In 1759 it was reported in the Annual Register that Captain Nickleson of Poole, master of the Thomas and Elizabeth had been awarded the sum of £1,000 with costs in a court case against Captain Fortescue of the Prince Edward man of war. Acting for the impress service, Fortescue had taken so many men from Nickleson’s ship, as she sailed back to Poole that she foundered and was lost. This was just one of the more extreme incidents involving the infamous press gang and the port of Poole.
Legalised by a series of Acts from 1664 onwards, the press had been set up to help supply the Royal Navy with the large numbers of seamen it needed in time of war. Service in the navy was unpopular with many sailors because conditions were poor, discipline harsh and pay usually less than in the merchant service. There was also a policy of paying the men six months in arrears to discourage desertion. The answer of the authorities was a system of forced recruitment, targeting seafaring men between the ages of 18 and 55, (although non-seamen were sometimes taken). It was an offence in law to resist the press, which was therefore both hated and feared. For the merchants and ship-owners who stood to lose their best seamen it was a cause of great resentment.
Poole merchants were known to allow their men to disembark before the ships reached port or to hide them on their country estates to escape the press. Local magistrates sometimes delayed signing the Impressment Certificates authorising the press men to operate in the town, so as to give seamen a chance to make themselves scarce. They also issued men with ‘Protections’ or certificates of exemption on various pretexts. In the case of a ‘hot press’ however, these might count for little especially as the press gang members were recruited more for their brawn than for their finer scruples. In February 1762, it is reported that one unfortunate young man was carried off from the door of St. James’ church where he was about to be married.
The press also took men from merchant ships at sea, encircling the coast with their tenders and particularly targeting the main trade routes including those taken by the Newfoundland ships. Sometimes a ship might be dangerously depleted of crewmen. In 1741 the Joseph and Mary was so late in returning to Poole that she was given up for lost. When she finally limped into port it was discovered that she had lost 15 crew members to the press. It was in this context that the disastrous loss of the Thomas and Elizabeth occurred.
The actions of the press also affected the work of the Customs Service. In 1770 local customs officers reported to their superiors that, hearing there was ‘a very hot press’ in Poole, four men took a boat from the Elizabeth and went ashore to avoid being pressed before the ship entered quarantine. Later the same month, five men went on shore from the Nancy to escape the press and could not be traced. The ‘terror of falling into the hands of the impress officers’ seemed likely to undermine the quarantine system to the danger of the public. Customs men themselves were not exempt from being pressed. After one such incident in 1779, local customs men wrote to their headquarters: ‘We waited on Captain Scott to know whether he would release these men which he refused & said he would impress even Extra Tidesmen who was fit to serve in His Majesty’s Navy, that was not on actual duty, which if he persists in doing we are certain the Service must suffer greatly & therefore humbly pray Your Honours’ Speedy Directions what is to be done.’ In 1780 they reported that customs officers could not go into the country to search for run goods without an escort from the military.
Believing that the press was essential to the navy, the national authorities continued to support the system in spite of the antagonism raised in the country. It was this resentment that led to the worst incident of all involving Poole and the press. In 1794, the brig Maria belonging to leading merchant Benjamin Lester was returning to Poole from Newfoundland, having on board a number of passengers, mainly fishermen returning to their homes in Dorset. On the night of Saturday 29th November the brig’s master George Randall anchored in Studland Bay, where the pilot Thomas Allen came aboard around midnight. A tender of the impress service was in the area, commanded by Lieutenants John Glover and Nathaniel Phillips with Midshipman Arthur Oliver. Glover sent a boat loaded with men to board the brig but the passengers and crew of the Maria refused to allow the press on board and continued to resist when the tender also came alongside. The tender anchored near to the brig for the night.
The following day the Maria with Thomas Allen at the helm entered Poole Harbour, closely shadowed by the tender which had on board 20 soldiers besides the impress men. It was ‘between ‘Brownsea and Jack-in-the-Basket’ according to later testimony that Lieut. Phillips told the pilot to come to and anchor, but Thomas Allen replied that the passengers would not allow him to do so. Shortly after, the impress men and soldiers succeeded in getting on board. Captain Randall and some of the passengers including Captain Stephen Pack were confined below decks while the Lieutenants and their men impressed all they could find and took them on board the tender. Hearing shots, Captain Pack ‘broke out of the cabin where he had been confined and went on Deck & cry’d for Quarters & desir’d them to bring the boat for that many people were killed or wounded’. When Captain Randall reached the deck he found that Thomas Allen and two others, Peter Rake and John Housley had been shot dead and several others badly injured, two of whom later died.
That night Benjamin Lester noted in his diary that when the brig was brought to the Quay there was such an outcry that it was only through the presence of soldiers garrisoned in the town that the magistrates managed to save the Lieutenants from harm. Two inquests were held in the following week, the first at the Poole Arms on Thomas Allen and the other at the Antelope Inn on Rake and Housley. With feelings running high, verdicts of murder was found against Glover, Phillips and the Midshipman Oliver, who was alleged to have shot Housley through the head. Believing that the three could not receive a fair trial in Poole, the Admiralty intervened and they were tried instead at the Old Bailey. In June 1795 they were acquitted of the charges.
Following this tragedy, feelings must hardened even more against the press in Poole but there were times when even service in the navy was better than the alternatives on offer. In 1800, with famine in the countryside, young men flocked into Poole and were pressed in large numbers. Washed, cheaply clothed and given a knife, spoon, comb and a piece of soap each, they found themselves on board where they could at least be sure of avoiding starvation. Four years later in 1804, Captain Walbeoff and Lieutenant Osmer, with a midshipman and eight press gang men broke into the house of mariner William Trim to press him. Trim tried to escape, hitting the midshipman with a red hot poker, but was overpowered and disarmed. His sister going to his aid was also assaulted and when his father, a man of around 70, came rushing in, he was stabbed in the back and beaten. Following this incident an Admiralty inquiry was held into the conduct of the impress officers.
With no signs of an end to the long war with France, the demand for men to supply the navy was unrelenting. In 1805, the local impress men complained that the customs officers showed an ‘unjustifiable’ inclination to obstruct them in their duty. The customs officers were refusing to inform the press when a ship was released from quarantine and stood on their dignity when asked to explain: ‘We beg leave to observe that we are not aware of its being customary at any of the out-ports for the Office of Customs to give such information to the Office of the Impress Service’.
A couple of incidents involving Robert Gillet, landlord of the Lion and Lamb in Salisbury Street, were more farce than tragedy. On one occasion Lieutenant John Marshall of the impress service had pressed a seaman in the taproom of the inn. Gillet’s wife and daughter assaulted Marshall and then followed him out into the street shouting abuse. A crowd quickly gathered and Marshall escaped with difficulty. Another time an impress midshipman, Michael Ryan, was passing the inn when Gillet grabbed hold of a gig which was standing in the yard and tried to run Ryan down. According to the court report: ‘on being asked why he did it, defendant said “If you don’t like it you may kiss my arse” which he frequently repeated and used many other opprobrious and insulting expressions.’
For a long time the impressment system had been justified by the authorities on the grounds that it was supporting Britain’s freedom by helping to maintain naval supremacy. By the end of the Napoleonic wars the system was seen as clearly unjust and oppressive and was at last discontinued.
Main sources: Poole Custom House Letter Book / Hutchinson The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore / Beamish and others The Pride of Poole 1688-1851. / Poole archives – Coroner’s Inquests