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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

The Press Gangs of Swansea

Press gangs

In 1803 a Royal Naval Officer named William Harries visited the tiny hamlet of Llangynnwr in Carmarthenshire. With him were several burly men. The press men had come recruiting. It was a criminal offence to refuse the impress as it was known and, on the 30th June, six men appeared in court in Carmarthen. All of them were charged with assaulting a Naval Officer. John Davies was the first to face the magistrate. Davies was described as a mariner and had been identified by the sailor’s trousers he wore. David Morris was also said to be a sailor recognised by the colour of his skin and tar stains on his hands. William Jenkins was a farm labourer who had never been to sea. John Peter, another labourer was Morris’ friend. They had been taken together. Three days earlier, ships carpenter Thomas William had returned to his village after sailing from Trinidad. He had been away for two years. The last defendant was Thomas Francis, a weaver, who had been dragged from his home leaving a wife and two small children. All six were convicted and handed over to the press gang. From Carmarthen they were taken to Swansea and put aboard a navy tender sailing to join the fleet. A defendant from Llanarthne was John Rice. Rice was charged and convicted of stealing a brass pan from a field. He was also sentenced to be sent to sea. Did these unfortunate men return to their communities and loved ones in later years? We don’t know but there’s no record of any of the men coming home.

The Mary Rose was salvaged in 1982 and is now on display at Portsmouth together with hundreds of artefacts recovered from the wreck site including the reconstructed form of a Welsh archer.

By the 1520s England had established a permanent Navy Royal; warships in the employ of the king, later to be called the Royal Navy. When Henry VIII was crowned, there were few Navy Royal ships and the new monarch instigated a building programme starting with the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate. The Mary Rose was sunk in 1545, after 33 years service, while attacking French galleys in the Solent. Henry ordered more warships and the navy he needed, to conquer the new worlds and defend British interests, expanded.

The use of glass bottomed tankards to be able to see the king's shilling, dropped into the beer by the press gang, and refuse the drink to avoid conscription is a myth. Money rarely changed hands when men were pressed. A crack on the head with a club was the more common currency. Most tavern brawls started while a man was drinking. Glass bottomed tankards enabled to drinker to see the first punch coming.

Finding crews for the men-of-war presented a problem. Life aboard was grim, unsanitary and extremely dangerous. Many men died through sickness. Fatal accidents were common and desertions frequent. A constant supply of replacement sailors was needed to keep the vessels up to fighting strength. The king’s navy had a voracious appetite for new recruits. Without enough volunteers to man the warships it became necessary to impress men into the service of the king’s fleet. Calling men to serve the king in times of trouble was nothing new. Men had been conscripted since the times of Edward I but, with colonial expansion and an ever growing navy, the problem of finding suitable crews was becoming increasingly difficult. Merchant seamen had better conditions and considerably better pay than their naval counterparts and few mariners were interested in serving aboard the men-of-war.

Welsh legends

By 1664, royal warrants were being issued empowering naval officers to seize crew members from merchant vessels and impress then into the king’s service. To be impressed, a man had to be between 18 and 45 with seagoing experience. Foreign sailors were excluded, considered to be untrustworthy. Black sailors, on the other hand, were regarded as having no country of their own and could be impressed without difficulty. Objections to impressing men, claiming it was against the British constitution, were tried in the courts and rejected on the grounds that defence of the realm overruled civil rights.

In 1779 there were twelve naval officers operating press gangs in Swansea. Many of the victims were taken to the naval tender Cleveland, commanded by Lieutenant Parker, which was moored at a jetty, waiting to take her miserable cargo to join the fleet.

Merchant ships, returning from foreign parts, would be stopped by blockading warships. If they ignored the order to ‘heave to’ and a warning shot across the bow the next cannon ball was fired through the rigging. Small Naval gunboats guarded the Severn Estuary waiting in ambush to seize unsuspecting crewmen before they reached their home port. The disappointment of men being seized after a long voyage, knowing that they would not complete the journey and see their families, must have been devastating.

