In the navy... by force

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The words ‘press gang’ still reverberate with horror around the old parts of Portsmouth.

Licensed gangs with official Press Warrants issued by the Admiralty were allowed by law to take any man off the street to serve in the King’s navy no matter what his circumstances.

These warrants were also a licence to get away with murder and as we know, the navy always looks after its own.

On the night of March 7, 1803, 500 men were pressed into service on the Gosport side of Portsmouth Harbour.

At 10pm, a Captain Bowen assembled a party of marines who were ordered to parade and make as much noise as possible.

They were to march to Fort Monckton under the pretext that a riot was about to happen.

All the local watermen and civilians ran to see what was happening and at that point Captain Bowen closed his trap by placing a party of marines at the end of Haslar bridge.

He then took every man that fitted his purpose.

Life did not count for much in these raids.

In March 1800 a lieutenant and midshipman killed a man who was trying to escape a press gang and were acquitted when they produced their Press Warrants in court.

Just to let you know, in case you are walking the streets of Portsea alone one evening, impressment remained legal until the early 1900s, and the various laws authorising impressment have, apparently, never been repealed...