‘Like prison, with the possibility of being drowned’ – impressment to the navy

If you were poor in the seventeenth century, it was hard to imagine life getting any worse, but it could, when the press men arrived. In January 1603 the Lord Warden ordered a muster of all Hythe’s mariners and seafaring men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, ‘out of which there shall be choice made and impressed’.  Impressment was the way the navy crewed its warships and the burden fell most heavily, if not exclusively, on the poor and the young.  The choice of who was impressed was largely determined by corruption, bribes and influence, and no man who could avoid impressment for himself or his son through these channels hesitated to use them. The other factor in the decision-making process was the health and strength of the men, qualities more likely to be found among the youth of the town. The requirement for ‘seafaring men’ did not narrow the field very much, as in a port and fishing town, most of the young men would have some experience of the sea.

Life in the navy was dangerous and often short. Conditions on board were notoriously tough: the food was poor, insufficient and frequently mouldy; there was no  heating and wet clothes sometimes did not dry out for weeks; sleep, especially unbroken sleep, was always at a premium.  Disease was rife; in fact ships were deliberately overmanned to allow for a high death rate, thus contributing to the problem. Commanders regularly complained that their vessels were ‘infested and noisome’, their men unfed, unpaid and unclothed and if put ashore sick were likely to be left to die by the inhabitants of the recipient port. One wrote of his crew that ‘their toes and feet miserably rot and fall away piecemeal’, which was probably the result of complications of advanced scurvy. The worst of it as far as their home town was concerned, was that the navy very often failed in its duty to support families left behind, so that they became a charge on the town.

In the end, five Hythe men were chosen to meet the complement of one hundred which the Cinque Ports had to provide.  They were told to make their way to Chatham, about forty miles distant, and given twelve pence each for imprest money and a halfpenny for each mile to Chatham. The Admiralty, exasperated by reports of pressed men arriving unsuitably dressed and unarmed, stipulated that their family and friends should, if necessary, provide them with good clothing, a sword and a dagger. This betrays either complete ignorance of the means of the average poor family, or more likely a cynical attitude: by issuing the order the Admiralty could tell its commanders it had done its best to ensure the men were well-equipped.How many of the five Hythe men got to Chatham and joined a ship is not known. The desertion rate was high, but presented dangers for the deserter. He could not return to his home town, and unless he could find work very quickly became a vagrant, with all that entailed. There was an alternative. The towns of the Elizabethan era were frequently terrorised by reports of gangs of deserters marauding their way through the countryside.

In 1627, after another impressment exercise in the Cinque Ports, the Lord Warden went himself to Chatham to check on the situation. Of two hundred men pressed, only a hundred and forty had reported to their ships, and many of these subsequently deserted. The Lord Warden hoped that they would be found and made an example of. A year later Hythe was required to provide another six men, this time for Buckingham’s bungled attempt to help save the French Huguenots from persecution by their own government by landing on the Île de Ré.  By this time the navy had been neglected for years by the king, who preferred to spend money elsewhere (on his favourite, Buckingham, for example), so ships were even more insanitary and unpleasant places to be for the two hundred Kentish men who were pressed. Hythe’s former M.P., Edward Clarke, warned Buckingham that the men were so disaffected they were ‘more apt to run into a mutiny at sea than perform their duties’, and he was proved right.

File:Invasion of Re1627.jpg

Map of the landing, siege and retreat by Buckingham’s ships at the  Île de Ré. He was unable to take the citadel as his scaling ladders were too short.

Impressment continued throughout the century and on into the Commonwealth. In 1653 when the country was at war with the Dutch, John Carter, in charge of impressments in the south, wrote frantically to the Navy Commission:

‘I have pressed 114 men in the places I was sent to, but those at Hastings have not pressed a man, and I could only press 2 there; so you may judge of their love to you…There are 33 vessels at Brighton and they have but 10 men in the service..I. have received 10 sick men from the fleet, and orders from Major Bourne to provide for them. I want to know what is to be allowed for them. There are five private men-of-war here, three from Dover and two from Rye, who receive and hide the seamen as long as there is any press in the town…. What shall I give soldiers and seamen discharged for sickness, but without certificates for relief?

I put in prison at Hythe two men whom I had pressed at Rye and sent to Chatham, but I met them again going for Dover, and put them in prison there. I wish you to ask the Mayor of Hythe how theycame be set at liberty’

The response of Austen Grenland, then mayor of Hythe, is not recorded. He was a Puritan who had always conformed to Parliamentary authority, and had shown ‘much affection’ to Parliament’s cause, so it is not likely that he was trying to undermine the government.  Perhaps someone with the keys to the gaol was moved to pity.

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