making in its consequences. Magna Charta was sealed on the 13th of June 1215, and within a year of that date, on, namely, the 14th of April then next ensuing, King John issued his commission to the barons of twenty-two seaports, requiring them, in terms admitting of neither misconstruction nor compromise, to arrest all ships, and to assemble those ships, together with their companies, in the River of Thames before a certain day. [Footnote: Hardy, _Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum_, 1833.] This wholesale embargo upon the shipping and seamen of the nation, imposed as it was immediately after the ensealing of Magna Charta, raises a question of great constitutional interest. In what sense, and to what extent, was the Charter of English Liberties intended to apply to the seafaring man?
Essentially a tyrant and a ruthless promise-breaker, John’s natural cruelty would in itself sufficiently account for the dire penalties threatened under the warrant of 1208; but neither his tyranny, his faithlessness of character, nor his very human irritation at the concessions wrung from him by his barons, can explain to our satisfaction why, having granted a charter affirming and safeguarding the liberties of, ostensibly, every class of his people, he should immediately inflict upon one of those classes, and that, too, the one least of all concerned in his historic dispute, the pains of a most rigorous impressment. The only rational explanation of his conduct is, that in thus acting he was contravening no convention, doing violence to no covenant, but was, on the contrary, merely exercising, in accordance with time-honoured usage, an already well-recognised, clearly denned and firmly seated prerogative which the great charter he had so recently put his hand to was in no sense intended to limit or annul.
This view of the case is confirmed by subsequent events. Press warrants, identical in every respect save one with the historic warrant of 1216, continued to emanate from the Crown long after King John had gone to his account, and, what is more to the point, to emanate unchallenged. Stubbs himself, our greatest constitutional authority, repeatedly admits as much. Every crisis in the destinies of the Island Kingdom–and they were many and frequent–produced its batch of these procuratory documents, every batch its quota of pressed men. The inference is plain. The mariner was the bondsman of the sea, and to him the _Nullus liber homo capiatur_ clause of the Great Charter was never intended to apply. In his case a dead-letter from the first, it so remained throughout the entire chapter of his vicissitudes.
The chief point wherein the warrants of later times differed from those of King John was this: As time went on the penalties they imposed on those who resisted the press became less and less severe. The death penalty fell into speedy disuse, if, indeed, it was ever inflicted at all. Imprisonment for a term of from one to two years, with forfeiture of goods, was held to meet all the exigencies of the case. Gradually even this modified practice underwent amelioration, until at length it dawned upon the official intelligence that a seaman who was free to respond to the summons of the boatswain’s whistle constituted an infinitely more valuable physical asset than one who cursed his king and his Maker in irons. All punishment of the condign order, for contempt or resistance of the press, now went by the board, and in its stead the seaman was merely admonished in paternal fashion, as in a Proclamation of 1623, to take the king’s shilling “dutifully and reverently” when it was tendered to him.
In its apparent guilelessness the admonition was nevertheless woefully deceptive. Like the subdued beat of drum by which, some five years later, the seamen of London were lured to Tower Hill, there to be seized and thrown bodily into the waiting fleet, it masked under its mild exterior the old threat of coercion in a new form. The ancient pains and penalties were indeed no more; but for the back of the sailor who was so ill-advised as to defy the press there was another rod in pickle. He could now be taken forcibly.
For side by side with the negative change involved in the abolition of the old punishments, there had been in progress, throughout the intervening centuries, a positive development of far worse omen for the hapless sailor-man. The root-principle of direct coercion, necessarily inherent in any system that seeks to foist an arbitrary and obnoxious status upon any considerable body of men, was slowly but surely bursting into bud. The years that had seen the unprested seaman freed from the dread of the yardarm and the horrors of the forepeak, had bred a new terror for him. Centuries of usage had strengthened the arm of that hated personage the Press-Master, and the compulsion which had once skulked under cover of a threat now threw off its disguise and stalked the seafaring man for what it really was–Force, open and unashamed. The _dernier ressort_ of former days was now the first resort. The seafaring man who refused the king’s service when “admonished” thereto had short shrift. He was “first knocked down, and then bade to stand in the king’s name.” Such, literally and without undue exaggeration, was the later system which, reaching the climax of its insolent pretensions to justifiable violence in the eighteenth century, for upwards of a hundred years bestrode the neck of the unfortunate sailor like some monstrous Old Man of the Sea.
Outbursts of violent pressing before the dawn of the eighteenth century, though spasmodic and on the whole infrequent, were not entirely unknown. Times of national stress were peculiarly productive of them. Thus when, in 1545, there was reason to fear a French invasion, pressing of the most violent and unprecedented character was openly resorted to in order to man the fleet. The class who suffered most severely on that occasion were the fisher folk of Devon, “the most part” of whom were “taken as marryners to serve the king.” [Footnote: _State Papers_, Henry VIII.–Lord Russell to the Privy Council, 22 Aug. 1545. Bourne, who cites the incident in his _Tudor Seamen_, misses the essential point that the fishermen were forcibly pressed.]
During the Civil Wars of the next century both parties to the strife issued press warrants which were enforced with the utmost rigour. The Restoration saw a marked recrudescence of similar measures. How great was the need of men at that time, and how exigent the means employed to procure them, may be gathered from the fact, cited by Pepys, that in 1666 the fleet lay idle for a whole fortnight “without any demand for a farthing worth of anything, but only to get men.” The genial diarist was deeply moved by the scenes of violence that followed. They were, he roundly declares, “a shame to think of.”
The origin of the term “pressing,” with its cognates “to press” and “pressed,” is not less remarkable than the genesis of the violence it so aptly describes. Originally the man who was required for the king’s service at sea, like his twin brother the soldier, was not “pressed” in the sense in which we now use the term. He was merely subjected to a process called “presting.” To “prest” a man meant to enlist him by means of what was technically known as “prest” money–“prest” being the English equivalent of the obsolete French _prest_, now _prêt_, meaning “ready.” In the recruiter’s vocabulary, therefore, “prest” money stood for what is nowadays, in both services, commonly termed the “king’s shilling,” and the man who, either voluntarily or under duress, accepted or received that shilling at the recruiter’s hands, was said to be “prested” or “prest.” In other words, having taken the king’s ready money, he was thenceforth, during the king’s pleasure, “ready” for the king’s service.
By the transfer of the prest shilling from the hand of the recruiter to the pouch of the seaman a subtle contract, as between the latter and his sovereign, was supposed to be set up, than which no more solemn or binding pact could exist save between a man and his Maker. One of the parties to the contract was more often than not, it is true, a strongly dissenting party; but although under the common law of the land this circumstance would have rendered any similar contract null and void, in this amazing transaction between the king and his “prest” subject it was held to be of no vitiating force. From the moment the king’s shilling, by whatever means, found its way into the sailor’s possession, from that moment he was the king’s man, bound in heavy penalties to toe the line of duty, and, should circumstances demand it, to fight the king’s enemies to the death, be that fate either theirs or his.
By some strange irony of circumstance there happened to be in the English language a word–“pressed”–which tallied almost exactly in pronunciation with the old French word _prest_, so long employed, as we have seen, to differentiate from his fellows the man who, by the devious means we have here described, was made “ready” for the sea service. “Press” means to constrain, to urge with force–definitions precisely connoting the development and manner of violent enlistment. Hence, as the change from covert to overt violence grew in strength, “pressing,” in the mouths of the people at large, came to be synonymous with that most obnoxious, oppressive and fear-inspiring system of recruiting which, in the course of time, took the place of its milder and more humane antecedent, “presting.” The “prest” man disappeared, [Footnote: The Law Officers of the Crown retained him, on paper, until the close of the eighteenth century–an example in which they were followed by the Admiralty. To admit his disappearance would have been to knock the bottom out of their case.] and in his stead there came upon the scene his later substitute the “pressed” man, “forced,” as Pepys so graphically describes his condition, “against all law to be gone.” An odder coincidence than this gradual substitution of “pressed” for _prest,_ or one more grimly appropriate in its application, it would surely be impossible to discover in the whose history of nomenclature.
With the growth of the power and violence of the impress there was gradually inaugurated another change, which perhaps played a larger part than any other feature of the system in making it finally obnoxious to the nation at large–finally, because, as we shall see, the nation long endured its exactions with pathetic submission and lamentable indifference. The incidence of pressing was no longer confined, as in its earlier stages, to the overflow of the populace upon the country’s rivers, and bays, and seas. Gradually, as naval needs grew in volume and urgency, the press net was cast wider and wider, until at length, during the great century of struggle, when the system was almost constantly working at its highest pressure and greatest efficiency, practically every class of the population of these islands was subjected to its merciless inroads, if not decimated by its indiscriminate exactions.
On the very threshold of the century we stumble upon an episode curiously indicative of the set of the tide. Czar Peter of Russia had been recently in England, acquiring a knowledge of English customs which, on his return home, he immediately began to put in practice. His navy, such as it was, was wretchedly manned. [Footnote: The navy got together by Czar Peter had all but disappeared by the time Catherine II. came to the throne. “Ichabod” was written over the doors of the Russian Admiralty. Their ships of war were few in number, unseaworthy, ill-found, ill-manned. Two thousand able-bodied seamen could with difficulty be got together in an emergency. The nominal fighting strength of the fleet stood high, but that strength in reality consisted of men “one half of whom had never sailed out of the Gulf of Finland, whilst the other half had never sailed anywhere at all.” When the fleet was ordered to sea, the Admiralty “put soldiers on board, and by calling them sailors persuaded themselves that they really were so.”–_State Papers, Russia,_ vol. lxxvii.–Macartney, Nov. 16-27, 1766.] Russian serfs made bad sailors and worse seamen. In the English ships thronging the quays at Archangel there was, however, plenty of good stuff-men who could use the sea without being sick, men capable of carrying a ship to her destination without piling her up on the rocks or seeking nightly shelter under the land. He accordingly pressed every ninth man out of those ships.
When news of this high-handed proceeding reached England, it roused the Queen and her advisers to indignation. Winter though it was, they lost no time in dispatching Charles Whitworth, a rising diplomat of the suavest type, as “Envoy Extraordinary to our Good (but naughty) Brother the Czar of Muscovy,” with instructions to demand the release, immediate and unconditional, of the pressed men. Whitworth found the Czar at Moscow. The Autocrat of All the Russias listened affably enough to what he had to say, but refused his demand in terms that left scant room for doubt as to his sincerity of purpose, and none for protracted “conversations.” “Every Prince,” he declared for sole answer, “can take what he likes out of his own havens.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1436–Capt. J. Anderson’s letters and enclosures; _State Papers, Russia_, vol. iv.–Whitworth to Secretary Harley.] The position thus taken up was unassailable. Centuries of usage hedged the prerogative in, and Queen Anne herself, in the few years she had been on the throne, had not only exercised it with a free hand, but had laid that hand without scruple upon many a foreign seaman.
