Thursday, 15 September 2016

Victims of the Press Gangs

Recently I saw the remake of Ben Hur, much maligned by many reviewers. Well, maybe it wasn't gory enough for them. Actually, I enjoyed it, it was quite gory enough for me, and, anyway, I don't like too much blood and violence on the screen. 

I was very moved by the awful conditions of the slave galleys endured by Ben Hur for many years, and how helpless the men were, and the fact they had so little protection from the outside forces, from storms, vicious battles and cruel masters. Ben Hur may be fiction (based on a factual background) but it wasn't so long ago such conditions were rife around our shores and all too real. Here's a piece about the capture of men around the White Cliffs of Dover by the Press Gangs.

The Battlements of Dover Castle, Copyright Janet Cameron
Trapped inside a dank, dark hole, beneath an iron grating, secured by an iron bar and padlock, it was no fun being abducted by the ruthless but legal British press gang.

Imagine the terror of being physically torn from your friends and family and everything familiar and precious to you. Your captors are a bunch of swarthy bullies and you are being hauled to an evil place, thick with pestilence and filthy smells. You know that this will be your prison for the time being, a dank, dark hole, where you are trapped behind an iron grating firmly secured by an iron bar and padlock. You become part of a disgusting mass of writhing human bodies, all as terrified as you are, screaming and fighting and cursing and, like you, smelling of fear.
You haven't murdered anyone, assaulted anyone, or even stolen a miserable loaf of bread. On the contrary, your only crime is to be a seaman. You have fallen victim to the horrible and entirely legal practices of the press gang, for the British Navy was desperate for men. 
A Trade in Human Misery
Press gangs operated in Dover and, in fact, plied their trade in human misery in fifty ports around the British coastline. The only exemptions accepted by the Admiralty were foreigners, who were excused by a law passed in 1740, although later this was modified to permit aliens to be pressed if they had served on a British merchant ship for at least two years.  
Foreigners were also liable if they had married a British woman, and it is claimed some unfortunate seamen were pressed on their honeymoons. Sometimes, foreigners unfamiliar with the English language, remained in the Royal Navy because they were unable to insist upon seeing a consul.
Documents of release for successful applicants carried a detailed description of the man on the back to avoid their being sold to a non-exempted seaman. Each major port had a captain, who was paid one pound a day, and each smaller port employed a lieutenant for five shillings a day, plus two shillings and ninepence subsistence. In 1799, the captain at Dover was Benjamin Hulke. Senior officers, like captains and lieutenants, were called Regulating Officers and the headquarters of the local Impress Service was known as "the Rendezvous." Each would supervise a midshipman and gangs of men. Sometimes a bargain would be made with the gangers, promising them exemption in return for their services as pressmen.
Locals Get Wise to the Tactics of the Pressmen
Once the gang were known by the Dover locals, lookouts were stationed along the coast to give warnings if one of the King's ships anchored nearby. Pressmen were forced to roam the surrounding villages, since most of the qualified seamen would have taken off to hide elsewhere. The gangers received "road money" of one penny a mile, while officers did a little better with three.
Those captured were first escorted and imprisoned in the Rendezvous until the Regulating Officer could take a look at them to certify them for service. If a man tried to plead infirmity or illness, the local surgeon would examine him for a shilling. As soon as the Articles of War had been read to the unfortunate seaman - whether or not he was in any state to hear or understand them - then he was in the service of the King. No provision whatsoever would be made for his abandoned family. Once a seaman had been pressed into the service, however unwillingly, insubordination would be harshly punished by flogging or even execution.
Power and Profit
Ruthless locals became informers for a reward or for the sake of settling a dispute. It was dangerous for young men to be fast with the affections of the local women, or for a man to be unfaithful to his wife. It was also dangerous if a man had the seaman's distinctive, rolling gait, which picked him out for pressing.
When the Navy was especially desperate for hands, the gangers' pay went up. Their power was enormous; one word and a man's fate was sealed - a stint in the Royal Navy that could last for many years. Those rich enough could bribe the officers with goods or money, but for the poor, the only prospect was that dank, dark prison in the bowels of the Royal Navy ship, prior to setting sail for the high seas.
  • Waugh, Mary, Smuggling in Kent and Sussex, 1700-1840, Countryside Books, 1985.
  • Gray, Adrian, Crime and Criminals in Victorian Kent, Meresborough Books 1976 and 1982.
  • Jessup, F.W. A History of Kent, Phillimore & Co. Ltd. 1995
  • Copyright Janet Cameron

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story with much to be grateful about in present times. Thanks for posting.