Waterford Harbour Press Gangs

The Royal Navy Press gangs were licenced kidnappers who operated with official sanction up to the early 19th Century.  Their role was to remove sailors from shore or ship and impress them into the service of the Royal Navy. It was a recruitment policy that was particularly prevalent during times of war.  Needless to say their activities were a reality in the harbour area too. 
A pamphlet titled The Liberty of the Subject
accessed from http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/press-gang-1/
The painting was by James Gillray and is dated 1779

The practice of Impressment is old, being mentioned in the Magna Carta. It was more common in times of war as competing interests vied for crew. During the Napoleonic wars it became widespread when the navy was stretched and simply didn’t have enough men to operate their ships. Apparently the practice had initially started in London but over time and as the needs for crew grew, so did its scope. Waterford was only one of many areas favored by them given the quantity of trade, and particularly, it seems the Newfoundland cod fishery. Crews for the fishery were drawn from farms, villages and towns across the south east and they flocked to the harbour area to join ships for the cod fishing season on the Grand banks. These were young, healthy and energetic. Perfect for the hungry Press-gangers.

The Press Gang had a number of strategies for engaging sailors.  These included going ashore to take men from quays, pubs or homes, raiding ships at anchor or at quaysides or attacking ships on the high seas.  I’ve found examples of all three in our own area.

Accessed from: http://www.hmsacasta.com/2013_08_01_archive.html

Going ashore was one method and this clipping from Waterford of 1777 gives a good example of the practice:  

“The press for seamen still continues here, to the great injury of the trade of this city and the fishery of Newfoundland; several have been picked up lately. Last Wednesday evening the press gang was very roughly treated on the quay, in consequence of their endeavoring to press a man who frequents the fishery of Newfoundland: he (assisted by some female auxiliaries) defended himself with a stick against the attack of the gang, armed with swords, and not withstanding their utmost efforts he got off. By this time a party of resolute fellows assembled, and by pelting of stones soon made the gang disappear. But their resentment did not stop here, for they done considerable damage to the house of Mr Shanahan, publican, on the Quay, where the press gang rendezvous; and had not a party of the army been ordered out to disperse them and prevent further mischief it is probable some fatal consequences would have happened.” [1]


The major disadvantage of the shoreside press was that citizens did not take kindly to the practice and were want to show their displeasure
So if a shoreside press was injurious to your health, a relatively more safe approach was to board vessels at anchor, under cover of darkness.  At Cheekpoint on what was described as a “dark and tempestuous” night in October 1779 HMS Licorne was at anchor and in need of crew. Conditions were favourable to a stealth attack and so under the command of Lieutenant Rudsdale a party set off in the ships pinnace.  They immediately drew alongside a punt, and in case the men aboard reported the Navy’s activities they “pressed the lot”. He returned to his vessel and dropped his captives and set off again towards Passage and Ballyhack. They boarded the anchored brig Triton and finding the crew asleep, pressed as many crew as he could fit. Dropping them back to the Lincorne, he again returned to the Triton, but this time instead of finding the remaining crew asleep, they were confronted with a barrage of spikes, hatchets and crowbars. He withdrew, and the piece goes on to say that the racket having raised the harbour he was forced to return to his ship. Rudsdale was apparently satisfied with his nights work however, he had secured a score of men to add to the Lincorne’s crew.[2]

Community Notice:  Book Fair this coming Sunday November 4th at Copper Coast Geopark, Bunmahon.  1-5pm.  Lots of new, used and collectible books on sale.  I’ll be there to sell my own book…details here


More information on my book click here

The other approach was to attack ships at sea, and in many cases merchant men were stripped of their capable crew and very often such men were swapped with either injured or incapable sailors, deemed unfit for the Navy. Even in circumstances where armed Naval vessels were employed however, successful outcomes were not guaranteed.  For example an unnamed Newfoundland vessel sailing to Waterford on the 5th November 1770 was challenged by a “press boat” off Cork harbour.  The crew and passengers gave a fight however and following an exchange of gunfire the press boat thought it best to sheer off.  Five aboard the Newfoundlander were wounded, who put in to Youghal where one of the injured died.  The Press boat put into Dungarvan where her wounded crew were treated. [3]

Several other accounts of the press gangs have come to my attention including a shore based captain who organised the press of sailors from an office at Passage East, a press in Waterford city that resulted in 140 men pressed on the quay and the landing of the press gangs on the Hook peninsula and their working along the coast to Duncannon. 


The press gang diminished after the Napoleonic wars. A peace time navy required less men, naval reforms and pay helped recruitment, but social reformers also helped in fighting the hated practice. The next great naval dispute against Russia in the Crimea in 1853 is said to be the first in which impressed sailors did not serve.

My thanks to Maurice Power and Myles Courtney for help with this piece

[1] The Waterford Chronicle, Tuesday April 1st 1777.

[2] Accessed from google books, The account is contained in Rule Britannia, The press gang afloat and ashore.  J.R. Hutchinson. 2010. Fireship Press.  Available from wwwFireshipPress.com

[3] Cork Examiner. September 1st 1883 P5 (a piece looking back on newspaper reports from 1770)

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2 Replies to “Waterford Harbour Press Gangs”

  1. They certainly were Kev. I read one account of them tackling a whaler at Gravesend. Three press men died by harpoon, the rest lucky to have survived.

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