Rothbury, History Society


The Press Gangs

Allan Giles and the Old English folk group gave Rothbury and Coquetdale History Society an entertaining evening talk, illustrated with documents of old photographs and nine songs from the 17th and early 18th centuries.

There is a surprising amount of knowledge from these times in newspapers, letters, exemption papers and songs. The audience thoroughly enjoyed singing the choruses.

It is difficult to put ourselves back to a time when Press Gangs were the acceptable and legal way of recruiting for the army and navy. In fact, for the navy, Nelson said that “without the Press I have no idea how our navy would be run”.

King John had claimed the right to hang the captain if his ship could not sail with its complement of men, and even during the long Napoleonic war, ships remained in harbour unless men could be found.

The Admiralty’s solution was to issue quotas for towns and ports – in Sunderland (1795) 669 were needed, volunteers or pressed. It would fluctuate with the navy’s requirements.

Generally, the appointed regulating captains, (nicknamed Yellow Admirals), and their lieutenants were ‘passed over’ naval men; they and their men were a hard, rough, tough lot, determined to meet their quota. Armed with muskets and cutlasses they were prepared to fight to get and keep their men, before getting them eventually on to the tender boat across to the waiting ship.

Any man could be snatched, even from his family bed, but it was realised that trained and experienced sailors, such as from the coal boats, the Baltic trade and whaling, particularly harpoonists, were what was needed, especially in times of war.

The owners and seamen had created a way of limiting this by having an ‘official’ document exempting a man from being pressed. This was, however, no security.

The men of the port and their wives would seriously fight the Press Gangs, with deaths on both sides.

Women would try to swap places with the men, and some succeeded. Informers could make a good living.

The Government even allowed the release of prisoners, and villages would give over vagrants.

The usually reluctant pressed men would have a life of harsh discipline, poor diet and dangerous work.

Nelson said that “they would be finished by the time they were 45”.

They were far more likely to die of disease than in battle.

In order to stop the men jumping ship at ports they would anchor off shore.

The pay was much lower than on the merchant ships, and the Admiralty was slow at paying the wives.

One song was a wife saying “me and little Geordie would be better off dead”, as her breadwinner was taken off. Another was asking “have you seen owt of me man”, and the reply, “ye’ll niver lie beside him again”.

Historians point out that it only affected a few people and was needed for national security. They acknowledge that there was exploitation, but it was all for a good cause.

Of course, the brunt of it was borne by the sea faring ports, and the busy Coaly Tyne and North East coast was the destiny of choice.

Dolly Peel, a fishwife who stood up to the Press Gangs, and even hid the men, had a pub named after her.

Regulating captain John Bover, unusually respected, has a memorial plaque in St Nicholas Cathedral, paid for by the people.

The next talk is A Pictorial History of Coquetdale, by Peter Dawson, of Rothbury, on Friday, January 15. It takes place in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, at 7.30pm. All welcome, with a charge for non-members of £2.