OLD ENGLISH: The Alnwick and District Local History Society opened its new season with something different.
The group Old English, comprising Pete, Pauline and Al, gave us Pressed!, the history of the Press Gangs, in words and song.
The group became interested in this topic when they found large numbers of folksongs, particularly those from the North East, were about the press gangs.
The formalisation of the press gang was a Georgian initiative to increase the manning of the Navy during times of war.
It started as an informal arrangement, but by 1754 the Government had introduced a rigorous administrative system, and had set quotas for the numbers of men to be recruited from each port. These could be very high. The Port of Sunderland, for example, had a quota of 669 in 1795.
Men who had served as seamen were preferred, but those who already had such jobs were extremely reluctant to serve in the Royal Navy.
There were a number of reasons for this: Pay was atrocious; leave was reluctantly granted, because of the risk of men absconding; conditions were harsh, the diet was poor and discipline ferocious; there was a high risk of dying from disease or being killed in battle and the fact that men who were impressed in war time were immediately released when they were no longer needed.
The press gangs were led by regulating captains. They were organised from a central rendezvous (the rondy) which was usually a pub. Individual gangs were sent out to an area, usually under the leadership of a lieutenant, to obtain their quotas.
The regulating captains were often disreputable and drunken, any possibility of advancement in their naval careers at an end.
There were strict rules and regulations to adhere to, especially with respect to bribery, though these were largely ignored. Bribes were taken not only to release men from impressment, but also to get individuals impressed.
A number of the folk songs relate to such events. In Pretty Ploughboy a family bribe the press gang to get rid of an undesirable suitor for their daughter, and in On Board a 98, parents send the press gang to impress an indolent son, though this transpires to be the making of him and he progresses through the Navy hierarchy.
Because of this, strong groups of seamen such as the keelmen became strongly organised. They carried protection documents, but in an emergency, the rules were ignored, and they were impressed.
The press gangs finally ended in 1779. The British Government had insisted that impressment was necessary to man the Royal Navy, and had refused to increase pay and better conditions as an aid to recruitment.
Among others, Richard Rush, the American Ambassador, was in no doubt that the system was unnecessary. Britain was alone in the world thinking that it was needed.