1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Impressment
IMPRESSMENT, the name given in English to the exercise of the authority of the state to “press” or compel the service of the subject for the defence of the realm. Every sovereign state must claim and at times exercise this power. The “drafting” of men for service in the American Civil War was a form of impressment. All the monarchical, or republican, governments of Europe have employed the press at one time or another. All forms of conscription, including the English ballot for the militia, are but regulations of this sovereign right. In England impressment may be looked upon as an erratic, and often oppressive, way of enforcing the common obligation to serve in “the host” or in the posse comitatus (power of the county). In Scotland, where the feudal organization was very complete in the Lowlands, and the tribal organization no less complete in the Highlands, and where the state was weak, impressment was originally little known. After the union of the two parliaments in 1707, no distinction was made between the two divisions of Great Britain. In England the kings of the Plantagenet dynasty caused Welshmen to be pressed by the Lords Marchers, and Irish kerns to be pressed by the Lords Deputy, for their wars in France. Complaints were made by parliament of the oppressive use of this power as early as the reign of Edward III., but it continued to be exercised. Readers of Shakespeare will remember Sir John Falstaff’s commission to press soldiers, and the manner, justified no doubt by many and familiar examples of the way in which the duty was performed. A small sum called imprest-money, or coat and conduct money, was given to the men when pressed to enable them to reach the appointed rendezvous. Soldiers were secured in this way by Queen Elizabeth, by King Charles I., and by the parliament itself in the Civil War. The famous New Model Army of Cromwell was largely raised by impressment. Parliament ordered the county committees to select recruits of “years meet for their employment and well clothed.” After the Revolution of 1688 parliament occasionally made use of this resource. In 1779 a general press of all rogues and vagabonds in London to be drafted into the regiments was ordered. It is said that all who were not too lame to run away or too destitute to bribe the parish constable were swept into the net. As they were encouraged to desert by the undisguised connivance of the officers and men who were disgusted with their company, no further attempt to use the press for the army was made.
A distinction between the liability of sailors and of other men dates from the 16th century. From an act of Philip and Mary (1556) it appears that the watermen of the Thames claimed exemption from the press as a privileged body. They were declared liable, and the liability was clearly meant to extend to service as a soldier on shore. In the fifth year of Queen Elizabeth (1563) an act was passed to define the liability of the sailors. It is known as “an Act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the Navy.” By its term all fishermen and mariners were protected from being compelled “to serve as any soldiers upon the Land or upon the Sea, otherwise than as a mariner, except it shall be to serve under any Captain of some ship or vessel, for landing to do some special exploit which mariners have been used to do.” The operation of the act was limited to ten years, but it was renewed repeatedly, and was at last indefinitely prolonged in the sixteenth year of the reign of Charles I. (1631). By the Vagrancy Act of the close of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1597), disorderly serving-men and other disreputable characters, of whom a formidable list is given, were declared to be liable to be impressed for service in the fleet. The “Takers,” as they were called in early times, the Press Gang of later days, were ordered to present their commission to two justices of the peace, who were bound to pick out “such sufficient number of able men, as in the said commission shall be contained, to serve Her Majesty as aforesaid.” The justices of the peace in the coast districts, who were often themselves concerned in the shipping trade, were not always zealous in enforcing the press. The pressed sailors often deserted with the “imprest money” given them. Loud complaints were made by the naval officers of the bad quality of the men sent up to serve in the king’s ships. On the other hand, the Press Gangs were accused of extorting money, and of making illegal arrests. In the reign of Queen Anne (1703) an act was passed “for the increase of Seamen and the better encouragement of navigation, and the protection of the Coal Trade.” The act which gave parish authorities power to apprentice boys to the sea exempted the apprentices from the press for three years, and until the age of eighteen. It especially reaffirmed the part of the Vagrancy Act of Elizabeth’s reign which left rogues and vagabonds subject to be pressed for the sea service. By the act for the “Increase of Mariners and Seamen to navigate Merchant Ships and other trading ships or vessels,” passed in the reign of George II. (1740), all men over fifty-five were exempted from the press together with lads under eighteen, foreigners serving in British ships (always numerous in war time), and landsmen who had gone to sea during their first two years. The act for “the better supplying of the cities of London and Westminster with fish” gave exemption to all masters of fishing-boats, to four apprentices and one mariner to each boat, and all landsmen for two years, except in case of actual invasion. By the act for the encouragement of insurance passed in 1774, the fire insurance companies in London were entitled to secure exemption for thirty watermen each in their employment. Masters and mates of merchant vessels, and a proportion of men per ship in the colliers trading from the north to London, were also exempt.
