As young Alan Lewrie begins his career via the Impress Service, it seems appropriate to take a few minutes to examine what it was and wasn’t.
Make no mistake, impressment or the “press,” the practice of taking men involuntarily into the Royal Navy, was unpopular. But like so much else of the era the stories have grown in the telling and retelling.
During war time, Britains primary line of defense was the sea. Without the significant water obstacle that was presented by the English Channel, England would have been one of the numerous minor kingdoms and duchies that changed hands much in the manner of Elizabeth Taylor changing husbands. As John Jervis, 1st Earl St. Vincent, remarked, (when he wasn’t handing Jack Aubrey’s ass to him) “I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea.”
The priority given to manning the fleet was such that Parliament allowed for the involuntary conscription of men, aged 18-to-55, into the Royal Navy. This was a step that was not taken to man Britain’s Army until the First World War.
Most naval fiction focuses on the small scale impressment of merchant seamen by Royal Navy warships (such as that conducted by Horatio Hornblower in Ship of the Line) or minor forays of a press gang of sailors under a junior officer (for instance, in Alexander Kent’s To Glory We Steer this is how the indomitable John Allday makes the acquaintance of Captain Bolitho). The efforts were dwarfed by those of the Impress Service.
The Broadside has more details on how the press was managed.
While the press was bad, the alternatives available to Britain were few. Unlike the Army, the Navy could not rely on recruiting, it required a significant number of highly skilled seamen. In the age of sail, the presence of untrained landsmen on board was more of a hindrance than a help. Experienced mariners are only found on ships or in close vicinity of the waterfront. This gave the press a Willy Sutton quality.
Service in the Royal Navy compared favorably to service on a merchantman, in fact, if one’s employer was not the East India Company conditions could very well be better. The larger crew of a man of war meant more men were available to do the work, contrary to a lot of the literature the food in Royal Navy compared very favorably to what men of the same class had access to, both in quantity and quality, at home. If a seaman was pressed off a merchant ship the master was required to pay him all monies due before he left the ship.
As most of our conventional wisdom on the Royal Navy comes to via books and movies, we tend to think of the press as a British institution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. France and Spain also made use of the press, as did our own Continental Navy.
Given the stakes, it is hard to say that the press was not justified.