Tyneside suffered particularly badly because of its large community of seamen and its reputation for the skilled boatmen of North Shields and the keelmen of Newcastle. It is recorded that on 26th April 1793, troops from the Tynemouth garrison took the exceptional precaution of drawing a cordon around North Shields while the Press Gangs from warships in the harbour rounded up no less than 250 seamen, mechanics and labourers and pressed them into service here. One of the naval vessels involved in such Press Gang raids, ‘The Peggy’ is remembered in the name of ‘Peggy’s Hole’, situated by the River Tyne near to North Shields Fish Quay.
Press Gangs were greatly feared on Tyneside, as once a man had been unwillingly pressed into naval service, his wife and family would have to rely on the local parish for support. Indeed the Poor rate in those districts of Tyneside with large communities of seamen and boatmen rapidly increased following Press Gang raids. Because of their importance to the national coal industry the keelmen of Newcastle were supposed to be exempt from the Press Gangs but in reality, they did not escape the naval raids. In particular, the residents of Sandgate, Newcastle, which was home to many of the keelmen, lived in constant fear of the Press Gangs of a Captain Bover whose men operated regularly and harshly on Newcastle quayside:
Here’s the Tender comin’, Pressing all the men,
Oh dear hinny, what shall we dee then.
Here’s the tender comin’, Off at Shields Bar,
Here’s the tender comin’, Full of men o’ war.
They will ship yer foreign, that is what it means,
Here’s the tender comin’, full of Red Marines.
So hide me canny Geordie, hide yersel’ away,
Wait until the frigate makes for Druridge Bay.
If they tyek yer Geordie, whes te’ win wor breed?
Me and little Jacky would better off be deed.
Impressment refers to the act of taking men into a navy by force and without notice. It was used by the British Royal Navy from 1664 and throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, usually in wartime, as a means of crewing warships. The Royal Navy impressed many merchant sailors, as well as some sailors from other nations. People liable to impressment were ‘eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 45 years’. It is known that non-seamen were impressed as well (particularly vagrants), although this was uncommon.
Impressment was strongly criticised by those who believed it to be contrary to the British Constitution at the time. Unlike many of its continental rivals, Britain did not conscript its subjects for any other military service other than a brief experiment with army impressment from 1778 to 1780. Although the public opposed conscription in general, impressment was repeatedly upheld by the courts, as it was deemed vital to the strength of the navy and, by extension, to the survival of the realm.
After the Napoleonic Wars of 1814 the Royal Navy fought no other major naval actions and so ended the practice of impressment until a century later, when it was replaced at the outbreak of World War 1 with a system of conscription for all the military services.
by Charlie Steel © 2013
His published books include ‘Monkseaton Village Vol. 1’ and ‘Monkseaton Village Vol. 2’, both of which are available from most local booksellers.