Pressed into Service: Impressment in the Royal Navy


I have for some time had an avid interest in impressment. The reason for that, primarily came about during the many years  I spent researching family history. I have on a number of occasions come across stories of exactly such a nature concerning men in our own family tree and will relate just such tale as it’s told in the annals of our family.

“In about the year 1810 John McNeil Stewart, second generation Scotsman living in Ballycastle, Ireland, was pressed into service on His Majesty’s Ship, “The Observer”. After serving for some time on this ship, John Stewart eventually reached Pictou Harbour in Nova Scotia. In that harbour one day he and several of his fellow recruits jumped overboard and upon being pursued, John Stewart at last made his way to safety. Once upon shore, a fellow Scotsman named Cameron covered him with a long cloak and concealed him in his home until his pursuers returned to their ship.” When it was safe to do so, John Stewart made his way into inland Nova Scotia where he married, raised a family and lived until his death sometime later. He is an ancestor to some members of our crew.

Pictou Harbour Many were sympathetic to the deserters who had been forcibly impressed and certainly it did not go unchallenged. Maritimers and particularly Nova Scotians very often made their livelihoods upon the seas as privateers, merchantmen and fishermen, making them even more vulnerable to being taken by the Royal Navy. This resulted in many formal petitions coming from the citizens of Nova Scotia to stop the practice.

The Royal Navy always had problems recruiting enough men to man their ships and this was particularly true in times of war. It was therefore a common event for British subjects of the male persuasion to be impressed into service aboard Royal Navy ships of war. The first act legalizing this practice was passed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1563.

Elizabeth IAt the time, it was then known as “an act touching politick considerations for the maintenance of the Navy”. Although Britain ended the practice of impressing men in 1814 after the Napoleonic Wars, the last law reaffirming impressment was passed in 1835 and it was indeed legal to do so until the early 1900s.

This act gave parishes authority to apprentice boys to the sea. Often a man who was in debt for under 20 pounds would be given a choice to join the navy or go to debtors prison. Other petty criminals were also given this option. As you can imagine many chose to go to sea rather then subject themselves to the harsh conditions of prison, or even death, for what we might consider rather trivial offenses. For many of them, service in the Navy offered a far better way of life then what their previous existence had. As often as not they did not have experience at sea, and as a rule it was much preferred to take fishermen or other seamen who did. Sea-faring men were most often pressed into service by the press gangs.

Pressed into ServicePress gangs were either men sent ashore to take men at club point from the villages and force them to return to the ships, where they were forced into service, or they were hired men from the villages, who would be paid for each man they brought back to the ships. Being a member of a press gang was one way to avoid being pressed into service yourself. According to one article, during the Napoleonic Wars, 3000 men worked as members of press gangs who most often targeted men with the least social power, such as the poor, criminals, and private seaman or fishermen. I cannot imagine how the wives or children of these men must have felt watching their husbands and fathers being forcibly led away to the ships waiting in the harbour. The crews of merchantmen or privateers rescued at sea by the Royal Navy, were also often written into a ships books.

Impressment was a legal practice which was based upon the King’s power and right to call men to military service. There were however rules to be followed, many of which were ignored more often than not. For example, a man could not be forced to serve for longer than a period of five years, and could not be impressed more often than once.  Impressment was limited to men aged between eighteen and forty-five (although I have found variances in that age limit to fifty-five and beyond.  Foreigners could not be taken unless married to a Brit, or they had to have worked aboard a British merchant ship for at least two years.

The Press GangThe men were paid a small salary, given a pension and a share of the captured prize money, which most often was not paid until the end of a man’s service, or at the conclusion of war. This had the effect of course, of diminishing the rate of desertion. The longer a man served, the greater was the monetary interest vested, encouraging many to stay to the end. That doesn’t mean of course that many did not try to desert, and escape they did, in droves. Some say that Britain lost as many men as what were gained. A goodly portion of these men however, settled and even thrived in the way of life that was the Royal Navy. They served out their time, resigned to their fate and the British tradition of impressment.

Certainly, by our modern democratic standards of today, the act of pressing men into service, against their will, seems totaltarian and brutish; however, it is worth pointing out that such customs are not entirely alien to Western society. Consider, for a moment, the Vietnam War and both World Wars of the 20th century, where conscription was avidly pursued. In the Napoleonic Wars, as well, one might wonder whether the face of Europe would look different today, were the men of Great Britain not compelled to serve aboard His Majesty’s ships of war, and the tryant Bonaparte allowed to roam the seas, unchecked and unchallenged. As a woman of Dutch heritage, whose country was during that time period, firmly held under the heel of his tyranny, this is indeed food for thought.


