Press gangs

Navy and Army

Press gangs were well known for the physical force they used in recruiting men into the Royal Navy during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was, however, a practice which Parliament had first sanctioned several centuries earlier.  

In time of war impressment – as the practice was known – was also a tactic employed by the Army to acquire extra men, usually when the non-violent methods of the recruiting sergeants failed to enlist sufficient numbers.   

Naval impressment

The Crown claimed a permanent right to seize men of seafaring experience for the Royal Navy, and the practice was at various times given parliamentary authority.   Impressment was vigorously enforced during the naval wars of the 18th century by Acts passed in 1703, 1705, 1740 and 1779.  

The men pressed into service were usually sailors in the merchant fleets, but might just as often be ordinary apprentices and labourers. During the wars with France from 1793 to 1815, an impress service operated in British coastal towns. 

Although further laws passed in 1835 upheld the power to impress, in practice it fell into disuse after 1815.  

Army recruiting

During the 18th century, public perception of standing armies as instruments of despotic government obliged Parliament to keep Britain’s peacetime forces as small as possible.  

There were times, however, when involvement in continental and colonial wars made it necessary for Parliament to legislate hastily for the speedy recruitment of vast additional forces. 

These extra men were raised either through voluntary enlistment or by compulsion. Recruiting Acts were passed annually during the periods 1703-11, 1743-44, 1756-57, 1778-79, and in 1783, while the British army was engaged in major wars in Europe and elsewhere.  

The Acts offered a financial bounty or reward to men who enlisted for limited periods – in 1757 the sum was £3. They also gave powers to magistrates to press unemployed, but otherwise able-bodied, men.