Subject to such limitations as these, all seafaring men, and watermen on rivers, were liable to be pressed between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five, and might be pressed repeatedly for so long as their liability lasted. The rogue and vagabond element were at the mercy of the justices of the peace. The frightful epidemics of fever which desolated the navy till late in the 18th century were largely due to the infection brought by the prisoners drafted from the ill-kept jails of the time. As service in the fleet was most unpopular with the sailors, the press could often only be enforced by making a parade of strength and employing troops. The men had many friends who were always willing to conceal them, and they themselves became expert in avoiding capture. There was, however, one way of procuring them which gave them no chance of evasion. The merchant ships were stopped at sea and the sailors taken out. This was done to a great extent, more especially in the case of homeward-bound vessels. On one occasion, in 1802, an East Indiaman on her way home was deprived of so many of her crew by a man of war in the Bay of Biscay that she was unable to resist a small French privateer, and was carried off as a prize with a valuable cargo. The press and the jails failed to supply the number of men required. In 1795 it was found necessary to impose on the counties the obligation to provide “a quota” of men, at their own expense. The local authorities provided the recruits by offering high bounties, often to debtors confined in the prisons. These desperate men were a very bad element in the navy. In 1797 they combined with the United Irishmen, of whom large numbers had been drafted into the fleet as vagabonds, to give a very dangerous political character to the mutinies at the Nore and on the south of Ireland. After the conclusion of the great Napoleonic wars in 1815 the power of the press was not again exercised. In 1835 an act was passed during Sir James Graham’s tenure of office as first lord of the admiralty, by which men who had once been pressed and had served for a period of five years were to be exempt from impressment in future. Sir James, however, emphatically reaffirmed the right of the crown to enforce the service of the subject, and therefore to impress the seamen. The introduction of engagements for a term of five years in 1853, and then of long service, has produced so large a body of voluntary recruits, and service in the navy is so popular, that the question has no longer any interest save an historical one. If compulsory service in the fleet should again become necessary it will not be in the form of the old system of impressment, which left the sailor subject to compulsory service from the age of eighteen to fifty-five, and flooded the navy with the scum of the jails and the workhouse.
Authorities.—Grose’s Military Antiquities, for the general subject of impressment, vol. ii. p. 73 et seq. S. R. Gardiner gives many details in his history of James I. and Charles I., and in The Civil War. The acts relating to the navy are quoted in A Collection of the Statutes relating to the Admiralty, &c., published in 1810. Some curious information is in the papers relating to the Brest Blockade edited by John Leyland for the Navy Record Society. Sir James Graham’s speech is in Hansard for 1835. (D. H.)
- It is now accepted generally that “to press” is a corruption of “prest,” as “impress” is of “imprest,” but the word was quite early connected with “press,” to squeeze, crush, hence to compel or force. The “prest” was a sum of money advanced (O. Fr. prester, modern prêter, to lend, Lat. praestare, to stand before, provide, become surety for, &c.) to a person to enable him to perform some undertaking, hence used of earnest money given to soldiers on enlistment, or as the “coat and conduct” money alluded to in this article. The methods of compulsion used to get men for military service naturally connected the word with “to press” (Lat. pressare, frequentative of premere) to force, and all reference to the money advanced was lost (see Skeat, Etym. Dict., 1898, and the quotation from H. Wedgwood, Dict. of Eng. Etym.).