The lengths to which the system had gone by the end of the third quarter of the century is thrown into vivid relief by two incidents, one of which occurred in 1726, the other fifty years later.
In the former year one William Kingston, pressed in the Downs–a man who hailed from Lyme Regis and habitually “used the sea”–was, notwithstanding that fact, discharged by express Admiralty order because he was a “substantial man and had a landed estate.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1473–Capt Charles Browne, 25 March 1726, and endorsement.]
The incident of 1776, known as the Duncan case, occurred, or rather began, at North Shields. Lieutenant Oaks, captain of the press-gang in that town, one day met in the streets a man who, unfortunately for his future, “had the appearance of a seaman.” He accordingly pressed him; whereupon the man, whose name was Duncan, produced the title-deeds of certain house property in London, down Wapping way, worth some six pounds per annum, and claimed his discharge on the ground that as a freeholder and a voter he was immune from the press. The lieutenant laughed the suggestion to scorn, and Duncan was shipped south to the fleet.
The matter did not end there. Duncan’s friends espoused his cause and took energetic steps for his release. Threatened with an action at law, and averse from incurring either unnecessary risks or opprobrium where pressed men were concerned, the Admiralty referred the case to Mr. Attorney-General (afterwards Lord) Thurlow for his opinion.
The point of law Thurlow was called upon to resolve was, “Whether being a freeholder is an exception from being pressed;” and as Duncan was represented in counsel’s instructions–on what ground, other than his “appearance,” is not clear–to be a man Who habitually used the sea, it is hardly matter for surprise that the great jurist’s opinion, biassed as it obviously was by that alleged fact, should have been altogether inimical to the pressed man and favourable to the Admiralty.
“I see no reason,” he writes, in his crabbed hand and nervous diction, “why men using the sea, and being otherwise fit objects to be impressed into His Majesty’s service, should be exempted only because they are Freeholders. Nor did I ever read or hear of such an exemption. Therefore, unless some use or practice, which I am ignorant of, gives occasion to this doubt, I see no reason for a Mariner being discharged, seriously, because he is a Freeholder. It’s a qualification easily attained: a single house at Wapping would ship a first-rate man-of-war. If a Freeholder is exempt, _eo nomine_, it will be impossible to go on with the pressing service. [Footnote: It would have been equally impossible to go on with the naval service had the fleet contained many freeholders like John Barnes. Granted leave of absence from his ship, the _Neptune,_ early in May, “in order to give his vote in the city,” he “return’d not till the 8th of August.”–_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2653–Capt. Whorwood, 23 Aug. 1741.] There is no knowing a Freeholder by sight: and if claiming that character, or even showing deeds is sufficient, few Sailors will be without it.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 299–Law Officers’ Opinions, 1756-77, No. 64.]
Backed by this opinion, so nicely in keeping with its own inclinations, the Admiralty kept the man. Its views, like its practice, had undergone an antipodal change since the Kingston incident of fifty years before. And possession, commonly reputed to be nine points of the law, more than made up for the lack of that element in Mr. Attorney-General’s sophistical reasoning.
In this respect Thurlow was in good company, for although Coke, who lived before violent pressing became the rule, had given it as his opinion that the king could not lawfully press men to serve him in his wars, the legal luminaries who came after him, and more particularly those of the eighteenth century, differed from him almost to a man. Blackstone, whilst admitting that no statute expressly legalised pressing, reminded the nation–with a leer, we might almost say–that many statutes strongly implied, and hence–so he put it–amply justified it. In thus begging the question he had in mind the so-called Statutes of Exemption which, in protecting from impressment certain persons or classes of persons, proceeded on the assumption, so dear to the Sea Lords, that the Crown possessed the right to press all. This also was the view taken by Yorke, Solicitor-General in 1757. “I take the prerogative,” he declares, “to be most clearly legal.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 298–Law Officers’ Opinions, 1733-56, No. 102.]
Another group of lawyers took similar, though less exalted ground. Of these the most eminent was that “great oracle of law,” Lord Mansfield. “The power of pressing,” he contends, “is founded upon immemorial usage allowed for ages. If not, it can have no ground to stand upon. The practice is deduced from that trite maxim of the Constitutional Law of England, that private mischief had better be submitted to than that public detriment should ensue.”
The sea-lawyer had yet to be heard. With him “private mischief” counted for much, the usage of past ages for very little. He lived and suffered in the present. Of common law he knew nothing, but he possessed a fine appreciation of common justice, and this forced from him an indictment of the system that held him in thrall as scathing in its truth, its simplicity and its logic as it is spontaneous and untutored in its diction.
“You confidently tell us,” said he, dipping his pen in the gall of bitterness, “that our King is a father to us and our officers friends. They are so, we must confess, in some respects, for Indeed they use us like Children in Whiping us into Obedience. As for English Tars to be the Legitimate Sons of Liberty, it is an Old Cry which we have Experienced and Knows it to be False. God knows, the Constitution is admirable well Callculated for the Safety and Happiness of His Majesty’s Subjects who live by Employments on Shore; but alass, we are not Considered as Subjects of the same Sovereign, unless it be to Drag us by Force from our Families to Fight the Battles of a Country which Refuses us Protection.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5125–Petitions of the Seamen of the Fleet, 1797.]
Such, in rough outline, was the Impress System of the eighteenth century. In its inception, its development, and more especially in its extraordinary culmination, it perhaps constitutes the greatest anomaly, as it undoubtedly constitutes the grossest imposition, any free people ever submitted to. Although unlawful in the sense of having no foundation in law, and oppressive and unjust in that it yearly enslaved, under the most noxious conditions, thousands against their will, it was nevertheless for more than a hundred years tolerated and fostered as the readiest, speediest and most effective means humanly devisable for the manning of a fleet whose toll upon a free people, in the same period of time, swelled to more than thrice its original bulk. Standing as a bulwark against aggression and conquest, it ground under its heel the very people it protected, and made them slaves in order to keep them free. Masquerading as a protector, it dragged the wage-earner from his home and cast his starving family upon the doubtful mercies of the parish. And as if this were not enough, whilst justifying its existence on the score of public benefit it played havoc with the fisheries, clipped the wings of the merchant service, and sucked the life-blood out of trade.
It was on the rising tide of such egregious contradictions as these that the press-gang came in; for the press-gang was at once the embodiment and the active exponent of all that was anomalous or bad in the Impress System.
WHY THE GANG WAS NECESSARY.
The root of the necessity that seized the British sailor and made of him what he in time became, the most abject creature and the most efficient fighting unit the world has ever produced, lay in the fact that he was island-born.
In that island a great and vigorous people had sprung into being–a people great in their ambitions, commerce and dominion; vigorous in holding what they had won against the assaults, meditated or actual, of those who envied their greatness and coveted their possessions. Of this island people, as of their world-wide interests, the “chiefest defence” was a “good fleet at sea.” [Footnote: This famous phrase is used, perhaps for the first time, by Josiah Burchett, sometime Secretary to the Admiralty, in his _Observations on the Navy_, 1700.]
The Peace of Utrecht, marking though it did the close of the protracted war of the Spanish Succession, brought to the Island Kingdom not peace, but a sword; for although its Navy was now as unrivalled as its commerce and empire, the supreme struggle for existence, under the guise of the mastery of the sea, was only just begun. Decade after decade, as that struggle waxed and waned but went remorselessly on, the Navy grew in ships, the ships in tonnage and weight of metal, and with their growth the demand for men, imperative as the very existence of the nation, mounted ever higher and higher. In 1756 fifty thousand sufficed for the nation’s needs. By 1780 the number had reached ninety-two thousand; and with 1802 it touched high-water mark in the unprecedented total of one hundred and twenty-nine thousand men in actual sea pay. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 567-Navy Progress, 1756-1805. These figures are below rather than above the mark, since the official returns on which they are based are admittedly deficient.]
Beset by this enormous and steadily growing demand, the Admiralty, the defensive proxy of the nation, had perforce to face the question as to where and how the men were to be obtained.
The source of supply was never at any time in doubt. Here, ready to hand, were some hundreds of thousands of persons using the sea, or following vocations merging into the sea in the capacity of colliers, bargemen, boatmen, longshoremen, fishermen and deep-sea sailors or merchantmen, who constituted the natural Naval Reserve of an Island Kingdom–a reserve ample, if judiciously drawn upon, to meet, and more than meet, the Navy’s every need.
The question of means was one more complicated, more delicate, and hence incomparably more difficult of solution. To draw largely upon these seafaring classes, numerous and fit though they were, meant detriment to trade, and if the Navy was the fist, trade was the backbone of the nation. The sufferings of trade, moreover, reacted unpleasantly upon those in power at Whitehall. Methods of procuration must therefore be devised of a nature such as to insure that neither trade nor Admiralty should suffer–that they should, in fact, enjoy what the unfortunate sailor never knew, some reasonable measure of ease.
In its efforts to extricate itself and trade from the complex difficulties of the situation, Admiralty had at its back what an eighteenth century Beresford would doubtless have regarded as the finest talent of the service. Neither the unemployed admiral nor the half-pay captain had at that time, in his enforced retirement at Bath or Cheltenham, taken seriously to parliamenteering, company promoting, or the concocting of pedigrees as a substitute for walking the quarter-deck. His occupation was indeed gone, but in its stead there had come to him what he had rarely enjoyed whilst on the active service list–opportunity. Carried away by the stimulus of so unprecedented a situation as that afforded by the chance to make himself heard, he rushed into print with projects and suggestions which would have revolutionised the naval policy and defence of the country at a stroke had they been carried into effect. Or he devoted his leisure to the invention of signal codes, semaphore systems, embryo torpedoes, gun carriages, and–what is more to our point–methods ostensibly calculated to man the fleet in the easiest, least oppressive and most expeditious manner possible for a free people. Armed with these schemes, he bombarded the Admiralty with all the pertinacity he had shown in his quarter-deck days in applying for leave or seeking promotion. Many, perhaps most, of the inventions which it was thus sought to father upon the Sea Lords, were happily never more heard of; but here and there one, commending itself by its seeming practicability, was selected for trial and duly put to the test.
