Manpower for sea power

Life at sea may not have been a particularly attractive prospect for a man in Georgian England, but it was always an option: The Royal Navy was constantly, chronically, in need of sailors. Its peacetime strength in 1792 was fifteen thousand men,but in five years it increased eightfold, and by 1813 the number stood at one hundred and fifty thousand- this in a nation whose population was only about 10 million. England’s navy may have been the envy of the world, but it was not at all uncommon for her warships to sail undermanned.

"The Press Gang" by Robert Morley

“The Press Gang” by Robert Morley

France drafted her seamen, but mass conscription in England in Horatio Nelson’s day was unthinkable, so protectivewere Britons of the individual liberties they had acquired over the centuries. The British government therefore had to rely on a rather arbitrary system of blandishments coupled with coercion.

Captains were responsible for manning their own ships, and a famous commander such as Nelson found it comparatively easy to assemble a crew. captains commonly put up posters advertising available berths. Some of these offered prospects of glory, but more usually they appealed to greed, with promises (most of them wildly inflated) of prize money. The government also offered modest bonuses for seamen who entlisted.

Royal Navy recruitment poster

Royal Navy recruitment poster, for all who love their country, king, liberty and religion, and hate French and damn the Pope

If all else failed, there were the press-gangs, groups of six to seven sailors, supervised by a junior officer, who roamed the streets bent on recruitment. Impressment, a practice that dated back to feudal times, was popularly viewed as an infringement on personal freedom, and press-gangs were often satirized as brutes who dragged off hapless civilians by force to serve on His Majesty’s ships, whether they craved that honor or not.

In fact, however, most gangs followed the rule that only professional seamencould be impressed (although the term might be broadly interpreted), and force was used only as the last resort. More often they merely hung recruitment posters or tried to talk their quarry into joining up.

The press gang taking an unwilling men, The British cartoon, c. 1870

The press gang taking an unwilling men, The British cartoon, c. 1870

Early in his career Nelson was assignedto oversee a press-gang, although he, like most captains, deplored impressment on practical as well as ethical grounds; a pressed sailor was not apt to be as useful as a willing volunteer, nor as good for morale. Nevertheless, most officers accepted the practice as a necessary evil for keeping the fleet at sea.