Waterford harbour kidnappers

I first heard about the press gang menace while fishing for salmon in the river as a child.  The story was introduced, like so many others by my father, in a dramatic way.  We were drifting on the ebb tide at night, off Ryan's shore, when we heard a boat rowing towards us.  "If this was the Napoleonic wars I'd have had to throw you over the side for your safety" he stated.  I didn't get a chance to find out why as Maurice Doherty and Jimmy O'Dea came alongside for a chat, before rowing off again to set nets in on the Point.  After they left I was keen clarify how throwing me overboard, was good for my health, something I had dwelt on while the three men chatted about matters fish.

Press gang, was his answer,  The press gang were legalised kidnappers who had operated in the harbour and they boarded merchant men, fishing boats and even raided villages like Cheekpoint, he told me.  They came in search of young men, who were bribed, lied to or knocked over the head and when they awoke, found themselves at sea, in the employment of the English Navy. I have to admit I thought it was a tall tale until I came across their activities in a history book.

The practice of Impressment was an ancient one, 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 a favored spot, 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.
Accessed from: http://www.hmsacasta.com/2013_08_01_archive.html
The following press clipping gives a sense of the press gang in operation in Waterford City in 1777:  
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. 
The Waterford Chronicle Tuesday April 1st 1777.
A pamphlet of the times with an appropriate image to the piece above
accessed from http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/press-gang-1/
This infringement on trade in the city prompted a swift response and the same paper on Friday May 2nd 1777 had the following to say:
Since the Lord Mayor's public notice respecting the impressing of seamen within the city the press gangs have not made their appearance in an hostile manner within his lordships jurisdiction.  

Of course the press gang didn't just operate in the City.  I came across an account of a Lieutenant Rudsdale of HMS Licorne anchored between Passage and Cheekpoint in the year 1779.  The good Lieutenant set off in the ships pinnace with a hardy crew on a dark and stormy October night.  They immediately drew alongside a punt, and in case the crew raised the alarm, "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.1

Bizarre events by today's standards no doubt. I'll leave the last word on it to my Father however, and I think it gives a good sense of his style: There was a group of fishermen and others drinking at what is now McAlpins Suir Inn. Suddenly a cry went up in the village and while many turned to look, there was a man named Walsh with quick wits that turned on his heels and ran to the back door of the pub. As Walsh went through it, he heard the crashing and banging behind him as the Press gang rushed the pub's front door.  He skipped over a ditch and ran. Approaching a house, he spotted an open window and dived through it, only to land into the lap of a sleeping lady.  On awaking, her first impulse was to scream. At this stage the village was in uproar, some of the press gang crew going door to door seeking recruits and the villagers were meeting them with anything to hand.  While Walsh pleaded with the lady to be quiet, her father heard her screams and burst in.  Now he had been trying to marry his daughter off for some time, and he spotted his opportunity in an instant. He gave Walsh an ultimatum, the Press gang or the daughters hand. Thereafter Walsh, having had one too many in the pub could be heard to refrain from the bar counter, "should have went with the press gang"

The press gang died out after the Napolonic wars, but the legend of them lived on for generations to come,  Thankfully people like my father kept it alive for us.

1.  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

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

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