Fair to look upon while still in the air, these fruits of leisured superannuation proved deceptively unsound when plucked by the hand of experiment. Registration, first adopted in 1696, held out undeniable advantages to the seaman. Under its provisions he drew a yearly allowance when not required at sea, and extra prize-money when on active service. Yet the bait did not tempt him, and the system was soon discarded as useless and inoperative. Bounty, defined by some sentimentalist as a “bribe to Neptune,” for a while made a stronger appeal; but, ranging as it did from five to almost any number of pounds under one hundred per head, it proved a bribe indeed, and by putting an irresistible premium on desertion threatened to decimate the very ships it was intended to man. In 1795 what was commonly known as the Quota Scheme superseded it. This was a plan of Pitt’s devising, under which each county contributed to the fleet according to its population, the quota varying from one thousand and eighty-one men for Yorkshire to twenty-three for Rutland, whilst a minor Act levied special toll on seaports, London leading the way with five thousand seven hundred and four men. Like its predecessor Bounty, however, this mode of recruiting drained the Navy in order to feed it. Both systems, moreover, possessed another and more serious defect. When their initial enthusiasm had cooled, the counties, perhaps from force of habit as component parts of a country whose backbone was trade, bought in the cheapest market. Hence the Quota Man, consisting as he generally did of the offscourings of the merchant service, was seldom or never worth the money paid for him. An old man-o’-war’s-man, picking up a miserable specimen of this class of recruit by the slack of his ragged breeches, remarked to his grinning messmates as he dangled the disreputable object before their eyes: “‘Ere’s a lubber as cost a guinea a pound!” He was not far out in his estimate.
As in the case of the good old method of recruiting by beat of drum and the lure of the king’s shilling, system after system thus failed to draw into its net, however speciously that net was spread, either the class or the number of men whose services it was desired to requisition. And whilst these futilities were working out their own condemnation the stormcloud of necessity grew bigger and bigger on the national horizon. Let trade suffer as it might, there was nothing for it but to discard all new-fangled notions and to revert to the system which the usage of ages had sanctioned. The return was imperative. Failing what Junius stigmatised as the “spur of the Press,” the right men in the right numbers were not to be procured. The wisdom of the nation was at fault. It could find no other way.
There were, moreover, other reasons why the press-gang was to the Navy an indispensable appendage–reasons perhaps of little moment singly, but of tremendous weight in the scale of naval necessity when lumped together and taken in the aggregate.
Of these the most prominent was that fatal flaw in naval administration which Nelson was in the habit of anathematising as the “Infernal System.” Due partly to lack of foresight and false economy at Whitehall, partly to the character of the sailor himself, it resolved itself into this, that whenever a ship was paid off and put out of commission, all on board of her, excepting only her captain and her lieutenants, ceased to be officially connected with the Navy. Now, as ships were for various reasons constantly going out of commission, and as the paying off of a first-second-or third-rate automatically discharged from their country’s employ a body of men many hundreds in number, the “lowering” effects of such a system, working year in, year out, upon a fleet always in chronic difficulties for men, may be more readily imagined than described.
To a certain limited extent the loss to the service was minimised by a process called “turning over”; that is to say, the company of a ship paying off was turned over bodily, or as nearly intact as it was possible to preserve it, to another ship which at the moment chanced to be ready, or making ready, for sea. Or it might be that the commander of a ship paying off, transferred to another ship fitting out, carried the best men of his late command, commonly known as “old standers,” along with him.
Unfortunately, the occasion of fitting out did not always coincide with the occasion of paying off; and although turnovers were frequently made by Admiralty order, there were serious obstacles in the way of their becoming general. Once the men were paid off, the Admiralty had no further hold upon them. By a stretch of authority they might, it is true, be confined to quarters or on board a guardship; but if in these circumstances they rose in a body and got ashore, they could neither be retaken nor punished as deserters, but–to use the good old service term–had to be “rose” again by means of the press-gang. Turnovers, accordingly, depended mainly upon two closely related circumstances: the goodwill of the men, and the popularity of commanders. A captain who was notorious for his use of the lash or the irons, or who was reputed unlucky, rarely if ever got a turnover except by the adoption of the most stringent measures. One who, on the other hand, treated his men with common humanity, who bested the enemy in fair fight and sent rich prizes into port, never wanted for “followers,” and rarely, if ever, had recourse to the gang. [Footnote: In his Autobiography Lord Dundonald asserts that he was only once obliged to resort to pressing–a statement so remarkable, considering the times he lived in, as to call for explanation. The occasion was when, returning from a year’s “exile in a tub,” a converted collier that “sailed like a hay-stack,” he fitted out the _Pallas_ at Portsmouth and could obtain no volunteers. Setting his gangs to work, he got together a scratch crew of the wretchedest description; yet so marvellous were the personality and disciplinary ability of the man, that with only this unpromising material ready to his hand he intercepted the Spanish trade off Cape Finisterre and captured four successive prizes of very great value. The _Pallas_ returned to Portsmouth with “three large golden candlesticks, each about five feet high, placed upon the mast-heads,” and from that time onward Dundonald’s reputation as a “lucky” commander was made. He never again had occasion to invoke the aid of the gang.] Under such men the seaman would gladly serve “even in a dung barge.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2733–Capt. Young, 28 Sept. 1776.] Unhappily for the service, such commanders were comparatively few, and in their absence the Infernal System drained the Navy of its best blood and accentuated a hundred-fold the already overwhelming need for the impress.
The old-time sailor, [Footnote: The use of the word “sailor” was long regarded with disfavour by the Navy Board, who saw in it only a colourless substitute for the good old terms “seaman” and “mariner.” Capt. Bertie, of the _Ruby_ gunship, once reported the pressing of a “sailor,” Thomas Letting by name, out of a collier in Yarmouth Roads, and was called upon by My Lords to define the new-fangled term. This he did with admirable circumlocution. “As for explaining the word ‘sailor,'” said he, “I can doe it no otherwise than (by) letting of you know that Thomas Letting is a Sailor.”–_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1468–Capt. Bertie, 6 May 1706.] again, was essentially a creature of contradictions. Notorious for a “swearing rogue,” who punctuated his strange sea-lingo with horrid oaths and appalling blasphemies, he made the responses required by the services of his Church with all the superstitious awe and tender piety of a child. Inconspicuous for his thrift or “forehandedness,” it was nevertheless a common circumstance with him to have hundreds of pounds, in pay and prize-money, to his credit at his bankers, the Navy Pay-Office; and though during a voyage he earned his money as hardly as a horse, and was as poor as a church mouse, yet the moment he stepped ashore he made it fly by the handful and squandered it, as the saying went, like an ass. When he was sober, which was seldom enough provided he could obtain drink, he possessed scarcely a rag to his back; but when he was drunk he was himself the first to acknowledge that he had “too many cloths in the wind.” According to his own showing, his wishes in life were limited to three: “An island of tobacco, a river of rum, and–more rum;” but according to those who knew him better than he knew himself, he would at any time sacrifice all three, together with everything else he possessed, for the gratification of a fourth and unconfessed desire, the dearest wish of his life, woman. Ward’s description of him, slightly paraphrased, fits him to a hair: “A salt-water vagabond, who is never at home but when he is at sea, and never contented but when he is ashore; never at ease until he has drawn his pay, and never satisfied until he has spent it; and when his pocket is empty he is just as much respected as a father-in-law is when he has beggared himself to give a good portion with his daughter.” [Footnote: Ward, _Wooden World Dissected_, 1744.] With all this he was brave beyond belief on the deck of a ship, timid to the point of cowardice on the back of a horse; and although he fought to a victorious finish many of his country’s most desperate fights, and did more than any other man of his time to make her the great nation she became, yet his roving life robbed him of his patriotism and made it necessary to wring from him by violent means the allegiance he shirked. It was at this point that he came in contact with what he hated most in life, yet dearly loved to dodge–the press-gang.
That such a creature of contradictions should be averse from serving the country he loved is perhaps the most consistent trait in his character; for here at least the sailor had substantial grounds for his inconsistency.
For one thing, his aversion to naval service was as old as the Navy itself, having grown with its growth. We have seen in what manner King John was obliged to admonish the sailor in order to induce him to take his prest-money; and Edward III., referring to his attitude in the fourteenth century, is said to have summed up the situation in the pregnant words: “There is navy enough in England, were there only the will.” Raleigh, recalling with bitterness of soul those glorious Elizabethan days when no adventurer ever dreamt of pressing, scoffed at the seamen of King James’s time as degenerates who went on board a man-of-war “with as great a grudging as if it were to be slaves in the galleys.” A hundred years did not improve matters. The sailors of Queen Anne entered her ships like men “dragged to execution.” [Footnote: Justice, _Dominion and Laws of the Sea_, 1705, Appendix on Pressing.]
In the merchant service, where the sailor received his initiation into the art and mystery of the sea, life during the period under review, and indeed for long after, was hard enough in all conscience. Systematic and unspeakably inhuman brutality made the merchant seaman’s lot a daily inferno. Traders sailing out of Liverpool, Bristol and a score of other British ports depended almost entirely for their crews upon drugged rum, so evil was their reputation in this respect amongst seafaring men. In the East India Company’s ships, even, the conditions were little short of unendurable. Men had rather be hanged than sail to the Indies in them. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1463, 1472–Letters of Captains Bouler and Billingsley, and numerous instances.]
Of all these bitternesses the sailor tasted freely. Cosmopolite that he was, he wandered far a-sea and incurred the blows and curses of many masters, happy if, amid his manifold tribulations, he could still call his soul his own. Just here, indeed, was where the shoe of naval service pinched him most sorely; for though upon the whole life on board a man-of-war was not many shades worse than life aboard a trader, it yet introduced into his already sadly circumscribed vista of happiness the additional element of absolute loss of free-will, and the additional dangers of being shot as an enemy or hanged as a deserter. These additional things, the littles that yet meant so much, bred in him a hatred of the service so implacable that nothing less drastic than the warrant and the hanger could cope with or subdue it. Eradicated it never was.
The keynote to the sailor’s treatment in the Navy may be said to have been profane abuse. Officers of all ranks kept the Recording Angel fearfully busy. With scarcely an exception they were men of blunt speech and rough tongue who never hesitated to call a spade a spade, and the ordinary seaman something many degrees worse. These were technicalities of the service which had neither use nor meaning elsewhere. But to the navigation of the ship, to daily routine and the maintenance of that exact discipline on which the Navy prided itself, they were as essential as is milk to the making of cheese. Nothing could be done without them. Decent language was thrown away upon a set of fellows who had been bred in that very shambles of language, the merchant marine. To them “’twas just all the same as High Dutch.” They neither understood it nor appreciated its force. But a volley of thumping oaths, bellowed at them from the brazen throat of a speaking-trumpet, and freely interlarded with adjectives expressive of the foulness of their persons, and the ultimate state and destination of their eyes and limbs, saved the situation and sometimes the ship. Officers addicted to this necessary flow of language were sensible of only one restraint. Visiting parties caused them embarrassment, and when this was the case they fell back upon the tactics of the commander who, unable to express himself with his usual fluency because of the presence of ladies on the quarter-deck, hailed the foreyard-arm in some such terms as these: “Foreyard-arm there! God bless you! God bless you! God bless you! _You know what I mean!_”
Hard words break no bones, and to quarter-deck language, as such, the sailor entertained no rooted objection. What he did object to, and object to with all the dogged insistence of his nature, was the fact that this habitual flow of profane scurrility was only the prelude to what, with grim pleasantry, he was accustomed to describe as “serving out slops.” Anything intended to cover his back was “slops” to the sailor, and the punishments meted out to him covered him like a garment.
