Sunday, 19 August 2012
PRESS GANGS ON THE ESTUARY, 1755
In 1911 a book by Lady Elliott Drake who then lived at Nutwell Court entitled 'The Family and Heirs of Sir Francis Drake' was published. It quotes from many interesting letters among which is one from the year 1755 in which Mr Rowe, the Drake's faithful agent, returns to Nutwell from Buckland and reports that there has been a bomb ketch and tender lying off Starcross and that 'pressing' had frightened away all the workmen from the harbour, and that for some weeks neither carpenters nor joiners could be induced to come out of hiding to work on the alterations at Nutwell Court, lest they should be caught by the press gang. 'The neighbourhood,' he adds 'had become very melancholy' as a consequence. 'The harbour' he means is Lympstone, which place, he goes on to say, he fears the war will lower.
Impressment was a serious threat if you were a man 'of seafaring habits' between the ages of 18 and 45. More than a quarter of the men serving in the Navy in 1755 were pressed men. The fact that, even on this side of the Estuary, working men hid away for weeks in order to avoid being scrobbled for service means that a press gang must have been expected to leap out at you at any time in any place. The Impressers must have been a sneaky bunch and it is perhaps curious that their heinous practice survived so long in our avowed land of liberty.
The glorious painting above of a bomb ketch is by Charles Brooking (1723 - 1759) who produced so many beautiful pictures in such a short life. The ketch that visited Starcross in 1755 had its bomb tender with it. This was normal. The munitions were so dangerous they were stored away from the mortars and everywhere a bomb ketch went her tender was sure to go.
The whole neighbourhood must have rejoiced when the ships weighed anchor and sailed with the tide to hunt for men elsewhere.