14 February 2018

How to avoid the press gang

Scottish sailor John Nicol (1755-1825), seeking to make his way to Lincoln in around 1792 to enquire after his long-lost beloved Sarah, describes how he eluded the feared military press gangs seeking to forcibly enlist any able seamen they could lay their hands on:

'When we arrived at Gravesend a man-of-war's boat came on board to press any Englishmen there might be on board. William and I did not choose to trust our [legal] protections [letters from the British consul at Lisbon] now that we were in the river. So we stowed ourselves away amongst some bags of cotton where we were almost smothered but could hear every word that was said. The captain told the lieutenant he had no more hands than he saw, and they were all Portuguese. The lieutenant was not very particular, and left the brig without making much search.

When the boat left the vessel we crept from our hiding hole, and not long after a custom-house officer came on board. When we cast anchor, as I had a suit of long clothes in my chest that I had provided, should I have been so fortunate as have found Sarah at Port Jackson, to dash away with her a bit on shore, I put them on immediately and gave the custom-house officer half a guinea for the loan of his cocked hat and powdered wig. The long gilt-headed cane was included in the bargain.

I got a waterman to put me on shore. I am confident my own father, had he been alive, could not have known me with my cane in my hand, cocked hat and bushy wig. I inquired at the waterman the way to the inn where the coach set out from London; I at the same time knew as well as him. I passed for a passenger. At the inn I called for a pint of wine, pens and ink, and was busy writing any nonsense that came in my head until the coach set off. All these precautions were necessary. Had the waterman suspected me to be a sailor he would have informed the press-gang in one minute. The waiters at the inn would have done the same'.

- John Nicol, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, Edinburgh, 1822 (2000 edn.), p152-3.
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