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The Myth of the Press Gang

The Myth of the Press Gang: Volunteers, Impressment and the Naval Manpower Problem in the Late Eighteenth Century

J. Ross Dancy
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Myth of the Press Gang
    Book Description:

    The press gang is generally regarded as the means by which the British navy solved the problem of recruiting enough seamen in the late eighteenth century. This book, however, based on extensive original research conducted primarily in a large number of ships' muster books, demonstrates that this view is false. It argues that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of seamen in the navy were there of their own free will. Taking a long view across the late eighteenth century but concentrating on the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815, the book provides great detail on the sort of men that were recruited and the means by which they were recruited, and includes a number of individuals' stories. It shows how manpower was a major concern for the Admiralty; how the Admiralty put in place a range of recruitment methods including the quota system; how it worried about depleting merchant shipping of sufficient sailors; and how, although most seamen were volunteers, the press gang was resorted to, especially during the initial mobilisation at the beginning of wars and to find certain kinds of particularly skilled seamen. The book also makes comparisons with recruitment methods employed by the navies of other countries and by the British army. J. Ross Dancy is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-471-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    ‘Your Lordship is hereby required and directed to give immediate orders to the several Captains, Commanders and Commanding Officers of His Majesty’s Ships and vessels under your command, not to enter or impress any more men for the Service of His Majesty’s Fleet.’¹ The Admiralty sent this order to Lord Nelson on 10 October 1801. The Treaty of Amiens was being negotiated, peace was on the horizon and the Royal Navy was preparing for the inevitable downsizing that would come with peace. A few more months would see a temporary end to the hostilities that had raged for nearly a...

  7. 1 British Naval Administration
    (pp. 11-27)

    Beyond financing the naval war, the manning problem was the greatest hurdle that British naval administrators faced at the opening of the French Revolutionary Wars, and continued to be one of the most controversial and difficult obstacles over the twenty-two years of conflict that followed. By the end of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Royal Navy had grown into a force of over 130,000 men. Less than a century and a half earlier, Charles II’s wartime Navy had consisted of only about 20,000 men. The English Navy of the 1660s was designed to fight in the North Sea, close to...

  8. 2 Manning Statistics
    (pp. 28-55)

    Critical to the success of every European navy in the eighteenth century was the ability to acquire men with seafaring skills. Without skilled men to handle sails, both in good and bad weather, any ship would find itself in peril. The Royal Navy drew its manpower from a world-leading mercantile and fishing fleet,¹ which had increased in size, power and prosperity during the eighteenth century.² Manning the fleets during wartime was one of the largest problems faced by the Royal Navy, a problem that grew increasingly throughout the eighteenth century, as the Navy, along with British sea trade, expanded.³ This...

  9. 3 Volunteers
    (pp. 56-119)

    Military volunteering during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was likely the greatest popular movement in Georgian Britain.² Though Lord Haversham’s quote from the House of Lords is in reference to the strength of the Royal Navy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he took the opportunity to specifically mention seamen as the ‘life’ of the fleet. For the Royal Navy, seamen were of vital importance for success at sea, and as no formal system of naval training existed, the vast majority of those men gained their experience from merchant seafaring. This ensured, as Henry Dundas wrote in 1800,...

  10. 4 Impressment
    (pp. 120-156)

    Few topics of eighteenth-century history have engaged both historians and the general public with such fervour yet have been depicted with less accuracy than impressment.¹ Today, press gangs are probably the first thing most people think of when confronted with naval recruiting in the age of sail. Fiction and history alike have filled the popular mindset with images of press gangs dragging husbands from weddings and people who have no experience of the sea off to serve in what amounted to a seaborne dungeon. The images that have filtered down through the historiography have been of groups of oversized brutal...

  11. 5 The Quota Acts
    (pp. 157-185)

    At the beginning of 1795 Britain was in a precarious position in a war that was quickly expanding. The separation from the European continent offered by the English Channel greatly benefited the British Isles. However, the narrow sea was by no means an insurmountable obstacle for potential invaders, as Britain had seen several invasions over its history; the last of which, led by William III, was only removed from 1795 by just over a century. Nevertheless, this narrow strip of sea did offer Britain breathing room, as moving armies across the Channel was complicated and costly.¹ This allowed Britain to...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 186-192)

    Between 1660 and 1815, the British Royal Navy grew from a seasonal force of around 20,000 men to employing over 145,000 men and being mobilised year-round during war. During the half-century leading up to the French Revolutionary Wars, the number of seamen employed during peacetime nearly doubled, from just under 54,000 in 1738 to over 98,000 in 1791.¹ However, although the Navy required a full seven times more men in 1810 than it had in 1665, the impact on naval administration and the seafaring population of Britain was far greater, as keeping the fleet commissioned throughout the year transformed the...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-208)
  14. Index
    (pp. 209-213)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 214-214)