The name given to the British government's requirements for an individual to serve in defence of his country; it was never employed in the US Navy. Although universally known as ‘press’ or ‘impress’, the origin of the word is ‘prest’, a sum of money advanced to a man in the form of conduct money to reach a naval recruiting centre, or rendezvous as they were called. These were set up in the 18th and early 19th centuries, usually in some tavern near the waterfront of seaport towns. They had a strong lock-up room, known as a press room, where the recruits taken by the press gangs could be held until a tender took them to a receiving ship, or to a hulk, before they were drafted to seagoing ships.
Impressment was a general and recognized method of recruitment in most countries, and applied equally to service ashore and afloat. In England, for example, the famous ‘New Model’ army of Oliver Cromwell was largely recruited by impressments. But because service in the navy was always unpopular, and the demand for seamen always so great, it is the naval element of impressments on which most attention has been focused.
Under early Acts of Parliament, the first of which was passed in 1556, some ‘seamen’ and ‘mariners’ were exempt from impressment, as were landsmen. However, in practice, because of the chronic and persistent need for naval manpower, no authority questioned closely whether a man brought in by the press was exempt or not. The most prolific sources of recruitment came under the various Vagrancy Acts, which encouraged local justices to clear their jails and get rid of their worst characters by drafting them into the navy. During times of particular emergency, such as the Revolutionary War against France (1793–1801), each town and county had to provide a quota of men for service at sea, though the Sea Fencibles and those with protection were exempt.
The operations of the impressment service were widespread throughout Britain. They were also employed at sea, where homeward-bound merchant ships could be stopped and a proportion of the crew taken off, essential men being replaced by men-in-lieu. Outward-bound vessels frequently suffered the same fate; by the time any complaint from an outward-bound ship reached the authorities in London, the incident would be too far in the past to command any action. This pressing at sea, which the men concerned could not evade as they could ashore, was the subject of much abuse.
The impressment service operated only in time of war. It was last employed in Britain during the Napoleonic War (1803–15), although the right to operate a press was still retained. Under an Act of 1835, men who had once been pressed for service and had served five years were exempted from further impressment. But with the introduction of continuous service in the navy in 1853, under which seamen could make service in the navy a career with a pension after a fixed number of years, the need for impressment faded. When, again, large numbers of men were required, as in the two world wars of the 20th century, Acts of compulsory national service were passed and men were drafted into the various fighting services in a more fair and orderly fashion than under the haphazard method of the press gangs.
Subjects: Maritime History.