Feature British Navy Impressment

Learn more about how the British navy once hired its recruits.

British Navy Impressment

Since the French Revolution, conscription or the Draft has been how countries have found additional manpower for their armed forces in modern times.

Prior to this Britain practiced a cruel but effective way of combating the manpower shortage in their navy: impressment.

Impressment, or “press gang” as it was more commonly known, was recruitment by force. It was a practice that directly affected the U.S. and was even one of the causes of the War of 1812.

The British navy consistently suffered manpower shortages due to the low pay and a lack of qualified seamen. During wartime the navy forced unwilling individuals into service. Residents of seaports lived in fear of the press gangs that patrolled waterfronts and raided taverns, pouncing on deserters and idle mariners. Prints from the time show armed gangs kidnapping men in their beds, or barging into weddings and hauling the groom out much to the distress of the bride.

But generally “pressing” took place at sea where the armed gangs would board merchant ships. These ships were ransacked of their men and often left without sufficient hands to take them safely into port.

Impressment was first made lawful during Elizabethan times, though it had been a common practice of drafting soldiers dating back to the 13th century. In 1563 Queen Elizabeth passed "an Act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the Navy" which defined more clearly the liability of sailors who may be forced to serve as mariners.

The legalization was taken further in 1597 when the Vagrancy Act was passed, which now allowed for men of disrepute to be impressed for service in the fleet.

While essential for the strength of the British Navy, the brutal nature of impressment was deeply unpopular. Many viewed it as an inhumane and unconstitutional system.

In the 18th century a raft of legislation was introduced aimed at moderating the practice. A 1740 act declared that all men under 18 and over 55 and foreigners who served on British ships were declared exempt from enforced service.

In reality, however, these laws were ignored and impressment of foreigners was commonplace. In fact, only 40-years later the exemptions from impressment were withdrawn, so desperate was the British Navy for seamen.

American merchant vessels were a common target. Between 1793 and 1812, the British impressed more than 15,000 U.S. sailors to supplement their fleet during their Napoleonic Wars with France. By 1812 the United States Government had had enough. On 18 June, the United States declared war on Great Britain, citing, in part, impressment.

After the Napoleonic Wars impressment was ended in practice, though not officially abandoned as a policy. The last law was passed in 1835, in which the power to impress was reaffirmed. It limited the length of service of a pressed man to five years, and added the provision that a man couldn't be pressed twice.