26 thoughts on “Pressed into Service: Impressment in the Royal Navy

  1. pochp says:

    ‘one might wonder whether the face of Europe would look different today, were the men of Great Britain not compelled to serve aboard His Majesty’s ships of war, and the tryant Bonaparte allowed to roam the seas, unchecked and unchallenged.’

    Doesn’t this prove that dictatorship sometimes works (for good)?

    • M.S. says:

      Not really. The War of 1812 proved that once and for all.

      • Dave says:

        If you are referring to the impressment of American sailors by British captains (which invariably led to the war of 1812, as I’m sure you are well aware), then yes, I will not hesitate to agree that such conduct was deplorable.

        This article, however, refers moreso to the conscription or impressment of a county’s own citizens/nationals. No different than your government’s conscription of soldiers in either World Wars, or even the Vietnam War (more commonly known as ‘the draft’, as it were).

        The War of 1812 was not about impressment—it was about one sovereign nation committing an indignity against another. It just happened to be that impressment was the means (and such indignities were not limited to merely impressment).

        It’s pretty clear, though, that in the 21st century such “dictatorship” (which I think is a strong word, even to describe 19th century Great Britain) is never “good”.

  2. Johanna says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, we do so love to receive them!

    In response…

    I do hate to compare compulsory military service to that of a dictatorship, which I believe to be a so much farther reaching type of forceful control and repression over the citizens of a country. A dictatorship removes most of ones human rights and freedoms and this as far as I can see, is never good.

    Compulsory military service however, is as much a reality worldwide as is income tax. I suppose one could call it the price for citizenship. If we do not all pitch in to keep our country as idealistically whole as possible for all of its people, then there must be laws that to an extent guarantee and enforce that.

    In the Netherlands, my own country of birth, unless there is a medical reason for why they cannot, the first and every following third son in a family is required to serve in the armed forces for a period of three years. After this time they become part of the reserve and can be called upon to serve their country during times of war. Realistically speaking, that is not so different from the Impressment of days of old.

    I suppose it is tolerated for the simple reason that a man or a woman may at some point be required to stand up and fight for the country they love and protect the way of life that they treasure. Compulsory military service is a way of preparing them for that, or accomplishing that end, and in actuality can be the thing to prevent dictatorship.

    So, it seems to me that, whatever you choose to call it, be it conscription, impressment or simply compulsory military service, it is certainly at times and in some situations an appropriate measure to be taken.

  3. Johan Morgenthal says:

    I have found your comments on the topic most interesting, mainly because I suspect that one of my ancestors (Johan Morgendaal) left Texel in the ship Teilingen on 16 September 1788. She called at Portsmouth where, as the Dutch described, he was “gelicht” by the English authorities since he was, as a German, according to the English, illegaly on a Dutch ship. In practice it meant that he was pressed into the Royal Navy in the same manner as American sailors were forced off American ships for service in the RN (which led to the 1812 war with the USA).
    The question I have is do you know where one can look for names and particulars of pressed men that happened during that period?


    • Johanna says:

      Hello Johan,

      I’m so sorry for the delay in response to your question.

      I don’t know where you can find information such as you are looking for these pressed men. Of course as in the instance of our families, these stories and records of happenings are often only kept in the memories of the family themselves, having been passed down from one generation to the next.

      The Royal Navy though did keep records or “books” of the men that were pressed into service. Would a possibility be to begin with the Royal Navy herself? I suppose she may still have some of these records available in archive?

      I’m sorry I could not be of more assistance.

      Good day to you,

  4. David Niven says:

    Hi there I was wondering if you could help me out. I work for a television production company and wondered if you knew who held the copyright to the image of the Press Gang used in this article? We are producing a documentary series and would be interested in using this image in one of the shows. Let me know if you can help me out?

    David Niven

  5. pochp says:

    Are you the famous David Niven!?

  6. Mike Cassidy says:

    What to do with those two holes in the hilt of the RN sword? Take a look at
    The site gives instructions for ‘installing’ the sword knot.

  7. Wenswritings says:

    Really enjoyed this article. How nice that you know your family history so well. I had forgotten that the young men of Holland still serve in the Army.

  8. Louise Stewart says:

    I am a direct descendent of John MacNeil Stewart. He moved to Grand Pre, Nova Scotia and married there. I saw his grave and those of his descendants up to and including my great grandfather. My grandfather left the family .farm and moved to Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. Louise Stewart

    • Johanna says:

      Well hello there Louise, or should I say cousin Louise! 🙂 How nice to find a relative through this blog. We live in Nova Scotia and yes it was Grand Pre that John Stewart settled in where he married Elizabeth Laird. It is a very interesting family. My husband is descended from Robert Laird Stewart who was a son of John Stewart. He also had a brother named William I believe. Don’t have my notes in front of me. From which do you descend from? If you want to talk more about our family send us an email. 🙂

  9. Louise Stewart says:

    I don’t have my family tree here either, but my grandfather was born on the family farm in Grand Pre,
    which his brother Corrie farmed and then Corrie’s son Loren who died a few years ago. We used to visit the farm when I was young. I will check which one I come from. I know there are some Gilmores as well.

    • Louise Stewart says:

      Ok found it. I am from Robert Laird’s side. His son John Robert Stewart had my grandfather Archibald Lyle Stewart who moved to Moose Jaw had 7 children including my dad.

    • Johanna says:

      Corrie I believe was William’s son. When John Stewart died, some of the farm was separated and two houses were built. One is on the south side of the road and the other is on the north. Robert settled in the house on the north side, and William on the south. My husband is descended from one of Robert’s daughters. The farm on the north side eventually came into her and her husband’s possession after her brother died of Tuberculosis at the age of 27. Don’t know if you know this but the original farm was first settled way back in the mid 1700’s by Robert Laird, who was the father of John Stewart’s wife, Elizabeth. He was also the grandfather of Robert Laird Borden, who was a Prime Minister of Canada during the 1st World War.

      • Louise Stewart says:

        The funny thing is that my daughter and granddaughter are in NS. I talked to her last night and remembered to tell her about Grand Pre and the graveyard there with all the Stewarts. She was near Digby so headed there while I was madly googling to find out where the graveyard was. One of my searches brought up your blog.

        In our story John Stewart was 19 years old when he was pressed into service and jumped ship swimming to Pictou Island in 1808. An elderly woman named Cambell found him on the beach and covered him with her cloak.

        It shows John Robert with sisters Janet Lyle (who also married a Gillmour, Elizabeth Mary who lived 4 days, Rebecca Ann who lived almost 2 years, another Rebecca Ann that had better luck and married Willard Trenholm, Louise Hamilton who only lived a year, Agenora who married R.L. Duncan, James Wesley, Kate L who married Everett Palmeter, Albert D who lived 10 years and Calvin Bruce. I don’t see a Dottie. After that generation it just follows John Robert Stewarts decendents.

        Anyway my daughter found the graveyard and said it was beautiful. She took pics with my granddaughter who is 9 months old. When I get a chance to scan this stuff I will send you copies. I also have copies of a letter John Robert Stewart sent my grandfather. I don’t have it with me bit it starts out “As I lay dying I wish I could see you once more.”. The writing is shaky and the letter is fervently religious. I would love to see pictures. I live in Toronto. Louise Stewart

  10. Johanna says:

    Oh Ok, just saw this reply. Sorry took me a while to send. I ended up having company for a couple of hours. John Robert had a sister named Dottie. She was my husbands great grandfather.

  11. Johanna says:

    John Robert’s farm was further down the road from where the original farm was. He was Robert’s elder son but he did not take over he family farm because by the time his father died he already had his own place. Wesley the second son did but he died at the age of 27. So Dottie and her husband came back from Mass where they were living and took possession of it at the request of her brother.

  12. Johanna says:

    Sorry you’d think I could do this in one message…but I keep remembering things. John Robert’s wife was a Gilmore. I have pictures I can share if you want.

  13. Johanna says:

    The second Rebecca was my husband’s great grandmother. In our records her name was Rebecca Dorothy but she was called Dottie. She did not like to be called Rebecca because of the sister before her who had died. 🙂 I have a picture of John Robert and his wife, I believe it was Elizabeth as well? sitting in the parlour with Dottie and her husband Willard. They were quite close I believe.

    I have to go out to run some errands but will round up some pictures for you and send them via email.

    Talk again soon

    • Louise Stewart says:

      Yes according to this John Robert was married to Elizabeth Amelia Gillmore. My aunty Em had the middle name of Gilmour. There was also an Elizabeth and an Agenora. The only info I have pre press gang is that John McNeil Stewarts dad was Archibald Stewart and his mom was Susan McNeil. They had 3 children Dan settled in Philadelphia but ended up in Grand Pre. Luke came to St John N.B. in the 1830s. The parents married in Glasgow but moved to Ballycastle Ireland.

      Have a great day. Thanks for all the info.

  14. Johanna says:

    Hello again Louise,

    If you would like you can email me at : you can give me your email address there I will send you some pics and also the info I have about the Laird and Stewart families.


  15. Jenny Green says:

    I’m researching British naval impressment, and wondering where you found the fabulous illustration of the “Impressed Sailor”? Is it in the public domain? Thanks so much for your time!

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