Pressgangs in Wicklow
The association of the Irish with the sea and maritime affairs stretches back through the centuries. Irish history recounts the plunder of coastal villages even in pre- St. Patrick times. Many of these hostages were held for ransom or were sold as slaves. Being an island nation our love and indeed fear of the sea influenced in no small way our livelihood and way of life. It is certain that many Irish mariners, influenced by the stories of St. Brendan the Navigator, the Viking voyages of such as Eric the Red and Leif Ericsson to America, and the possibility of fame and fortune, joined the crews of many foreign ships. Maritime Historian Wendy Childs reports in Vol. IX of “Ireland’s Trade with England” in the late middle ages, that in 1481 an English ship called at Kinsale on the way to Andelucia in Spain and Oran in Algeria to recruit Irish seamen. What the exact meaning of “recruit” was in those times is open to suggestion, but it is unlikely to mean “impressment”.
Ireland’s premier maritime historian John de Courcy Ireland in his most interesting and informative work “Ireland and the Irish in Maritime History”, states that Irish seamen owed their allegiance to the sea:
“Many began to serve and often to make names for themselves in the Maritime establishments first of Spain and England and then even more spectacularly of France and Portugal, the Netherlands, the Papal States and the Hapsburg and Tsarist empires. Most of the tens of thousands of Irishmen serving in every capacity from cabin boy to Admiral and Ministers of Marine owed their allegiance to the sea, which was their calling. They loyally served the government whose flag their ship flew except for the comparatively few occasions when intolerable conditions drove them to mutiny”.
Crewmen of pirate ships shared some of the plunder and the sea became a way of life for many. Attacks on Spanish or Portuguese treasure ships returning from the “New World” became commonplace for many pirate crews which operated in the Spanish Main or along the North African coasts. Even English adventurers such as Thomas Stuckley found rich pickings here in the 16th century until his death in Morocco in 1578.
The Law Catches Up
Trade was becoming much more organised and controlled in the 17th century with many laws and regulations being passed. In his book “Irish Life in the 17th Century”, Edward Mac Lysaght quotes Lawlor‘s maritime Survey thus
“Owing to the Commercial Policy of England embodied in the Navigation Acts there was little Irish owned shipping, however a great many Irishmen were to be found not only in the British Navy, some joining voluntarily, others as victims of Press Gangs, but also in the royal and merchant navies of several European nations particularly Spain where many of them rose to considerable eminence in their profession”.
Yet piracy and privateering still existed. Privateers were cargo ships masters who held a licence from their governments to prey on the trade of states to which they were hostile. It was the settled policy of some governments to encourage privateering with a view to weakening as far as possible the economy of the enemy state. The Algerians were one of the leading such states and their privateers were very active along the Irish coasts. John de Courcy Ireland recounts the attack on the town of Baltimore, Co. Cork on July 19th 1631 when two Algerian ships carried off 109 inhabitants of the town and held them to ransom. They were eventually ransomed by the government in London some years later but very few showed much enthusiasm to return.
The payment of such ransoms encouraged further attacks in the late 17th century but the Williamite Wars led to many Jacobite refugees – “The Wild Geese” – joining the navies of the enemies of Britain to seek revenge and a way of life. Dr. Richard Hayes in his book “The Irish Sword” states that over 1,000 lrishmen joined the French Navy.
All British maritime historians acknowledge the debt of the British merchant and military navies to Irish seamen who have efficiently served them in every capacity. Navigation schools taught marine cartography and seamanship. It was an interesting and profitable way of life. However, many “seamen” were given little choice being impressed into service particularly that of the British Navy.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines impressment thus:
Impressment, also crimping or shanghaiing was the enforcement of military or naval service on able bodied but unwilling men through crude and violent methods. Until about the mid 1810’s this practice flourished in port towns throughout the world. Generally impressment could provide effective crews when patriotism was not an essential of military success. Impressed men were held to their duty by uncompromising and brutal discipline. The “recruiters” chose almost exclusively men from the lower classes who were, more often than not, vagabonds or even prisoners. Sources of supply were generally waterfront boarding houses, brothels and taverns whose owners victimised their own clientele.
Chris Cook in his “Dictionary of Historical Terms” states that
Impressment was the forced seizure for military service, common in many countries before the establishment of conscription. In Britain and Ireland, Press Gangs forcibly recruited many men to serve the navy particularly during the Napoleonic Wars but the practice was abandoned about the middle of the 19th century.
