Press gangs operated in England from medieval times, but during the war years the “tradition” was increased. In fact, the pressing of free men into military service was considered a royal prerogative. Pressgangs claimed many innocents who stumbled into the wrong area. Men were taken against their will from streets and country roads. They were captured through violence and placed onboard ship, bound and caged, until the ship left port. No one knows how many of Great Britain’s sailors were “pressed” into service. Not all who sailed upon British ships were countrymen. Some were Americans or those taken from the West Indies. The taken men were often wounded in their struggles. Many died from a lack of treatment.
“The class on whom it fell, however, found little sympathy from society. They were rogues and vagabonds, who were held to be better employed in defence of their country, than in plunder and mendicancy. During the American war, impressment was permitted in the case of all idle and disorderly persons, not following any lawful trade or having some substance sufficient for their maintenance. Such men were seized upon, without compunction, and hurried to the war. It was a dangerous license, repugnant to the free spirit of our laws; and, in later times, the state has trusted to bounties and the recruiting sergeant, and not to impressment, — for strengthening its land forces.” – The constitutional history of England since the accession of George Third, 1760-1860, Volume 2 (Google eBook), Thomas Erskine May, 1866, pp. 261-262.
We must recall that there was no organized police force to protect the men upon the street or to investigate a family’s report of a missing relative. Even those who served their duty were not “free” an additional impressment. Some men were recaptured and placed on another ship.
“Impressment was restricted by law to seamen, who, being most needed for the fleet, chiefly suffered from the violence of the press-gangs. They were taken on the coast, or seized on board merchant ships, like criminals: ships at sea were rifled of their crews, and left without sufficient hands to take them safely into port. Nay, we even find soldiers employed to assist the pressgangs: villages invested by a regular force: sentries standing with fixed bayonets; and churches surrounded, during divine service, to seize seamen for the fleet.
The lawless press-gangs were no respecters of persons. In vain did apprentices and landsmen claim exemption. They were skulking sailors in disguise, or would make good seamen at the first scent of salt-water; and were carried off to the sea ports. Press-gangs were the terror of citizens and apprentices in London, of laborers in villages, and of artisans in the remotest inland towns. Their approach was dreaded like the invasion of a foreign enemy. To escape their swoop, men forsook their trades and families and fled, — or armed themselves for resistance. Their deeds have been recounted in history, in fiction, and in song. Outrages were of course deplored; but the navy was the pride of England, and every one agreed that it must be recruited. In vain were other means suggested for manning the fleet, — higher wages, limited service, and increased pensions. Such schemes were doubtful expedients: the navy could not be hazarded: press-gangs must still go forth and execute their rough commission, or England would be lost. And so impressment prospered. – The constitutional history of England since the accession of George Third, 1760-1860, Volume 2 (Google eBook), Thomas Erskine May, 1866, pp. 261-262.
William Pitt brought in a Quota Act in 1795. This act stated how many men each shire was to provide for service. Men convicted of a crime resulting in imprisonment could choose between prison or service in the British Navy. This act reduced the practice of impressment, but during the Napoleonic Wars, stealing men from the streets to press into service still existed. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the practice died out.
I used the pressgangs as a plot point in my award-winning mystery, The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin.