In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Navy was not seen as a good ‘career move’ for the average working man. Working and living conditions were harsh and pay was low. Recruitment was in short supply so men were “pressed” into service. Press gangs, groups of soldiers or sailors, were used by the Royal Navy as a crude and violent method of recruiting seamen into naval service, often against their will. Today we would see their methods as little more than kidnapping, but at the time it could be approved by a Magistrate’s warrant.
The press gang, a group of 10 – 12 men, led by an officer, would roam the streets looking for likely ‘volunteers’, merchant seamen were particularly prized as they already had seagoing experience and needed less training. The gang were paid money for travel, 3d per mile for officers 1d for men, and money per man pressed, anything up to 10 shillings.
Certain groups, e.g. Apprentices, were exempt from impressment. Officially foreigners could not be impressed, although they could be persuaded to volunteer and there was an age limit 18 to 55 years. But the rules were often ignored so that the press gang could earn their wage.
When the press gang had seized a man, he was offered the King’s shilling as a reward for volunteering, but often the coin was issued in devious and underhand ways, such as slipping the shilling into a pocket, or dropping it into his drink. It is for this reason that glass bottomed tankards became popular, so that you could check your drink didn’t contain a shilling before drinking it.
If a man had been seized by the press gang, he was offered a choice. He could join as a volunteer and receive the benefits that came with being a volunteer or he could remain a pressed man and receive nothing.
Weymouth and Portland were not exempt from press gangs. Several Inns, including the White Hart and The Crown, suffered scene of riots against press gangs. Rioting broke out in 1706 when the Pembroke Gallery’s Press Gang visited Weymouth resulting in two of the press gang and two locals being wounded. The Captain was fined only for drunkenness and swearing.
But the most famous local incident occurred in 1803 in Portland.
The Easton Massacre
On April 1st 1803 the frigate “The Eagle” landed near Portland Castle commandeered by George Wolfe who immediately sent a boat ashore with the intention of impressing local men for the navy. They managed to capture only one man, Nicholas Way, who they dragged back to the ship but he was found to be exempt and so was let go
Disappointed, George Wolfe decided to use the element of surprise, and so the following morning he left his ship at 5.00am hoping to catch local men still in bed. With him he had over forty sailors including three officers who were armed with bayonets, pistols and cutlasses. The men proceeded towards Chisel and immediately captured a local man named Henry Wiggatt. Then the unlucky Nicholas Way was spotted again and chased through the streets until he reached his cottage. He tried to hide indoors but his door was violently broken down by the sailors who then hauled him and Henry Wiggatt to Portland castle.
The rudely awoken inhabitants of Chisel were chased uphill by the press gang. The Constable of Portland Castle, Zachariah White, blocked the gang’s way and demanded to see on whose authority they were acting on. Wolfe produced a warrant signed by the Mayor of Weymouth. No doubt shocked that a Mayor of a nearby community would sign such a document, Zachariah argued that it was invalid as it had not been signed by a magistrate.
Despite the protestations of Zachariah the sailors pushed on. By 6.30am the press gang had reached Easton Square. The locals were scattered amongst several streets. The press gang then seized a local man. Furious the villagers surged forward from their hiding places to rescue him. A fight broke out and Captain Wolfe fired a shot into the ground which the Navy took to mean open fire. Chaos ensued. Three Portland men were shot through the head and died instantly while two others ,William Lano and Mary Way, were fatally wounded.
Wolfe instructed his men to return to their ship with their wounded sailors. Henry Wigatt and Nicholas Way were collected from Portland castle and taken to The Eagle.
Captain Wolfe and two Lieutenants were tried at Dorchester Assizes for the wilful murder Of William Lano while trying to impress men. But the three defendants were found innocent and all three men were released and honourably acquitted.
Involvement of a Weymouth Mayor only served to sustain the animosity between Portland and Weymouth that had existed for centuries.