When we think of the great movies of the sailing navy, we think of the likes of Gregory Peck stiffening his upper lip to notable effect in Captain Horatio Hornblower; of Laurence Olivier’s Nelson romancing Vivien Leigh’s Emma in That Hamilton Woman; of Russell Crowe’s Jack Aubrey bearing a remarkable resemblance to his Robin Hood and Maximus the Gladiator (‘on my command, unleash weevils’). But today, I want to refer to none of these. Instead, my point of reference is that seminal but now sadly neglected take on the Nelsonian navy, Carry on Jack (1963). The hero of this is a certain Albert Poop-Decker, a thoroughly incompetent midshipman, who manages to lose his uniform to Sally, a serving wench at Dirty Dick’s Tavern. Sally is desperate to go to sea to find her sweetheart Roger (ah, those subtle British double entendres…), so she cross-dresses in Albert’s uniform and joins the good ship…wait for it, wait for it….yes, Venus, what else? With no proof of his rank, Albert is duly press-ganged by the ship’s ruthless lieutenant and finds himself under the command of Kenneth Williams’ Captain Fearless, who proves to be anything but.
The rest of the ‘plot’ need not detain us. My point is that even a light-hearted romp like Carry on Jack made the press gang central to its plot, and thus helped to perpetuate the abiding popular image of recruitment into ‘Nelson’s navy’ – namely, that of innocent landlubbers being snatched from their loved ones by a vicious and uncaring system which sought only to make up the numbers, no matter how unqualified they might have been. At the end of last week, I took part in a conference on naval recruitment at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. This was a thoroughly stimulating affair, splendidly organised by Duncan Redford and the team at the museum, and provided many opportunities for lively and enjoyable discussion, notably during a dinner on the lower gun deck of HMS Victory. But the biggest triumph was the ‘business end’ of the conference. It’s rare to attend one where the standard of the papers is so consistently high and the subject matter so consistently interesting; consequently, it’s unfortunate that I don’t really have the time or space to write about every single paper. Having said that, a special award should go to Jennifer Daley for both raising the question of whether it’s legitimate to speak of a naval ‘uniform’ before the official adoption of one, and for delivering her paper in something nearly approximating a sailor suit!
(I didn’t follow suit by donning the likes of the Scarlets’ dragon mascot’s costume to present my paper on naval recruitment in Wales…)
Arguably the most impressive thing to emerge from the conference was the amount of detailed statistical work that’s now being done on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Royal Navy. David Sheppard of the University of Wolverhampton presented some of his preliminary data from analysis of the 1881 census, while Oliver Walton and Virginia Preston are using muster books to study the same sorts of themes – such as age at entry, proportions who were married (and at what age), geographical origins, and so on. The latter was of particular interest to me, as their evidence confirmed something I write about in Britannia’s Dragon, namely the dramatic decline in naval recruitment in Wales after the end of the Napoleonic War. Duncan Redford twisted my arm into agreeing to write a chapter for the proposed book based on the conference, but in truth it didn’t need much twisting: the question of why this decline took place intrigued me while I was writing the book, and I’ll relish the opportunity to study it in more detail by working on the censuses, the muster books, and returning to the Welsh archives that hold relative material.
However, the paper which probably generated most discussion was that by Jeremiah Dancy, who has been carrying out a detailed analysis of muster books for the 1790s. This shows that, contrary to received wisdom and popular myth, pressed men were actually a minority in the navy during this period – as few as 16% according to Dancy’s figures. The press gang was employed chiefly to top up the navy’s numbers of skilled seamen, not to recruit unskilled landmen; in any case, the latter were overwhelmingly volunteers, attracted by the significant bounties paid to attract them into the service. These findings tend to concur with recent research by others, such as Nicholas Rogers, and with the evidence I found for Wales during the same period. Jeremiah’s book, which is apparently due out next year, is likely to be an absolute must for anyone interested in naval history!
All of which begs the question – if these figures really are correct, how did the popular image of the all-pervasiveness of the press gang come to be such a deeply entrenched and powerful orthodoxy? For what they’re worth, my entirely subjective suggestions are as follows. Anti-pressing polemicists might have exaggerated the problem (as polemicists opposed to particular government policies often do), and their opinions then carried over into nineteenth century popular culture. Moreover, by its very nature, pressing was going to be more dramatic and memorable than the much more mundane but extensive process of volunteering; for example, in Britannia’s Dragon I recount several pitched battles between press gangs and local populations in the likes of Carmarthen, Fishguard and Rhymney, which would undoubtedly have made a powerful mark on the popular collective memory, and tell the story of the Llanelli centenarian who, in 1889, could recall the press gang coming down from Swansea during the Revolutionary War, leading all the inhabitants to lock themselves in and shutter their windows. Once ‘living memory’ of the press had gone, such stories became weaved into an ‘authorised version’ of the past (as has happened more recently, for example, with the likes of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ interpretation of trench warfare, or the mythology surrounding Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain). This was then perpetuated by such writers as John Masefield in Sea Life in Nelson’s Time, the baleful influence of which still casts a long shadow over many people’s perception of naval history; you can still get it from Amazon, where it’s described as ‘brilliantly told’ and ‘the most comprehensive introduction to the subject’, statements which ought to be classified as indictable offences. This, in turn, shaped the ‘party line’ spun, for example, by generations of tour guides aboard HMS Victory. And so, finally, this warped and exaggerated version of the press gang got into popular fiction, such as the Hornblower novels, then on to the big screen, and even into a jolly, populist romp like Carry on Jack.
Unpicking all of that mythology is going to be an uphill struggle – but after all, demolishing myths is what historians are for!