Monday, May 9, 2011

The Press Gang, Impressment, and Prize Money

The Orkney Archive has blogged Which is scarier, Dr Who or Press Gangs ? You decide ! They show a typical document dated 25th April 1803 authorising the impressment of men to run the ship.

The blog asks "Are you delighted by what you have just read? Are you revulsed and appalled? "

It neither horrifies nor delights me.

Fighting ships had to be manned and in the absence of a means to call up people for service, and the means by which people could assent, appeal, or protest; it was a reasonable method.

All of those who served (whether pressed or not) in the Royal Navy would have endured very harsh conditions and privations that we wouldn't find acceptable today, and many were badly injured or died. However many survived, and some survived with quite a lot of prize money and returned wealthy beyond their previous wildest dreams. Far worse would be the suffering of the families left at home, whose father or husband had been the major income for the household.

Royal Navy ships that captured an enemy ship, or cargo from other ships or countries got prize money to the notional value of the cargo and or ship.
In the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the prize money was divided: 1/8 to the admiral, 1/4 to the captain, 1/8 between the officers, 1/8 between senior warrant officers, 1/8 between junior warrant officers, 1/4 between the crew.

What I find unacceptable, even by the standards of the day, is that there was no state support for the parishes of those who had men pressed for service.

In the Scottish Borders, impressment would have affected mainly the Berwickshire coastal villages, though enterprising press gangs may have ventured further inland, or to villages along the shores of the Tweed, since much of it is navigable even with the comparatively heavy boats of yester year.

More information at 'The press-gang afloat and ashore'  and Wikipedia article on Impressment, also a shorter article from the Royal Naval Museum 'Impressment - The Press Gangs and Naval Recruitment'.

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