Not all the returning sailors waited until their ship was intercepted. Gower fishermen sometimes came alongside and removed some of the merchantmen’s crew to safety before the ship reached the naval blockade. The admiralty responded by empowering its officers to impress any fishermen caught helping returning sailors escape the net. Then, the admiralty extended the right to impress further to include any sailor discovered on a vessel with smuggled contraband.

Press gangs were armed with short cutlasses, known as hangers, wooden clubs and when required muskets or pistols. Although they were navy men, many, including the officers, never went to sea, preferring the better pay and life on shore.

Even if the merchant vessel passed safely through the gauntlet of waiting navy ships and the returning seamen got ashore their problems were not over. Press gangs roamed the streets, looking for recruits. In Swansea press gangs operated near the docks. Each gang comprised ten or twelve burly sailors led by an officer. They hung around the taverns waiting for their victims sometimes plying them with drink or simply seizing them by force. The Ship Inn, The Beehive and The Plume and Feathers, all popular with seamen, were visited regularly. Groups of sullen pressed men would be seen being marched back to the docks under guard.

Some press gangs made money by seizing men and demanding a bribe for their release. In one case, a Lieutenant of thirty years service accepted a bribe and, being drunk, forgot to release the man who complained bitterly when he arrived at his ship. The lieutenant was court marshalled, dismissed from the service and promptly pressed back into the navy as an ordinary seaman.

Battle of Trafalgar

More cautious sailors, who avoided public houses, were likely to have the door of their home bashed in and be dragged from their bed in the middle of the night. Being too young or old, made little difference. Pressed men had to prove their age in order to be released, a difficult thing to do when you can’t read and don’t have a birth certificate.

In times of war, demand for men grew and the press gangs had to search further afield. Landmen, who had previously been exempt from being pressed, found themselves at risk of being sent to sea. Aware that the press gangs were scouring the Gower the men of Pennard hid in caves.

During the American War of 1812, John Voss, a gentleman from Nickolaston Hall, Penmaen was confronted by a press gang. Mr. Voss was riding across the beach with his friend John Smith, when a Lieutenant and twelve sailors, from the navy tender Caesar, approached them and grabbed Smith, who was on foot. Smith who was a strong man fought back, knocking out two of the seamen. Voss dismounted and intervened to help his companion. Seeing that the fight was going against him the Lieutenant struck Voss with his cutlass, inflicting a deep wound on the man’s shoulder, whereupon Voss hit the officer knocking him to the ground. At that point several local men arrived to help the pair and the press gang fled. Voss made a full recovery from his wound.

John Love and William Moore, two opportunist villains, were caught impersonating naval officers to extort money from seamen in return for not pressing them into the service. Both were pilloried in the market place and then handed over to the admiralty and pressed into the navy.

When the Caesar left Swansea with her cargo of pressed men she was caught by bad weather and driven against the cliffs at Pwlldu Head. The ship stuck fast, wedged between rocks. Some crewmen managed to clamber along the bowsprit and onto the shore. Later, John Jenkins was roused from his bed by someone banging his door. It was the master and first mate of the Caesar. They asked where they were, said little of the disaster or the sixty eight people including three women trapped on board, grabbed a lantern and vanished into the night. In the morning the wreck was discovered by locals. Most of the unfortunate souls on board were dead, drowned in the hold as the rising tide flooded the vessel. The dead were buried in a mass grave nearby. One of the witnesses was John Voss who identified the body of the Lieutenant who had earlier struck him with a cutlass.

The master of the Caesar, Lieutenant Gaborian faced a court martial but was acquitted of all charges after he denied responsibility and blamed his pilot for the tragedy. No mention was made of the sixty eight drowned prisoners during the trial.

The Iron Masters

When the Battle of Trafalgar took place, in 1805, half of the Royal Navy’s 120,000 sailors were pressed men.

Pressing men into the Navy ceased at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 but it was not until 1835 that legislation was passed to abolish the practice. It did not return until World War I when conscription into all the armed services was introduced.

I did this research looking for background material to include in the chapter where Rhys Vaughn runs away to sea and is rescued from a Swansea press gang by his father. How many young boys, I wonder, were less fortunate.

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