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.
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 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. Boston, Report on Rendezvous, 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. By choosing his ship discreetly the gangsman avoided encounters with men he had pressed, thus preserving his head unbroken and his skin intact.
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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.
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. Hector at Malta:—. When Bryon visited Malta in the Hector was doing duty at Plymouth as a prison-ship, and naval records disclose no other ship of that name till 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.
- Full text of "The Monthly chronicle of North-country lore and legend [microform]".
- CHAPTER I. — HOW THE PRESS-GANG CAME IN.;
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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. 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. 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. Shuckford, 7 March Ignorant of the fact that his reputation had thus preceded him, Capt.
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. Bennett, 13 Nov. 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. Lieutenants received their usual service pay, and for subsistence 3s. In special cases grants were made for coach-hire [Footnote: Capt.
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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. Bennett, 24 March Nelson's bill for posting from Burnham, Norfolk, to London and back, miles, in the year , amounted to 19 Pounds, Bover, 6 March , and endorsement.
Gaydon, commanding at Ilfracombe, in debited the Navy Board with a sum of Pounds for miles of travel; Capt. Gibbs, of Swansea, with Pounds for miles; and Capt. Longcroft, of Haverfordwest, with Pounds for miles—a charge characterised by Admiral M'Bride, who that year reported upon the working of the impress, as "immense. An item which it was at one time permissible to charge, possesses a special interest. This was a bonus of 1s. 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.