The old code of naval laws, the _Monumenta Juridica_ or _Black Book_ of the Admiralty, contained many curious disciplinary methods, not a few of which too long survived the age they originated in. If, for instance, one sailor robbed another and was found guilty of the crime, boiling pitch was poured over his head and he was powdered with feathers “to mark him,” after which he was marooned on the first island the ship fell in with. Seamen guilty of undressing themselves while at sea were ducked three times from the yard-arm–a more humane use of that spar than converting it into a gallows. On this code were based Admiral the Earl of Lindsay’s “Instructions” of 1695. These included ducking, keel-hauling, fasting, flogging, weighting until the “heart or back be ready to break,” and “gogging” or scraping the tongue with hoop-iron for obscene or profane swearing; for although the “gentlemen of the quarter-deck” might swear to their heart’s content, that form of recreation was strictly taboo in other parts of the ship. Here we have the origin of the brutal discipline of the next century, summed up in the Consolidation Act of George II. [Footnote: 22 George II. c. 33.]–an Act wherein ten out of thirty-six articles awarded capital punishment without option, and twelve death or minor penalties.
Of the latter, the one most commonly in use was flogging at the gangway or jears. This duty fell to the lot of the boatswain’s mate. [Footnote: “As it is the Custom of the Army to punish with the Drums, so it is the known Practice of the Navy to punish with the Boatswain’s Mate.”–_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1482–Capt. (afterwards Admiral) Boscawen, 25 Feb. 1746-7.] The instrument employed was the cat-o’-nine-tails, the regulation dose twelve lashes; but since the actual number was left to the captain’s discretion or malice, as the case might be, it not infrequently ran into three figures. Thus John Watts, able seaman on board H.M.S. _Harwich,_ Capt. Andrew Douglas commander, in 1704 received one hundred and seventy lashes for striking a shipmate in self-defence, his captain meanwhile standing by and exhorting the boatswain’s mate to “Swinge the Dog, for hee has a Tough Hide”–and that, too, with a cat waxed to make it bite the harder. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5265–Courts-Martial, 1704-5.]
It was just this unearned increment of blows–this dash of bitter added to the regulation cup–that made Jack’s gorge rise. He was not the sort of chap, it must be confessed, to be ruled with a feather. “An impudent rascal” at the best of times, he often “deserved a great deal and had but little.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1472–Capt. Balchen, 26 Jan. 1716-7.] But unmerited punishment, too often devilishly devised, maliciously inflicted and inhumanly carried out, broke the back of his sense of justice, already sadly overstrained, and inspired him with a mortal hatred of all things naval.
For the slightest offence he was “drubbed at the gears”; for serious offences, from ship to ship. If, when reefing topsails on a dark night or in the teeth 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 yardsmen were flogged _en bloc_. He was made to run the gauntlet, often with the blood gushing from nose and ears as the result of a previous dose of the cat, until he fell to the deck comatose and at the point of death. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1466–Complaint of ye Abuse of a Sayler in the _Litchfield_, 1704. In this case the man actually died.] Logs of wood were bound to his legs as shackles, and whatever the nature of his offence, he invariably began his expiation of it, the preliminary canter, so to speak, in irons. If he had a lame leg or a bad foot, he was “started” with a rope’s-end as a “slacker.” If he happened to be the last to tumble up when his watch was called, the rattan [Footnote: Carried at one time by both commissioned and warrant officers.] raised weals on his back or drew blood from his head; and, as if to add insult to injury, for any of these, and a hundred and one other offences, he was liable to be black-listed and to lose his allowance of grog.
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 in 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 Doggs than Men.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1435–Capt. Aldred, 29 Feb. 1703-4.] One of the _Nymph’s_ company, in or about the year 1797, received three dozen for what was officially termed “Silent Contempt”–“which was nothing more than this, that when flogged by the boatswain’s mate the man smiled.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5125–Petitions, 1793-7.] This was the “Unpardonable Crime” of the service.
Contrariwise, a man was beaten if he sulked. And as a rule the sailor was sulky enough. Works of supererogation, such as polishing everything polishable–the shot for the guns, in extreme cases, not even excepted–until it shone like the tropical sun at noonday, left him little leisure or inclination for mirth. “Very pretty to look at,” said Wellington, when confronted with these glaring evidences of hyper-discipline, “but there is one thing wanting. I have not seen a bright face in the ship.”
A painful tale of discipline run mad, or nearly so, is unfolded by that fascinating series of sailor-records, the Admiralty Petitions. Many of them, it must in justice be owned, bear unqualified testimony to the kindness and humanity of officers; but in the great majority of cases the evidence they adduce is overwhelmingly to the contrary. And if their language is sometimes bombastic, if their style is almost uniformly illiterate, if they are the productions of a band of mutinous dogs standing out for rights which they never possessed and deserving of a halter rather than a hearing, these are circumstances that do not in the least detract from the veracity of the allegations they advance. The sailor appealed to his king, or to the Admiralty, “the same as a child to its father”; and no one who peruses the story of his wrongs, as set forth in these documents, can doubt for a moment that he speaks the truth with all a child’s simplicity.
The seamen of the _Reunion_ open the tale of oppression and ill-usage. “Our Captain oblidges us to Wash our Linnen twice a week in Salt Water and to put 2 Shirts on every Week, and if they do not look as Clean as if they were washed in Fresh Water, he stops the person’s Grog which has the misfortune to displease him; and if our Hair is not Tyd to please him, he orders it to be Cutt Off.” On the _Amphitrite_ “flogging is their portion.” The men of the _Winchelsea_ “wold sooner be Shot at like a Targaite than to Remain.” The treatment systematically meted out to the _Shannon’s_ crew is more than the heart “can Cleaverly Bear”–enough, in short, to make them “rise and Steer the Ship into an Enemies Port.” The seamen of the _Glory_ are made wretched by “beating, blacking, tarring, putting our heads in Bags,” and by being forced to “drink half a Gallon of Salt Water” for the most trivial breaches of discipline or decorum. On the _Blanch,_ if they get wet and hang or spread their clothes to dry, the captain “thros them overboard.” The _Nassau’s_ company find it impossible to put the abuse they receive on paper. It is “above Humanity.” Though put on board to fight for king and country, they are used worse than dogs. They have no encouragement to “face the Enemy with a chearful Heart.” Besides being kept “more like Convicts than free-born Britons,” the _Nymph’s_ company have an unspeakable grievance. “When Engaged with the Enemy off Brest, March the 9th, 1797, they even Beat us at our Quarters, though on the Verge of Eternity.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5l25–Petitions, 1793-7.]
On the principle advanced by Rochefoucault, that there is something not displeasing to us in the misfortunes of our friends, the sailor doubtless derived a sort of negative satisfaction from the fact that he was not the only one on shipboard liable to the pains and penalties of irascibility, brutality and excessive disciplinary zeal. Particularly was this true of his special friend the “sky-pilot” or chaplain, that super-person who perhaps most often fell a victim to quarter-deck ebullitions. Notably there is on record the case of one John Cruickshank, chaplain of H.M.S. _Assurance,_ who was clapped in irons, court-martialled and dismissed the service merely because he happened to take–what no sailor could ever condemn him for-a drop too much, and whilst in that condition insisted on preaching to the ship’s company when they were on the very point of going into action. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 5265–Courts-Martial, 1704-5. His zeal was unusual. Most naval chaplains thought “of nothing more than making His Majesty’s ships sinecures”] There is also that other case of the “saucy Surgeon of the _Seahorse_” who incurred his captain’s dire displeasure all on account of candles, of which necessary articles he, having his wife on board, thought himself entitled to a more liberal share than was consistent with strict naval economy; and who was, moreover, so “troblesome about his Provisions, that if he did not always Chuse out of ye best in ye whole Ship,” he straightway got his back up and “threatened to Murder the Steward.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1470–Capt. Blowers, 3 Jan. 1710-11.] Such interludes as these would assuredly have proved highly diverting to the foremast-man had it not been for the cat and that savage litter of minor punishments awaiting the man who smiled.
In the matter of provisions, there can be little doubt that the sailor shared to the full the desire evinced by the surgeon of the _Seahorse_ to take blood-vengeance upon someone on account of them. His “belly-timber,” as old Misson so aptly if indelicately describes it, was mostly worm-eaten or rotten, his drink indescribably nasty.
Charles II. is said to have made his breakfast off ship’s diet the morning he left the _Naseby,_ and to have pronounced it good; and Nelson in 1803 declared it “could not possibly be improved upon.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 580-Memorandum on the State of the Fleet, 1803.] Such, however, was not the opinion of the chaplain of the _Dartmouth,_ for after dining with his captain on an occasion which deserves to become historic, he swore that “although he liked that Sort of Living very well, as for the King’s Allowance there was but a Sheat of Browne Paper between it and Hell.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1464–Misdemenors Comited by Mr Edward Lewis, Chapling on Board H. M. Shipp Dartmouth, 1 Oct. 1702.] Which of these opinions came nearest to the truth, the sequel will serve to show.
On the face of it the sailor’s dietary was not so bad. A ship’s stores, in 1719, included ostensibly such items as bread, wine, beef, pork, peas, oatmeal, butter, cheese, water and beer, and if Jack had but had his fair share of these commodities, and had it in decent condition, he would have had little reason to grumble about the king’s allowance. Unhappily for him, the humanities of diet were little studied by the Victualling Board.
Taking the beef, the staple article of consumption on shipboard, cooking caused it to shrink as much as 45 per cent., thus reducing the sailor’s allowance by nearly one-half. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1495–Capt. Barrington, 23 Dec. 1770.] The residuum was often “mere carrion,” totally unfit for human consumption. “Junk,” the sailor contemptuously called it, likening it, in point of texture, digestibility and nutritive properties, to the product of picked oakum, which it in many respects strongly resembled. The pork, though it lost less in the cooking, was rancid, putrid stuff, repellent in odour and colour-particulars in which it found close competitors in the butter and cheese, which had often to be thrown overboard because they “stunk the ship.” [Footnote: To disinfect a ship after she had been fouled by putrid rations or disease, burning sulphur and vinegar were commonly employed. Their use was preferable to the means adopted by the carpenter of the _Feversham_, who in order to “sweeten ship” once “turn’d on the cock in the hould” and through forgetfulness “left it running for eighteen howers,” thereby not only endangering the vessel’s safety, but incidentally spoiling twenty-one barrels of powder in the magazine.–_Admiralty Records_ 1. 2653–Capt. Watson, 18 April 1741.] The peas “would not break.” Boiled for eight hours on end, they came through the ordeal “almost as hard as shott.” Only the biscuit, apart from the butter and cheese, possessed the quality of softness. Damp, sea-water, mildew and weevil converted “hard” into “soft tack” and added another horror to the sailor’s mess. The water he washed these varied abominations down with was frequently “stuff that beasts would cough at.” His beer was no better. It would not keep, and was in consequence both “stinking and sour.” [Footnote: According to Raleigh, old oil and fish casks were used for the storing of ship’s beer in Elizabeth’s reign.] Although the contractor was obliged to make oath that he had used both malt and hops in the brewing, it often consisted of nothing more stimulating than “water coloured and bittered,” and sometimes the “stingy dog of a brewer” even went so far as to omit the “wormwood.”
