Event: History Today at Hatchards, Socrates

The Press Gang and the Law

Impressment for Naval Service of seamen in British ports dates back to the reign of Edward I; Christopher Lloyd describes the practice and how it ceased in the mid-nineteenth century.

Voltaire describes how he found a Thames waterman, who had been boasting about the liberty of Englishmen, confined the next day in a prison cell by the press gang. Eighteenth-century writers were indeed frequently embarrassed by the paradox of a seemingly arbitrary power existing in a country that prided itself on the liberty of its constitution.

The press gang has become part of the folklore of English history. It is commonly regarded as a typical example of the brutality and injustice that prevailed in eighteenth-century England in the age of sail. The fact is that impressment goes back to remote feudal times and forward to the twentieth century, when it is called conscription or national service and the methods of implementing it are both more polite and more effective.

The only book devoted to the subject appeared in 1913 and concludes with this pathetic sentence: ‘A people who for a hundred years patiently endured conscription in its most cruel form will never again suffer it to be lightly inflicted on them.’ Three years later it was introduced once more, in a modern form, but on the same principle that five hundred years before had required military service as a feudal obligation.

Walpole once declared in the House of Commons that ‘the hardships of an impress have been long dwelt upon, and displayed with all the powers of eloquence. Nor can it be affirmed this method of raising seamen is either eligible or legal.’ He was wrong. Eligible it might not be, but it was certainly legal in principle and for centuries past sanctioned by custom.

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