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Imagine that your beloved husband or son suddenly disappeared after meeting friends at a neighborhood bar, and that you would not know for months what had happened to them. You fear that he has been taken by a pressgang.

Press gang taking unwilling men

Such was the case in Jane Austen’s time, when Great Britain fought long wars over land and sea. Since medieval times it had been the royal prerogative to impress free men into a seamen’s service. The custom was roundly condemned, except in cases of “necessity of the sudden coming in of strange enemies into the kingdom.”* During times of war, “the tempation of impressment” was “too strong to be resisted by Parliament.”* And so pressgangs would roam towns and the countryside to take men against their will to serve in His Majesty’s navy.

“The class on whom it fell, however, found little sympathy from society. They were rogues and vagabonds, who were held to be better employed in defence of their country, than in plunder and mendicancy. During the American war, impressment was permitted in the case of all idle and disorderly persons, not following any lawful trade or having some substance sufficient for their maintenance. Such men were seized upon, without compunction, and hurried to the war. It was a dangerous license, repugnant to the free spirit of our laws; and, in later times, the state has trusted to bounties and the recruiting sergeant, and not to impressment, — for strengthening its land forces.” – The constitutional history of England since the accession of George Third, 1760-1860, Volume 2 (Google eBook), Thomas Erskine May, 1866 p 261-262

Press Gang. Image @LIFE magazine

During the Napoleonic wars, the need for sailors was great, and larger numbers of free men (including Americans) were forced into service. They were taken in any way, usually at night, through violence, entrapment, and fraud. Before anyone could discover their absence, they were taken on board and locked up until the ship sailed from port. The captured men were often wounded and would die from lack of treatment.

Press warrant. Image @Nelson's Navy**

“Impressment was restricted by law to seamen, who, being most needed for the fleet, chiefly suffered from the violence of the press-gangs. They were taken on the coast, or seized on board merchantships, like criminals: ships at sea were rifled of their crews, and left without sufficient hands to take them safely into port. Nay, we even find soldiers employed to assist the pressgangs: villages invested by a regular force: sentries standing with fixed bayonets; and churches surrounded, during divine service, to seize seamen for the fleet.

The lawless press-gangs were no respecters of persons. In vain did apprentices and landsmen claim exemption. They were skulking sailors in disguise, or would make good seamen at the first scent of salt-water; and were carried off to the sea ports. Press-gangs were the terror of citizens and apprentices in London, of laborers in villages, and of artisans in the remotest inland towns. Their approach was dreaded like the invasion of a foreign enemy. To escape their swoop, men forsook their trades and families and fled, — or armed themselves for resistance. Their deeds have been recounted in history, in fiction, and in song. Outrages were of course deplored; but the navy was the pride of England, and every one agreed that it must be recruited. In vain were other means suggested for manning the fleet, — higher wages, limited service, and increased pensions. Such schemes were doubtful expedients: the navy could not be hazarded: press-gangs must still go forth and execute their rough commission, or England would be lost. And so impressment prospered. – The constitutional history of England since the accession of George Third, 1760-1860, Volume 2 (Google eBook), Thomas Erskine May, 1866 p 261-262

May’s words in 1866 seem a bit overwrought, but one can only imagine how awful impressment must have been for the families who did not know what happened to their men, and for the men who were bound into service against their will.

Towns people, including women, opposing the press gang, 1779

Although authorities would do all they could to prevent impressment, the Georgian police force was still primitive compared to what it would become in the Victorian era. Still, local townsmen would fight off the press gangs to save a hapless man from impressment.

George Hodge, sailor in Nelson's navy

Even sailors who had served their term of duty were in danger of being pressed into service again. It was not unusual for a sailor to join, be captured, find freedom, run from the press gangs, be impressed, and then join the navy of their own free will again.  George Hodge left a remarkable diary of his years as a sailor.

He was captured again in 1797, but was returned home and then spent months on the run from press gangs…But in 1798 he was caught and joined HMS Lancaster, which had 64 guns.   For the next nine years he served mainly along the west African coast. But he also went to Ceylon and the East Indies.

In 1808 he joined HMS Marlborough, 74 guns, and spent the years until 1812 mostly on blockade duty around Europe. – Daily Mail

George Hodge's remarkable diary

In 1795, William Pitt introduced a Quota Act, which stated how many men each county had to provide for service. Convicted men were given the option to serve out their harsh sentences in prison, or serve in the navy. While this Act did not end the practice of impressment, it served to reduce it. Impressment virtually ended with the Napoleonic Wars in 1814. By the mid-19th century the custom had disappeared.

Press Gang – words to the song

As I walked out on London Street
A press gang there I chanced to meet
They asked me if I’d join the fleet
On board of a man-o-war, boys

Come brother shipmates tell to me
What kind of treatment they give you
That I may know before I go
On board of a man-o-war, boys

When I got there to my surprise
All they had told me was shocking lies
There was a row and a bloody old row
On board of a man-o-war, boys

The first thing they done they took me in hand
They lashed me with a ‘tar of a strand’
They flogged me till I could not stand
On board of a man-o-war, boys

Now I was married and me wife’s name was Grace
‘Twas she that led me to shocking disgrace
It’s oft I’d curse her ugly face
On board of a man-o-war, boys

When next I get may foot on shore
To see them London girls once more
I’ll never go to sea no more
On board of a man-o-war, boys

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