Such a dietary as this made a meal only an unavoidable part of the day’s punishment and inspired the sailor with profound loathing. “Good Eating is an infallible Antidote against murmuring, as many a Big-Belly Place-Man can instance,” he says in one of his petitions. Poor fellow! his opportunities of putting it to the test were few enough. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the so-called Banyan days of the service, when his hateful ration of meat was withheld and in its stead he regaled himself on plum-duff–the “plums,” according to an old regulation, “not worse than Malaga”–he had a taste of it. Hence the banyan day, though in reality a fast-day, became indelibly associated in his simple mind and vocabulary with occasions of feasting and plenty, and so remains to this day.
If the sailor’s only delicacy was duff, his only comforts were rum and tobacco, and to explore some unknown island, and discover therein a goodly river of the famous Jamaica spirit, flowing deep and fragrant between towering mountains of “pig tail,” is commonly reputed to have been the cherished wish of his heart. With tobacco the Navy Board did not provide him, nor afford dishonest pursers opportunity to “make dead men chew,” [Footnote: Said of pursers who manipulated the Muster Books, which it was part of their duty to keep, in such a way as to make it appear that men “discharged dead” had drawn a larger quantity of tobacco than was actually the case, the difference in value of course going into their own pockets.] until 1798; but rum they allowed him at a comparatively early date. When sickness prevailed on board, when beer ran short or had to be turned over the side to preserve a sweet ship, rum or wine was issued, and although the Admiralty at first looked askance at the innovation, and at times left commanders of ships to foot the bill for spirits thus served out, the practice made gradual headway, until at length it ousted beer altogether and received the stamp of official approval. Half a pint, dealt out each morning and evening in equal portions, was the regular allowance–a quantity often doubled were the weather unusually severe or the men engaged in the arduous duty of watering ship. At first the ration of rum was served neat and appreciated accordingly; but about 1740 the practice of adding water was introduced. This was Admiral Vernon’s doing. Vernon was best known to his men as “Old Grog,” a nickname originating in a famous grogram coat he affected in dirty weather; and as the rum and water now served out to them was little to their liking, they marked their disapproval of the mixture, as well as of the man who invented it, by dubbing it “grog.” The sailor was not without his sense of humour.
The worst feature of rum, from the sailor’s point of view, worse by far than dilution, was the fact that it could be so easily stopped. Here his partiality for the spirit told heavily against him. His grog was stopped because he liked it, rather than because he deserved to lose it. The malice of the thing did not make for a contented ship.
The life of the man-o’-war’s-man, according to Lord Nelson, was on an average “finished at forty-five years.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 580–Memorandum on the State of the Fleet, 1803.] Bad food and strenuous labour under exceptionally trying conditions sapped his vitals, made him prematurely old, and exposed him to a host of ills peculiar to his vocation. He “fell down daily,” to employ the old formula, in spotted or putrid fevers. He was racked by agues, distorted by rheumatic pains, ruptured or double-ruptured by the strain of pulling, hauling and lifting heavy weights. He ate no meal without incurring the pangs of acute indigestion, to which he was fearfully subject. He was liable to a “prodigious inflammation of the head, nose and eyes,” occasioned by exposure. Scurvy, his most inveterate and merciless enemy, “beat up” for him on every voyage and dragged his brine-sodden body down to a lingering death. Or, did he escape these dangers and a watery grave, protracted disease sooner or later rendered him helpless, or a brush with the enemy disabled him for ever from earning his bread.
His surgeons were, as a rule, a sorry lot. Not only were they deficient in numbers, they commonly lacked both professional training and skill. Their methods were consequently of the crudest description, and long continued so. The approved treatment for rupture, to which the sailor was painfully liable, was to hang the patient up by the heels until the prolapsus was reduced. Pepys relates how he met a seaman returning from fighting the Dutch with his eye-socket “stopped with oakum,” and as late at least as the Battle of Trafalgar it was customary, in amputations, to treat the bleeding stump with boiling pitch as a cauterant. In his general attitude towards the sick and wounded the old-time naval surgeon was not unlike Garth, Queen Anne’s famous physician. At the Kit Cat Club he one day sat so long over his wine that Steele ventured to remind him of his patients. “No matter,” said Garth. “Nine have such bad constitutions that no physician can save them, and the other six such good ones that all the physicans in the world could not kill them.”
Many were the devices resorted to in order to keep the man-o’-war’s-man healthy and fit. As early as 1602 a magic electuary, invented by one “Doctor Cogbourne, famous for fluxes,” was by direction of the Navy Commissioners supplied for his use in the West Indies. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1464–Capt. Barker, 14 Oct. 1702.] By Admiral Vernon and his commanders he was dosed freely with “Elixir of Vitriol,” which they not only “reckoned the best general medicine next to rhubarb,” but pinned their faith to as a sovereign specific for scurvy and fevers. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 161–Admiral Vernon, 31 Oct. 1741.] Lime-juice, known as a valuable anti-scorbutic as early as the days of Drake and Raleigh, was not added to his rations till 1795. He did not find it very palatable. The secret of fortifying it was unknown, and oil had to be floated on its surface to make it keep. Sour-crout was much more to his taste as a preventive of scurvy, and in 1777, at the request of Admiral Montagu, then Governor and Commander-in-Chief over the Island of Newfoundland, the Admiralty caused to be sent out, for the use of the squadron on that station, where vegetables were unprocurable, a sufficient quantity of that succulent preparation to supply twelve hundred men for a period of two months. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 471–Admiral Montagu, 28 Feb. 1777, and endorsement.]
Rice the sailor detested. Of all species of “soft tack” it was least to his liking. He nicknamed it “strike-me-blind,” being firmly convinced that its continued use would rob him of his eyesight. Tea was not added to his dietary till 1824, but as early as 1795 he could regale himself on cocoa. For the rest, sugar, essence of malt, essence of spruce, mustard, cloves, opium and “Jesuits'” or Peruvian bark were considered essential to his well-being on shipboard. He was further allowed a barber-one to every hundred men-without whose attentions it was found impossible to keep him “clean and healthy.”
With books he was for many years “very scantily supplied.” It was not till 1812, indeed, that the Admiralty, shocked by the discovery that he had practically nothing to elevate his mind but daily association with the quarter-deck, began to pour into the fleet copious supplies of literature for his use. Thereafter the sailor could beguile his leisure with such books as the _Old Chaplains Farewell Letter_, Wilson’s _Maxims, The Whole Duty of Man_, Seeker’s _Duties of the Sick_, and, lest returning health should dissipate the piety begotten of his ailments, Gibson’s _Advice after Sickness_. Thousands of pounds were spent upon this improving literature, which was distributed to the fleet in strict accordance with the amount of storage room available at the various dockyards. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ Accountant-General, Misc. (Various), No. l06–Accounts of the Rev. Archdeacon Owen, Chaplain-General to the Fleet, 1812-7.]
A fundamental principle of man-o’-war routine was that the sailor formed no part of it for hospital purposes. Hence sickness was not encouraged. If the sailor-patient did not recover within a reasonable time, he was “put on shore sick,” sometimes to the great terror of the populace, who, were he supposed to be afflicted with an infectious disease, fled from him “as if he had the plague.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2732–Capt. Young, 24 June 1740.] On shore he was treated for thirty days at his country’s charges. If incurable, or permanently disabled, he was then turned adrift and left to shift for himself. A clean record and a sufficiently serious wound entitled him to a small pension or admission to Greenwich Hospital, an institution which had religiously docked his small pay of sixpence a month throughout his entire service. Failing these, there remained for him only the streets and the beggar’s rôle.
His pay was far from princely. From 3d. a day in the reign of King John it rose by grudging increments to 20s. a month in 1626, and 24s. in 1797. Years sometimes elapsed before he touched a penny of his earnings, except in the form of “slop” clothing and tobacco. Amongst the instances of deferred wages in which the Admiralty records abound, there may be cited the case of the _Dreadnought_, whose men in 1711 had four years’ pay due; and of the _Dunkirk_, to whose company, in the year following, six and a half years’ was owing. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1470–Capt. Bennett, 8 March 1710-11. _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1471–Capt. Butler, 19 March, 1711-12,] And at the time of the Nore Mutiny it was authoritatively stated that there were ships then in the fleet which had not been paid off for eight, ten, twelve and in one instance even fifteen years. “Keep the pay, keep the man,” was the policy of the century–a sadly mistaken policy, as we shall presently see.
In another important article of contentment the sailor was hardly better off. The system of deferred pay amounted practically to a stoppage of all leave for the period, however protracted, during which the pay was withheld. Thus the _Monmouth’s_ men had in 1706 been in the ship “almost six years, and had never had the opportunity of seeing their families but once.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1468-Capt. Baker, 3 Nov. 1706.] In Boscawen’s ship, the _Dreadnought_, there were in 1744 two hundred and fifty men who “had not set foot on shore near two year.” Admiral Penrose once paid off in a seventy-four at Plymouth, many of whose crew had “never set foot on land for six or seven years”; [Footnote: Penrose (Sir V. C., Vice-Admiral of the Blue), _Observations on Corporeal Punishment, Impressment, etc.,_ 1824.] and Brenton, in his _Naval History_, instances the case of a ship whose company, after having been eleven years in the East Indies, on returning to England were drafted straightway into another ship and sent back to that quarter of the globe without so much as an hour’s leave ashore.
What was true of pay and leave was also true of prize-money. The sailor was systematically kept out of it, and hence out of the means of enjoyment and carousal it afforded him, for inconscionable periods. From a moral point of view the check was hardly to his detriment. But the Navy was not a school of morals, and withholding the sailor’s hard-earned prize-money over an indefinite term of years neither made for a contented heart nor enhanced his love for a service that first absorbed him against his will, and then, having got him in its clutches, imposed upon and bested him at every turn.
Although the prime object in withholding his pay was to prevent his running from his ship, so far from compassing that desirable end it had exactly the contrary effect. Both the preventive and the disease were of long standing. With De Ruyter in the Thames in 1667, menacing London and the kingdom, the seamen of the fleet flocked to town in hundreds, clamouring for their wages, whilst their wives besieged the Navy Office in Seething Lane, shrieking: “This is what comes of not paying our husbands!”
