Monday, 26 April 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - Press Gang

The History Group meeting on the 3rd March 1998

Press Gangs and the Kings shilling!

A talk about Press Gangs presented by Dr. Judith Hunter

I believe the general picture of a Press Gang is that of a gang of seafarers storming around seaside towns, knocking chaps on the head and bundling them on board ship to act as crew; or for the 'luckier' ones, tricking them by slipping coins into the poor innocents' tankards of ale and then claiming that they had entered into a contract by accepting pay in advance - and off to sea they went. But no, it is far more complicated than that, as the Eton Wick History Group found out from Dr. Judith Hunter at their meeting on 4th March. 

Armed with information gleaned from the Admiralty Minute Books, the Public Records Office at Kew and various other sources, and prompted to investigate simply as a result of curiosity triggered by coming across a reference to a Press Gang in Reading, Dr. Hunter covered the history of the Press Gang in as far as the Seven Year War against Austria, France and Russia (1756-1763). Apparently in 1754, lust before the War began the number of men in the navy was just under 10,000 but by the end of the War they numbered approximately 82,000 - the majority of whom came from Merchant Navy ships. The Royal Navy ships would be stationed in the Channel and would send a gang, under a Lieutenant, to board inward-bound merchant ships and gather up the seaman, returning with them to the Royal Navy ships; sometimes fire would be exchanged but nevertheless the majority of sailors were impressed from the merchant ships and so could end up spending many years at sea unable to return home to far, and friends. The Royal Navy didn't train its sailors, it preferred that they came already experienced from being in the Merchant Service. Some of the coastal traders were issued with a certificate which protected them from being pressed into service; unless, of course, there was a 'hot press' which would be at a time of emergency when anyone could be taken - even from theft own homes - and a record shows that on a least one occasion the groom, best man and half the male guests from a Wedding Reception were taken; but once these impressed people had been checked over perhaps only a third of them would be retained as being sufficiently able-bodied to be of use. 

Almost every coastal village and town had its fishermen and so these areas were a natural source of manpower. A press gang, under the command of a Captain (on half-pay + £5 per week) would 'open a rendezvous' at a village and stay overnight, perhaps publicising the fact by hanging a flag outside, or employing a fife drummer. The Captain (who would probably lodge at a rather better class of Inn than that used for the rendezvous) would have two or three Lieutenants (each earning 5s.0d. per day plus 10s.0d. for acquiring each able seaman or 5s.0d. for an able-bodied landman) and these Lieutenants would be supervised and regulated by the Captain - hence he would be called a Regulating Captain. They would take seamen for preference, but they could also take land workers as well - if they looked suitably young and strong; and they would try encouraging people to join voluntarily, initially, tempting them with exciting stories of life at sea. and exotic ports of call, and the weekly ration of I lb. bread, I lb. port, 1/2 pint, peas and 1 gallon beer. 

The gangs operating under the Lieutenants were usually composed of local residents generally hired specifically for the purpose and who would be aware that they were less likely to be impressed themselves if they were part of the official press gang. The King and Government would offer a 'Royal Bounty' of £3 per able-bodied seaman, £2 for an ordinary seaman and f1 for a landman; some Mayors offered their own bounties and there is a record in Bristol of a wife receiving additional corporation bounty; so perhaps these bounties were passed on to the families of the seaman. It is hoped so because wives and families lost their breadwinner when their man was impressed and would have had to have applied to the Parish Officers for some small amount of money; soldiers' wives and children were on a starvation list. When things were warming up for the Seven Year War the Admiralty ordered that press warrants be issued to cover many towns, both coastal and inland, including Reading. There are records of the Mayor of Oxford asking that the Regulating Captain at Reading assist him by guarding five men who he had 'secured' at Oxford. Those taken were often gathered together in a gaol, or Bridewell. It is assumed that they were then made to walk to a port (London?) and if a tender was not available to take them to a ship, they would be gaoled again at the port until one was available. 

Once at sea, the impressed seamen could do quite well:. Their pay (paid out by the ship's captain) would come from the Admiralty and 'prize money' was paid out when an enemy ship was Captured 3/8 of the prize went to the Captain, 1/4 went to the Captain of the Marines, 1/8 went to the Lieutenants, and the crew and Marine 'other ranks' received 1/4 between them; and there is a record in 1762 of the capture of a Spanish frigate resulting in seamen receiving prize money of £485 each - although a more normal amount would be £10-20. Dr. Hunter read from copies of letters from Admirals and Captains dated around the mid-18th century and they made fascinating listening. Mr. Frank Bond thanked Dr. Hunter and her husband, Rip, for this very enlightening talk. 

The the following meeting held on 15th April 1998 and the topic was the "History of Local Bridges over Streams and River" - presented by John Denham. 

During the 1990's the Parish Magazine of Eton, Eton Wick and Boveney reported on the meetings of the Eton Wick History Group. A member of the audience took shorthand notes in the darkened hall. This article was published in the April 1998 edition.

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