According to Peter Kemp in “The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea”, the Press Gang was the name given popularly to a group of naval seamen under the command of an officer employed in the time of war to bring in seamen for service in the navy. Although connected by most people with the British Navy, other nations employed similar methods of recruitment for their navies and the impressment of men for service in warships was wide spread”. In Britain and Ireland these groups operated mainly in sea ports but occasionally visited inland towns to pick up seamen who may have been thought to reside or visit there. Men thus taken were entered in the ships muster book as pressed men or landsmen and were paid at a lower rate than those who volunteered. These men were then taken to the “rendezvous”, a naval recruiting centre usually set up in some tavern near the waterfront in times of war. A strong lock-up room known as a press-room was used in which to hold the recruits until they could be dispatched to a receiving ship in a home port. This rendezvous was the centre of the local impressment service administered by a regulating captain, whose duty it was to examine the men brought in by the press gangs and to pay the official bounty to those men who could be persuaded to volunteer. Those who did not volunteer nevertheless joined the navy as “pressed men”. When sufficient seamen had been impressed a press tender, a small vessel, took on board volunteers of pressed men collected at the rendezvous and delivered them to their destinations. The men thus collected were taken down into the tenders hold which was then battened down to prevent any chance of the men escaping. Conditions in press tenders were notoriously terrible and because of their filth and overcrowding were mainly responsible for the great incidence of typhus fever which decimated British fleets during the Revolutionary (1793-1801) and Napoleonic (1803-1815) wars against France when the pressing of seamen was at its height.
John Masefield in his most interesting book “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time”, describes the assembling of a crew as one of the captain’s main problems. He depicts the procedure thus:
The captain of a Man-of-War had to use his best endeavours to get the ship manned by the dispersal of alluring placards all over the town near which he lay, promising quick promotion, heaps of prize money, free-rations, etc. to all who would enter. He was also expected to open a rendezvous at a sailors tavern where the master-at-arms and coxswain could blarney sailors into joining. Sometimes he was able to offer a bounty or money-reward to every seaman who entered. If neither sugary announcements nor the offer of piece of gold could lure the men to the living death of a gundeck, he had to have recourse to the press. He would send his boats ashore after dark to search the dockside brothels or sailors taverns. Any sailors or sea-faring folk discovered in these hamlets were dragged from the arms of their trulls and taken aboard. Often the press-gangs had to fight to bring off their man, for the women sometimes rallied to the rescue. Many a bold lieutenant had his cheeks scratched or his hair pulled out and many a bold tarrybreeks got his head broken in these encounters.
Press gangs made great havoc among watermen and dockside labourers. They were expected primarily to capture sailors and seafaring people but a ‘man-of-war’ like a gallows refused nothing and many landsmen served their turn. They were at least mortal men and did so as well any others to stop a bullet or to feed powder. Tailors, tradesmen, street loafers were all fair game. They were taken to the boats and sent aboard and cracked across the heads with a cudgel if they protested. Once on board they were shoved down below-deck under a marine sentry who had orders to shoot them if they attempted to escape. When convenient the captain examined these wretches, as to their fitness for sea service. He had them examined by the surgeon to make sure that they were not infested nor infected. Any man who appeared to be too sickly for the work was discharged. A dirty man was cleaned and his clothes fumigated. Apprentices who could prove their indentures, or merchant sailors who could (make) claim exemption, were dismissed. All the others were carefully retained. Many pressed men made the most of a very hard bargain by offering to ship within a fortnight of their imprisonment. Those who acted thus were allowed the King’s bounty. This way of impressing folk was but one of the many ways by which a captain could get his fleet manned. Men condemned at the sessions were sometimes offered the hard alternative of the gallows or service afloat. Often they chose the greater of the two evils. Absconding debtors were frequently eager to ship to avoid capture. A number of men shipped because they had had their heads turned by sea-songs describing the beauty and comradeship of life afloat. Large numbers of young bloods who had been found drunk on the streets or bawdy houses and feared to see their names in the magistrates or court lists also joined. Very bad bargains these generally were.
“Having got a crew together by these ‘gentle’ means the captain had to see to it that each name was entered in the ship’s books, particularly the muster book, in which a sort of prison record was kept to enable the officers to identify deserters. The colour of a man’s hair and eyes were noted. His chest measurement was taken. His tattoo marks were described. if the man deserted, these particulars were sent to the Admiralty with an account of the escape. The muster books were kept with great care, and submitted every month or two to the Admiralty”.
What you might well ask had imprisonment, or press gangs, etc. to do with Wicklow? Well, on April 29th 1734 the usual monthly meeting of the Portrieve and burgesses for the borough of Wicklow was held under the guidance of George Deacon, Portrieve. The following letter, having been received from the Lord Lieutenant, was read:
To the Chief Magistrate of the town of Wicklow,
After our hearty commendations, whereas His Majesty’s service doth at this time require a speedy supply of able seamen and seafaring men compleating the number of those that are wanting to man His Majesty’s fleet which in now fitting out, and it is apprehended that considerable numbers of seamen have conveyed themselves into this Kingdom in order to avoid His Majesty’s Service; and whereas His Majesty hath signified his Royal pleasure to us by a letter from the Lords of His Majesty’s most Hon. Privy Council in Great Britain, to issue out the necessary orders and directions to the civil magistrates of His Kingdom of Ireland to assist the captains and officers of His Majesty’s ships in impressing seamen and seafaring men for the service of His Majesty’s fleet, and to use your best endeavours to take up and send on board His Majesty’s ships and vessells on the coast of this Kingdom such seamen and sea faring men for His Majesty’s service, and in pursuance of His Majesty’s said commands we declare that all persons who shall be entrusted with the conducting of such seamen and seafaring men to such vessells shall be paid by the commanding officers thereof for their encouragement twenty shillings (£1) for each seaman and seafaring man fit for the said service and six pence (2‘/zp) a mile for every mile they respectively travel, not exceeding twenty miles. And so bid you heartily farewell.