Essentially a creature of contradictions, the sailor rarely, if he could avoid it, steered the course laid down for him, and in nothing perhaps was this idiosyncrasy so glaringly apparent as in his behaviour as his country’s creditor. He “would get to London if he could.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2732–Capt. Young, 12 Dec. 1742.] “An unaccountable humour” impelled him “to quit His Majesty’s service without leave.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 480–Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, 12 Sept. 1746.] Once the whim seized him, no ties of deferred pay or prize-money had power to hold him back. The one he could obtain on conditions; the other he could dispose of at a discount which, though ruinously heavy, still left him enough to frolic on.
The weapon of deferred pay was thus a two-edged one. If it hurt the sailor, it also cut the fingers of those who employed it against him. So exigent were the needs of the service, he could “run” with impunity. For if he ran whilst his pay was in arrears, he did so with the full knowledge that, barring untimely recapture by the press-gang, he would receive a free pardon, together with payment of all dues, on the sole condition, which he never kept if he could help it, of returning to his ship when his money was gone. He therefore deserted for two reasons: First, to obtain his pay; second, to spend it.
The penalty for desertion, under a well-known statute of George I., [Footnote: 13 George I., art. 7.] was death by hanging. As time went on, however, discipline in this respect suffered a grave relapse, and fear of the halter no longer served to check the continual exodus from the fleet. If the runaway sailor were taken, “it would only be a whipping bout.” So he openly boasted. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1479–Capt. Boscawen, 26 April 1743.] The “bout,” it is true, at times ran to six, or even seven hundred lashes–the latter being the heaviest dose of the cat ever administered in the British navy; [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 482–Admiral Lord Colvill, 12 Nov. 1765.] but even this terrible ordeal had no power to hold the sailor to his duty, and although Admiral Lord St. Vincent, better known in his day as “hanging Jervis,” did his utmost to revive the ancient custom of stretching the sailor’s neck, the trend of the times was against him, and within twenty-five years of the reaffirming of the penalty, in the 22nd year of George II., hanging for desertion had become practically obsolete.
In the declining days of the practice a grim game at life and death was played upon the deck of a king’s ship lying in the River St. Lawrence. The year was 1760. Quebec had only recently fallen before the British onslaught. A few days before that event, at a juncture when every man in the squadron was counted upon to play his part in the coming struggle, and to play it well, three seamen, James Mike, Thomas Wilkinson and William M’Millard by name, deserted from the _Vanguard_. Retaken some months later, they were brought to trial; but as men were not easy to replace in that latitude, the court, whilst sentencing all three to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, added to their verdict a rider to the effect that it would be good policy to spare two of them. Admiral Lord Colvill, then Commander-in-Chief, issued his orders accordingly, and at eleven o’clock on the morning of the 12th of July the condemned men, preceded to the scaffold by two chaplains, were led to the _Vanguard’s_ forecastle, where they drew lots to determine which of them should die. The fatal lot fell to James Mike, who, in presence of the assembled boats of the squadron, was immediately “turned off” at the foreyard-arm. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 482–Admiral Lord Colvill, 10 July 1760; Captains’ Logs, 1026–Log of H.M.S. _Vanguard_.]
Encouraged in this grim fashion, desertion assumed alarming proportions. Nelson estimated that whenever a large convoy of merchant ships assembled at Portsmouth, at least a thousand men deserted from the fleet. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 580–Memorandum on the State of the Fleet, 1803.] This was a “liberty they would take,” do what you could to prevent it.
Of those who thus deserted fully one-third, according to the same high authority, never saw the fleet again. “From loss of clothes, drinking and other debaucheries” they were “lost by death to the country.” Some few of the remainder, after drinking His Majesty’s health in a final bowl, voluntarily returned on board and “prayed for a fair wind”; but the majority held aloof, taking their chances and their pleasures in sailorly fashion until, their last stiver gone, they fell an easy prey to the press-gang or the crimp.
While the crimp was to the merchant service what the press-gang was to the Navy, a kind of universal provider, there was in his method of preying upon the sailor a radical difference. Like his French compeer, the recruiting sergeant of the Pont Neuf in the days of Louis the Well-Beloved, wherever sailors congregated the crimp might be heard rattling his money-bags and crying: “Who wants any? Who wants any?” Where the press-gang used the hanger or the cudgel, the crimp employed dollars. The circumstance gave him a decided “pull” in the contest for men, for the dollars he offered, whether in the way of pay or bounty, were invariably fortified with rum. The two formed a contraption no sailor could resist. “Money and liquor held out to a seaman,” said Nelson, “are too much for him.”
In law the offence of enticing seamen to desert His Majesty’s service, like desertion itself, was punishable with death; [Footnote: 22 George n. cap. 33.] but in fact the penalty was either commuted to imprisonment, or the offender was dealt with summarily, without invoking the law. Crimps who were caught red-handed had short shrift. Two of the fraternity, named respectively Henry Nathan and Sampson Samuel, were once taken in the Downs. “Send Nathan and Samuel,” ran the Admiralty order in their case, “to Plymouth by the first conveyance. Admiral Young is to order them on board a ship going on foreign service as soon as possible.” Another time an officer, boarding a boat filled with men as it was making for an Indiaman at Gravesend, found in her six crimps, all of whom suffered the same fate. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1542–Capt. Bazeley, 7 Feb. 1808. _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1513–Capt. Bowater, 12 June 1796.]
Men seduced by means of crimpage bounty were said to be “silver cooped,” and the art of silver cooping was not only practised at home, it was world-wide. In whatever waters a British man-o’-war cast anchor, there the crimp appeared, plying his crafty trade. His assiduity paid a high compliment to the sterling qualities of the British seaman, but for the Navy it spelt wholesale depletion.
In home ports he was everywhere in evidence. No ship of war could lie in Leith Roads but she lost a good part of her crew through his seductions. “M’Kirdy & M’Lean, petty-fogging writers,” were the chief crimps at Greenock. Sheerness crimps gave “great advance money.” Liverpool was infested with them, all the leading merchant shippers at Bristol, London and other great ports having “agents” there, who offered the man-o’-war’s-man tempting bounties and substantial wages to induce him to desert his ship. A specially active agent of Bristol shipowners was one Vernon Ley, who plied his trade chiefly at Exeter and Plymouth, whence he was known to send to Bristol, in the space of six months, as many as seventy or eighty men, whom he provided with postchaises for the journey and 8 Pounds per man as bounty. James White, a publican who kept the “Pail of Barm” at Bedminster, made a close second in his activity and success. Spithead had its regular contingent of crimps, and many an East India ship sailing from that famous anchorage was “entirely manned” by their efforts, of course at the expense of the ships of war lying there. At Chatham, crimpage bounty varied from fifteen to twenty guineas per head; and at Cork, a favourite recruiting ground for both merchantmen and privateers, the same sum could be had any day, with high wages to boot.
In the Crown Colonies a similar state of things prevailed. Queen’s ships visiting Jamaica in or about the year 1716 lost so heavily they scarce dared venture the return voyage to England, their men having “gone a-wrecking” in the Gulf of Florida, where one armed sloop was reputed to have recovered Spanish treasure to the value of a hundred thousand dollars. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1471–Capt. Balchen, 13 May 1716.] Time did not lessen desertion in the island, though it wrought a change in the cause. When Admiral Vernon was Commander-in-Chief there in the forties, he lost five hundred men within a comparatively short time–“seduced out,” to use his own words, “through the temptations of high wages and thirty gallons of rum, and conveyed drunk on board from the punch-houses where they are seduced.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 233–Admiral Vernon, 5 Sept. 1742. A rare recruiting sheet of 1780, which has for its headpiece a volunteer shouting: “Rum for nothing!” describes Jamaica as “that delightful Island, abounding in Rum, Sugar and Spanish Dollars, where there is delicious living and plenty of GROGG and PUNCH.”]
At Louisberg, in the Island of Cape Breton, the North American Squadron in 1746 lost so many men through the seductions practised by New England skippers frequenting that port, that Townsend, the admiral in command, indited a strongly worded protest to Shirley, then Governor of Massachusetts; but the latter, though deploring the “vile behaviour” of the skippers in question, could do nothing to put a stop to it. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 480–Townsend, 17 Aug.; Shirley, 12 Sept. 1746.] As a matter of fact he did not try.
On the coast of Carolina many of the English merchantmen in 1743 paid from seventeen to twenty guineas for the run home, and in addition “as many pounds of Sugar, Gallons of Rum and pounds of Tobacco as pounds in Money.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1 1479-Capt. Bladwell, 1 July 1743.]
The lust for privateering had much to answer for in this respect. So possessed were the Virginians by the desire to get rich at the expense of their enemies that they quite “forgot their allegiance to the King.” By the offer of inordinately high wages and rich prizes they did their utmost to seduce carpenters, gunners, sailmakers and able seamen from His Majesty’s ships. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1480–Capt. Lord Alexander Banff, 21 Oct. 1744.] Any ship forced to winter at Rhode Island, again, always counted upon losing enough men to “disable her from putting to sea” when the spring came. Here, too, the privateering spirit was to blame, Rhode Island being notorious for its enterprise in that form of piracy. Another impenitent sinner in her inroads upon the companies of king’s ships was Boston, where “a sett of people made it their Business” to entice them away. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1440–Capt. Askew, 27 Aug. 1748.] No ship could clean, refit, victual or winter there without “the loss of all her men.” Capt. Young, of the _Jason_, was in 1753 left there with never a soul on board except “officers and servants, widows’ men, the quarter-deck gentlemen and those called idlers.” The rest had been seduced at 30 Pounds per head. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2732–Capt. Young, 6 Oct. 1753. The “widows’ men” here humorously alluded to would not add much to the effectiveness of the depleted company. They were imaginary sailors, borne on the ship’s books for pay and prize-money which went to Greenwich Hospital.]
So it went on. Day in, day out, at home and abroad, this ceaseless drain of men, linking hands in the decimation of the fleet with those able adjutants Disease and Death, accentuated progressively and enormously the naval needs of the country. For the apprehension and return of deserters from ships in home ports a drag-net system of rewards and conduct-money sprang into being; but this the sailor to some extent contrived to elude. He “stuck a cockade in his hat” and made shift to pass for a soldier on leave; or he laid furtive hands on a horse and set up for an equestrian traveller. In the neighbourhood of all great seaport towns, as on all main roads leading to that paradise and ultimate goal of the deserter, the metropolis, horse-stealing by sailors “on the run” prevailed to an alarming extent; and although there was a time when the law strung him up for the crime of borrowing horses to help him on his way, as it had once hanged him for deserting, the naval needs of the country eventually changed all that and brought him a permanent reprieve. Thenceforth, instead of sending the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care felon to the gallows, they turned him over to the press-gang and so re-consigned him, penniless and protesting, to the duty he detested.
WHAT THE PRESS-GANG WAS.
From the standpoint of a systematic supply of men to the fleet, the press-gang was a legitimate means to an imperative end. This was the official view. In how different a light the people came to regard the petty man-trap of power, we shall presently see.
