Glendale Local History Society The Press Gang experience!
For its last session of the season, Society members and visitors were drawn into a dark side of the build up of British naval power through song and story. Our presenters were a Singing Group, 'Old English', who provided a commentary, pictures and excerpts from documents, interspersed with songs. They explained that they had been drawn into the experience of the Press Gangs through folk songs about the fear of being 'pressed' and about protest against the system. They reminded us that folk songs had once been rejected as of any historical interest, but now we value them as an expression of the 'complexion of the times', or the 'sound of history', giving voice to ordinary people whose experience would otherwise be lost to us.
The background to the Press Gang system was the build up of the Navy in the 17th and 18th centuries, as Britain sought to establish dominance in control of the seas. The merchant navy was already expanding as British trade across the world grew, but the country was also involved in many wars with other European powers. This military and commercial expansion needed not only many more ships but also many more men to man them. Many men were drawn into becoming seamen – in the merchant navy and in the fishing fleet, and some might try their fortune by volunteering for the Navy. But we were told that pay in the Navy was less than on merchant ships, and conditions were harsh, with long periods at sea, a poor diet and the risk of disease in crowded boats, to add to that from injury in naval battles and drowning at sea. And the Navy's demand for men was not constant – very high during periods of intense military activity, with little demand during more peaceful times. When a war broke out, the Navy needed to recruit large numbers of men, especially those with some seaborne experience. Many such people were recorded as 'volunteers', though our speakers suggested that some of these may have been very reluctant ones. But this was not enough, so the system of Press Gangs was created to search out sailors to 'impress' into the service of the crown.
Through the songs from the period, and one special composition by the group, we were given a feel of what it was like to be taken by the Press Gang. The river Tyne area was the second most important source of 'pressed men' after the London area, because of the extent of commercial trade and the coal industry, which exported by sea. The system was organised through 'Regulating Captains', who were given a quota of men to provide for the Navy. Under them were lieutenants, who worked with individual Press Gangs and informants to round up groups of sailors – some on shore leave, some standing down after previous periods with the Navy, and some on merchant ships coming into port. Ships and their crews seem to have got quite skilled in finding ways to evade the Gangs. Employers valuing their skilled workers would also try to find ways to avoid their men being impressed. We were told that the keelmen on the Tyne, often at loggerheads over pay and conditions with the coal owners, actually banded together with their bosses to get exemption from the Press Gang, though apparently there were many keelmen at the battle of Trafalgar. There were also instances where local people banded together to fight the Press Gangs, with women being as active as the men in these protests. In one case, a group of men and women tried to seize a ship moored in the Tyne, in which many pressed men were 'imprisoned' before being distributed around the naval fleet. In the songs which 'Old English' sang, a key theme was the problem women faced in sustaining their households if men were taken away, as they never knew if they would see their men again or get paid for their naval service.
We were invited to consider arguments for and against the Press Gang system. For many, it was a bad episode in our history, undermining principles of liberty which were being put forward at the very same time. But without it maybe Britain would not have been so successful in achieving command of the seas during the 19th century. Whatever we thought, we found experiencing history through song in this way provided a fine ending to the GLHS season of talks. The new season starts again in September.
Patsy Healey 9th April 2014