From His Majesty’s Castle of Dublin 3rd day of April 1734.
Your Loving Friend,
The bounty offered was certainly too good to pass over and little time was wasted in filling the vacant sailors positions in His Majesty’s fleet, as is obvious from a letter received in August (1734). Also included in the correspondence was a copy of a letter from the Court of Kensington. The letters read thus:
To the Chief Magistrates of the Town of Wicklow.
After our hearty commendations, whereas his Grace, the Duke of Dorset, Lord Lieutenant of this Kingsom did by his letter to you bearing the date, the 3rd of April last signifying to you His Majesty’s pleasure relating to the taking of seamen and sea faring men we have received an order of Council signifying His Majesty’s pleasure that the civil Magistrates of this Kingdon do not take up any more seamen until His Majesty’s further pleasure, shall be known. We herewith transmit a copy of the same to you, that you may act conformably thereto, and so we bid you heartily farewell.
From His Majesty’s Castle of Dublin the 2nd day of August 1734.
Your Loving friends,
At the court of Kengsington the 11th day of July 1734.
The King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council.
Whereas by His Majesty’s command, a letter was sent from the Lords of His Majesty’s most honourable Privy Council dated the 3rd of April last, to his Grace the Duke of Dorset, Lord Lieutenant of His Majesty’s Kingdom of Ireland requiring him to issue out the necessary orders and directions to the civil magistrates of the Kingdom to assist the captains and officers of His Majesty’s ships in impressing seafaring men from His Majesty’s fleet and to use their best endeavours to take up and send on board His Majesty’s ships and vessels on the coast of that kingdom, such seamen and seafaring men as should be met with, fit for His Majesty’s Service. And whereas the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have this day represented His Majesty at this board that there are a considerable number of ships now ready for service and therefore proposed that directions should be sent to the Civil Magistrates of Ireland to forbear taking up any more seafaring men for the present. His Majesty is thereupon pleased with the advices of his Privy Council, to order as it is hereby ordered, that the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland do cause the necessary orders to be given to the Civil Magistrates of that Kingdom not to take up any more seamen until His Majesty’s further pleasure shall be signified.
I’m sure the loyal citizens of the Borough of Wicklow awaited His Majesty’s further pleasure and the lucrative bounty it entailed. No further record exists of impressment as the Borough records show no further correspondence with the Lords of the Admiralty.
After the Napoleonic war the pressing of seamen became almost obsolete. Sailors and the method of recruiting them had by Victorian times changed less than the ships. There was an unofficial hard core of man-at-wars men at the naval ports but they were not continually employed by the Admiralty, they signed on for the duration of a ship’s commission and were paid off – those who survived it – some three or perhaps four years later. The only concession the Admiralty made to the idea of regular service was to provide a pension of from 4p to 6p a day for anyone whose period of service on naval ships totalled twenty-one years, a smaller pension for those invalided from disease and a larger one for the limbless and wounded. This voluntary system recognised that it could not work in a major war. “Pressing” was still legal but it had been the cause of so many evils and so much unpopularity that it was believed to be impractical. The Admiralty had worked out a modified form for national emergencies by which sailors would have to serve a limited instead of limitless term of five years in the Navy on a roster basis and to this end a register of all seamen in the country had been compiled. Conscription is in some ways a modern form of National impressment. So when you drop in to the Bridge Tavern for a pint or stroll along the quays on a quiet summers evening, consider the predicament of the seafaring men of the 18th century. Their similar past-times could have been violently ended by a prowling pressgang and as far as the author of this article is aware the relevant law concerning impressment has never been repealed.
There has never been the need to or is there ????
You’ve been warned!
With thanks to Anthony O’Neill and Joe Phillips for use of the Borough Council Records.
Wicklow Borough Council Records.
The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea. Edited by Peter Kemp.
Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield.
Irish Life in the 17th Century by Edward Mac Lysaght.
Rule Britannia – The Victorian and Edwardian Navy by Peter Padfield.
Dictionary of Historical Terms by Chris Cook.
The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan.
Bligh by Gavin Kennedy.
Ireland and the Irish in Maritime History by John De Courcy Ireland.
The Irish Sword by Dr. Richard Hayes.
Did you know that there is on record in the Minutes of the Borough Council, dated Oct. 23rd 1691 an order from General Ginkell – Dutch Commander of William of Orange that a regiment of soldiers be marched from Wicklow to Limerick to support the said general and to raise the necessary funds for the support, provisions and entertainment of the officers and men of the said regiment.