Designed as it was for the taking up of able-bodied adults, the main idea in the formation of the gang was strength and efficiency. It was accordingly composed of the stoutest men procurable, dare-devil fellows capable of giving a good account of themselves in fight, or of carrying off their unwilling prey against long odds. Brute strength combined with animal courage being thus the first requisite of the ganger, it followed–not perhaps as a matter of course so much as a matter of fact–that his other qualities were seldom such as to endear him to the people. Wilkes denounced him for a “lawless ruffian,” and one of the newspapers of his time describes him, with commendable candour and undeniable truth, as a “profligate and abandoned wretch, perpetually lounging about the streets and incessantly vomiting out oaths and horrid curses.” [Footnote: _London Chronicle,_ 16 March 1762.]
The getting of a gang together presented little difficulty. The first business of the officer charged with its formation was to find suitable quarters, rent not to exceed twenty shillings a week, inclusive of fire and candle. Here he hung out a flag as the sign of authority and a bait for volunteers. As a rule, they were easily procurable. All the roughs of the town were at his disposal, and when these did not yield material enough recourse was had to beat of drum, that instrument, together with the man who thumped it, being either hired at half-a-crown a day or “loaned” from the nearest barracks. Selected members of the crowd thus assembled were then plied with drink “to invite them to enter”–an invitation they seldom refused.
It goes without saying that gangs raised in this manner were of an exceedingly mixed character. On the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, seafaring men of course had first preference, but landsmen were by no means excluded. The gang operating at Godalming in 1782 may be cited as typical of the average inland gang. It consisted of three farmers, one weaver, one bricklayer, one labourer, and two others whose regular occupations are not divulged. They were probably sailors. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1502–Capt. Boston, Report on Rendezvous, 1782.]
Landsmen entered on the express understanding that they should not be pressed when the gang broke up. Sailor gangsmen, on the contrary, enjoyed no such immunity. The most they could hope for, when their arduous duties came to an end, was permission to “choose their ship.” The concession was no mean one. By choosing his ship discreetly the gangsman avoided encounters with men he had pressed, thus preserving his head unbroken and his skin intact.
Ship-gangs, unlike those operating on land, were composed entirely of seamen. For dash, courage and efficiency, they had no equal and few rivals.
Apart from the officers commanding it, the number of men that went to the making of a gang varied from two to twenty or more according to the urgency of the occasion that called it into being and the importance or ill-repute of the centre selected as the scene of its operations. For Edinburgh and Leith twenty-one men, directed by a captain, two lieutenants and four midshipmen, were considered none too many. Greenock kept the same number of officers and twenty men fully employed, for here there was much visiting of ships on the water, a fast cutter being retained for that purpose. The Liverpool gang numbered eighteen men, directed by seven officers and backed by a flotilla of three tenders, each under the command of a special lieutenant. Towns such as Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Great Yarmouth, Cowes and Haverfordwest also had gangs of at least twenty men each, with boats as required; and Deal, Dover and Folkstone five gangs between them, totalling fifty men and fifteen officers, and employing as many boats as gangs for pressing in the Downs.
In the case of ship-gangs, operating directly from a ship of war in harbour or at sea, the officers in charge were as a matter of course selected from the available ward or gun-room contingent. Few, if any, of the naval men whose names at one time or another spring into prominence during the century, escaped this unpleasant but necessary duty in their younger days. But on shore an altogether different order of things prevailed.
[Illustration: MANNING THE NAVY. Reproduced by kind permission from a rare print in the collection of Mr. A. M. Broadley.]
The impress service ashore was essentially the grave of promotion. Whether through age, fault, misfortune or lack of influence in high places, the officers who directed it were generally disappointed men, service derelicts whose chances of ever sporting a second “swab,” or of again commanding a ship, had practically vanished. Naval men afloat spoke of them with good-natured contempt as “Yellow Admirals,” the fictitious rank denoting a kind of service quarantine that knew no pratique.
Like the salt junk of the foremast–man, the Yellow Admiral got fearfully “out of character” through over-keeping. With the service he lost all touch save in one degrading particular. His pay was better than his reputation, but his position was isolated, his duties and his actions subject to little official supervision. With opportunity came peculiar temptations to bribery and peculation, and to these he often succumbed. The absence of congenial society frequently weighed heavy upon him and drove him to immoderate drinking. Had he lived a generation or so later the average impress officer ashore could have echoed with perfect truth, and almost nightly iteration, the crapulous sentiment in which Byron is said to have toasted his hosts when dining on board H.M.S. _Hector_ at Malta:–
“Glorious Hector, son of Priam,
Was ever mortal drunk as I am!”
[Footnote: The authenticity of the anecdote, notwithstanding the fact that it was long current in naval circles, is more than doubtful. When Bryon visited Malta in 1808 the _Hector_ was doing duty at Plymouth as a prison-ship, and naval records disclose no other ship of that name till 1864.]
A lieutenant attached to the gang at Chester is responsible for a piece of descriptive writing, of a biographical nature, which perhaps depicts the impress officer of the century at his worst. Addressing a brother lieutenant at Waterford, to which station his superior was on the point of being transferred, “I think but right,” says he, “to give you a character of Capt. P., who is to be your Regulating Captain. I have been with him six months here, and if it had not been that he is leaving the place, I should have wrote to the Board of Admiralty to have been removed from under his command. At first you’ll think him a Fine old Fellow, but if it’s possible he will make you Quarrel with all your Acquaintance. Be very Careful not to Introduce him to any Family that you have a regard for, for although he is near Seventy Years of Age, he is the greatest Debauchee you ever met with–a Man of No Religion, a Man who is Capable of any Meanness, Arbitrary and Tyrannicall in his Disposition. This City has been several times just on the point of writing against him to the Board of Admiralty. He has a wife, and Children grown up to Man’s Estate. The Woman he brings over with him is Bird the Builder’s Daughter. To Conclude, there is not a House in Chester that he can go into but his own and the Rendezvous, after having been Six Months in one of the agreeablest Cities in England.” [Footnote: _Ad,_ 1. 1500–Lieut. Shuckford, 7 March 1780.]
Ignorant of the fact that his reputation had thus preceded him, Capt. P. found himself assailed, on his arrival at Waterford, by a “most Infamous Epitaph,” emanating none knew whence, nor cared. This circumstance, accentuated by certain indiscretions of which the hectoring old officer was guilty shortly after his arrival, aroused strong hostility against him. A mob of fishwives, attacking his house at Passage, smashed the windows and were with difficulty restrained from levelling the place with the ground. His junior officers conspired against him. Piqued by the loss of certain perquisites which the newcomer remorselessly swept away, they denounced him to the Admiralty, who ordered an inquiry into his conduct. After a hearing of ten days it went heavily against him, practically every charge being proved. He was immediately superseded and never again employed–a sad ending to a career of forty years under such men as Anson, Boscawen, Hawke and Vernon. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1500–Capt. Bennett, 13 Nov. 1780, and enclosures constituting the inquiry.] Yet such was the ultimate fate of many an impress officer. A stronger light focussed him ashore, and habits, proclivities and weaknesses that escaped censure at sea, were here projected odiously upon the sensitive retina of public opinion.
Of the younger men who drifted into the shore service there were some, it need scarcely be said, who for obvious reasons escaped, or, rather, did not succumb to the common odium. A notable example of this type of officer was Capt. Jahleel Brenton, who for some years commanded the gangs at Leith and Greenock. Though a man of blunt sensibilities and speech, he possessed qualities which carried him out of the stagnant back-water of pressing into the swim of service afloat, where he eventually secured a baronetcy and the rank of Vice-Admiral. Singularly enough, he was American-born.
The senior officer in charge of a gang, commonly known as the Regulating Captain, might in rank be either captain or lieutenant. It was his duty to hire, but not to “keep” the official headquarters of the gang, to organise that body, to direct its operations, to account for all moneys expended and men pressed, and to “regulate” or inspect the latter and certify them fit for service or otherwise. In this last-named duty a surgeon often assisted him, usually a local practitioner, who received a shilling a head for his pains. One or more lieutenants, each of whom had one or more midshipmen at his beck and call, served under the Regulating Captain. They “kept” the headquarters and led the gang, or contingents of the gang, on pressing forays, thus coming in for much of the hard work, and many of the harder knocks, that unpopular body was liable to. Sometimes, as in the case of Dover, Deal and Folkestone, several gangs were grouped under a single regulating officer.
The pay of the Regulating Captain was 1 Pound a day, with an additional 5s. subsistence money. Lieutenants received their usual service pay, and for subsistence 3s. 6d. In special cases grants were made for coach-hire [Footnote: Capt. William Bennett’s bill for the double journey between Waterford and Cork, on the occasion of the inquiry into the conduct of the Regulating Officer at the former place, over which he presided, amounted to forty-three guineas–a sum he considered “as moderate as any gentleman’s could have been, laying aside the wearing of my uniform every day.” Half the amount went in chaise and horse hire, “there being,” we are told, “no chaises upon the road as in England,” and “only one to be had at Cork, all the rest being gone to Dublin with the Lawyers and the Players, the Sessions being just ended and the Play House broke up” (_Admiralty Records_ 1. 1503–Capt. Bennett, 24 March 1782). Nelson’s bill for posting from Burnham, Norfolk, to London and back, 260 miles, in the year 1789, amounted to 19 Pounds, 55. 2d. (_Admiralty Records_ Victualling Dept, Miscellanea, No. 26).] and such purposes as “entertainments to the Mayor and Corporation, the Magistrates and the Officers of the Regulars and the Militia, by way of return for their civilities and for their assistance in carrying on the impress.” The grant to the Newcastle officers, under this head, in 1763 amounted to upwards of 93 Pounds. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1493–Capt. Bover, 6 March 1763, and endorsement.]
“Road-money” was generally allowed at the rate of 3d. a mile for officers and 1d. a mile for gangers when on the press; but as a matter of fact these modest figures were often largely exceeded–to the no small emolument of the regulating officer. Lieut. Gaydon, commanding at Ilfracombe, in 1795 debited the Navy Board with a sum of 148 Pounds for 1776 miles of travel; Capt. Gibbs, of Swansea, with 190 Pounds for 1561 miles; and Capt. Longcroft, of Haverfordwest, with 524 Pounds for 8388 miles–a charge characterised by Admiral M’Bride, who that year reported upon the working of the impress, as “immense.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 579–Admiral M’Bride, 19 March 1795.] He might well have used a stronger term.
An item which it was at one time permissible to charge, possesses a special interest. This was a bonus of 1s. a head on all men pressed–a bonus that was in reality nothing more than the historic prest shilling of other days, now no longer paid to pressed men, diverted into the pockets of those who did the pressing. The practice, however, was short-lived. Tending as it did to fill the ships with unserviceable men, it was speedily discontinued and the historic shilling made over to the certifying surgeon.
