Origin and History
Since the beginning of the XVIIIth century, the Royal Navy had problems to find enough seamen to man its ships in wartime. Several fruitless attempts (in 1720, 1727, 1740, 1741, 1744 and 1749) had been made to introduce a register of seamen on the French model or at least the creation of a reserve. Each time, the Parliament rejected these proposals, fearing to strengthen the power of the state. Generally speaking, impressment was considered as unconstitutional, nevertheless it was repeatedly upheld by the courts, as it was considered vital to the successes of the navy.
For these reasons, the Royal Navy had to rely on impressment (the taking of men into a naval force by compulsion, with or without notice) to crew its warships. The practice mostly targeted seamen although non-seamen were sometimes impressed.
In 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), an act forbade impressment in the Americas. But the validity of this act was often contested after the end of the war some legislators arguing that it was valid only for the period of the conflict.
In 1741, during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), out of about 35,000 men employed by seagoing merchantmen and inland navigation, 14,800 had certificates of exemption, protecting them from impressment. In 1743, after a famous case of illegal impressment, press officers and their gangs faced prosecution, fines and even imprisonment in many parts of the country. In 1745, “Regulating Captains” were appointed to supervise ships’ press gangs ashore. In 1746, an act reiterated the interdiction to impress in the West Indies but lifted the exemption for the rest of the Americas. In 1747, there was a major riot against impressment in Boston.
By the time of the Seven Years’ War, an “Impress Service” covered most of England. This service tried to prevent abuse and could force gangs to release men who were not seamen, or had valid certificates of exemption, or belonged to other ships.
Even if that was not required, impressment officers often asked magistrates and local authorities for their authorisation before proceeding, to obtain their collaboration.
Service during the War
In 1755 and 1756, more than 2,000 men died during a typhus epidemic, making mobilization even more problematic.
In 1756, the Marine Society, a private charity, was created to send unemployed or orphan teenagers to sea as officers’ servants, thus supplying the Navy with several thousands young men.
By 1757, some 50,000 men had certificates of exemption. This covered almost all seamen who were not already serving in the Royal Navy which at that time counted some 58,000 men.
On average, during the Seven Years’ War, a ship annually lost 7% of her men to desertion but a large part of it was due to movements from ship to ship within the Royal Navy.
In 1758, in the midst of the conflict, registration of seamen was proposed once more and rejected again.
In 1760, the Royal Navy counted some 85,000 men (67% of the British seafarers).
Uniform for seamen was first introduced in 1857. Prior to this, most seamen wore "slops", or ready-made clothing sold to the ship's crew by a contractor; many captains established general standards of appearance for the seamen on their vessel, but there was little or no uniformity between ships.
Rodger, N. A. M.: The Command of the Ocean – A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815, pp. 312-319