The shore midshipman could boast but little affinity with his namesake of the quarter-deck. John Richards, midshipman of the Godalming gang, had never in his life set foot on board a man-of-war or been to sea. His age was forty. The case of James Good, of Hull, is even more remarkable. He had served as “Midshipman of the Impress” for thirty years out of sixty-three. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1455–Capt. Acklom, 6 Oct. 1814. _Admiralty Records_ 1.1502– Capt. Boston, Report on Rendezvous, 1782.] The pay of these elderly youths at no time exceeded a guinea a week.
The gangsman was more variously, if not more generously remunerated. At Deal, in 1743, he had 1s. per day for his boat, and “found himself,” or, in the alternative, “ten shillings for every good seaman procured, in full for his trouble and the hire of the boat.” At Dover, in 1776, he received 2s. 6d. a day; at Godalming, six years later, 10s. 6d. a week; and at Exeter, during the American War of Independence, when the demand for seamen was phenomenal, 14s. a week, 5s. for every man pressed, and clothing and shoes “when he deserved it.” Pay and allowances were thus far from uniform. Both depended largely upon the scarcity or abundance of suitable gangsmen, the demand for seamen, and the astuteness of the officer organising the gang. Some gangs not on regular wages received as much as “twenty shillings for each man impressed, and six-pence a mile for as many miles as they could make it appear each man had travelled, not exceeding twenty, besides (a noteworthy addition) the twelve-pence press-money “; but if a man pressed under these conditions were found to be unserviceable after his appearance on shipboard, all money considerations for his capture were either withheld or recalled. On the whole, considering the arduous and disagreeable nature of the gangsman’s calling, the Navy Board cannot be accused of dealing any too generously by him.
“If ever you intend to man the fleet without being cheated by the captains and pursers,” Charles II. is credited with having once said to his council, “you may go to bed.” What in this sense was true of the service afloat was certainly not less true of that loosely organised and laxly supervised naval department, the impress ashore. Considering the repute of the officers engaged in it, and the opportunities they enjoyed for peculation and the taking of bribes–considering, above all, the extreme difficulty of keeping a watchful eye upon officers scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land, the wonder is, not that irregularities crept in, but that they should have been, upon the whole, so few and so venial.
To allow the gangsmen to go fishing for sea-fish or dredging for oysters, as was commonly done when there was little prospect of a catch on land, was no more heinous than the custom prevailing–to everybody’s knowledge–at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, where the gang had no need to go a-fishing because, regularly as the cobbles came in, the midshipman attached to the gang appeared on the quay and had the “insolence to demand Three of the Best Fysh for the Regulating Captain, the Lieutenant and himself.” [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1546–Petition of the Owners of the Fishing Cobbles of Lynn, 3 March 1809.] And if, again, rating a gangsman in choicest quarterdeck language were no serious offence, why should not the Regulating Captain rate his son as midshipman, even though “not proper to be employed as such.” And similarly, granting it to be right to earn half a sovereign by pressing a man contrary to law, where was the wrong in “clearing him of the impress” for the same amount, as was commonly done by the middies at Sunderland and Shields. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1557–Capt. Bell, 27 June 1806, enclosure.] These were works of supererogation rather than sins against the service, and little official notice was taken of them unless, as in the case of Liverpool, they were carried to such lengths as to create a public scandal. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 579 –Admiral Child, 30 Jan. 1800.]
There were, as a matter of course, some officers in the service who went far beyond the limits of such venial irregularities and, like Falstaff, “misused the king’s press damnably.” Though according to the terms of their warrant they were “to take care not to demand or receive any money, gratuity, reward, or any other consideration whatsoever for the sparing, exchanging or discharging any person or persons impressed or to be impressed,” the taking of “gratifications” for these express purposes prevailed to a notorious extent. The difficulty was to fasten the offence upon the offenders. “Bailed men,” as they were called, did not “peach.” Their immunity from the press was too dearly bought to admit of their indulging personal animus against the officer who had taken their money. It was only through some tangle of circumstance over which the delinquent had no control that the truth leaked out. Such a case was that of the officer in command of the _Mary_ tender at Sunderland, a lieutenant of over thirty years’ standing. Having pressed one Michael Dryden, a master’s mate whom he ought never to have pressed at all, he so far “forgot” himself as to accept a bribe of 15 Pounds for the man’s release, and then, “having that day been dining with a party of military officers,” forgot to release the man. The double lapse of memory proved his ruin. Representations were made to the Admiralty, and the unfortunately constituted lieutenant was “broke” and black-listed. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 2740–Lieut. Atkinson, 24 June 1798, and endorsement.]
Another species of fraud upon which the Admiralty was equally severe, was that long practised with impunity by a certain regulating officer at Poole. Not only did he habitually put back the dates on which men were pressed, thus “bearing” them for subsistence money they never received, he made it a further practice to enter on his books the names of fictitious pressed men who opportunely “escaped” after adding their quota to his dishonest perquisites. So general was misappropriation of funds by means of this ingenious fraud that detection was deservedly visited with instant dismissal. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1526–Capt. Boyle, 2 Oct. 1801, and endorsement.]
Though to the gangsman all things were reputedly lawful, some things were by no means expedient. He could with impunity deprive almost any ablebodied adult of his freedom, and he could sometimes, with equal impunity, add to his scanty earnings by restoring that freedom for a consideration in coin of the realm; but when, like Josh Cooper, sometime gangsman at Hull, he extended his prerogative to the occupants of hen-roosts, he was apt to find himself at cross-purposes with the law as interpreted by the sitting magistrates.
Amongst less questionable perquisites accruing to the gangsman two only need be mentioned here. One was the “straggling-money” paid to him for the apprehension of deserters–20s. for every deserter taken, with “conduct” money to boot; the other, the anker of brandy designedly thrown overboard by smugglers when chased by a gang engaged in pressing afloat. Occasionally the brandy checked the pursuit; but more often it gave an added zest to the chase and so hastened the capture of the fugitive donors.
To the unscrupulous outsider the opportunities for illicit gain afforded by the service made an irresistible appeal. Sham gangs and make-believe press-masters abounded, thriving exceedingly upon the fears and credulity of the people until capture put a term to their activities and sent them to the pillory, the prison or the fleet they pretended to cater for.
Their mode of operation seldom varied. They pressed a man, and then took money for “discharging” him; or they threatened to press and were bought off. One Philpot was in 1709 fined ten nobles and sentenced to the pillory for this fraud. He had many imitators, amongst them John Love, who posed as a midshipman, and William Moore, his gangsman, both of whom were eventually brought to justice and turned over to His Majesty’s ships.
The rôle adopted by these last-named pretenders was a favourite one with men engaged in crimping for the merchant service. Shrewsbury in 1780 received a visit from one of these individuals–“a Person named Hopkins, who appeared in a Lieutenant’s Uniform and committed many fraudulant Actions and Scandalous Abuses in raising Men,” as he said, “for the Navy.” Two months later another impostor of the same type appeared at Birmingham, where he scattered broadcast a leaflet, headed with the royal arms and couched in the following seductive terms: “Eleven Pounds for every Able Seaman, Five Pounds for every ordinary Seaman, and Three Pounds for every Able-bodied Landsman, exclusive of a compleat set of Sea Clothing, given by the Marine Society. All Good Seamen, and other hearty young Fellows of Spirit, that are willing to serve on board any of His Majesty’s Vessels or Ships of War, Let them with Chearfulness repair to the Sailors’ Head Rendezvous in this Town, where a proper Officer attends, who will give them every encouragement they can desire. Now my Jolly Lads is the time to fill your Pockets with Dollars, Double Doubloon’s & Luidores. Conduct Money allowed, Chest and Bedding sent Carriage Free.” Soon after, the two united forces at Coventry, whither Capt. Beecher desired to “send a party to take them,” but to this request the Admiralty turned a deaf ear. In their opinion the game was not worth the candle. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 1500–Letters of Capt. Beecher, 1780]
Ex-midshipman Rookhad, who when dismissed the service took to boarding vessels in the Thames and extorting money and liquor from the masters as a consideration for not pressing their men, did not escape so lightly. Him the Admiralty prosecuted. [Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 7. 298–Law Officers’ Opinions, 1733-56, No. 12. Process was by information in the Court of King’s Bench, for a misdemeanour.]
It was in companies, however, that the sham ganger most frequently took the road, for numbers not only enhanced his chances of obtaining money, they materially diminished the risk of capture. One such gang was composed of “eighteen desperate villians,” who were nevertheless taken. Another, a “parcel of fellows armed with cutlasses like a pressgang,” appeared at Dublin in 1743, where they boldly entered public-houses on pretence of looking for sailors, and there extorted money and drink. What became of them we are not told; but in the case of the pretended gang whose victim, after handing over two guineas as the price of his release, was pressed by a regularly constituted gang, we learn the gratifying sequel. The real gang gave chase to the sham gang and pressed every man of them.
According to the “Humble Petition of Grace Blackmore of Stratford le Bow, widow,” on Friday the 29th of May, in an unknown year of Queen Anne’s reign, “there came to Bow ffaire severall pretended pressmasters, endeavouring to impress.” A tumult ensued. Murder was freely “cryed out,” apparently with good reason, for in the mêlée petitioner’s husband, then constable of Bow, was “wounded soe that he shortly after dyed.” [Footnote: _State Papers Domestic,_ Anne, xxxvi. No. 17.]
There were occasions when the sham gang operated under cover of a real press-warrant, and for this the Admiralty was directly to blame. It had become customary at the Navy Office to send out warrants, whether to commanders of ships or to Regulating Captains, in blank, the person to whom the warrant was directed filling in the name for himself. Such warrants were frequently stolen and put to irregular uses, and of this a remarkable instance occurred in 1755.
In that year one Nicholas Cooke, having by some means obtained possession of such a warrant, “filled up the blank thereof by directing it to himself, by the name and description of Lieutenant Nicholas Cooke, tho’ in truth not a Lieutenant nor an Officer in His Majesty’s Navy,” hired a vessel–the _Providence_ snow of Dublin–and in her cruised the coasts of Ireland, pressing men. After thus raising as many as he could carry, he shaped his course for Liverpool, no doubt intending, on his arrival at that port, to sell his unsuspecting victims to the merchant ships in the Mersey at so much a head. Through bad seamanship, however, the vessel was run aground at Seacombe, opposite to Liverpool, and Capt. Darby, of H.M.S. _Seahorse_, perceiving her plight, and thinking to render assistance in return for perhaps a man or two, took boat and rowed across to her. To his astonishment he found her full of Irishmen to the number of seventy-three, whom he immediately pressed and removed to his own ship. The circumstance of the false warrant now came to light, and with it another, of worse omen for the mock lieutenant. In the hold a quantity of undeclared spirits was discovered, and this fact afforded the Admiralty a handle they were not slow to avail themselves of. They put the Excise Officers on the scent, and Cooke