press gang



Caricature-1780-press gangPress gang – caricature – 1780 




To press-gang someone into is to force someone to do something.


Historically, a press gang was a body of men employed, under the command of an officer, to enlist men forcibly into service in the navy or army.

Hence the verb press-gang, meaning to forcibly enlist (someone) into service in the army or navy.


The press gangs were feared for centuries until an improvement in servicemen’s pay and conditions in the 1830s made them redundant.


The word press in press gang is an alteration of – or substitution for – the obsolete prest.

As a noun (dating back to the 15th century), prest was especially used in the sense of earnest money paid to a sailor or soldier on enlistment.

As a verb, prest was used in particular to mean to engage (men) for military service on land or sea by giving part payment or earnest money in advance.


These words are from Old French prest, which had the same meaning. In Modern French, un prêt means a loan, and prêter means to lend.

These French words are from the Latin verb præstare, meaning, in particular, to become surety for, to answer or vouch for, to warrant, and, in Late and Medieval Latin, to lend. (The circumflex accent ^ in prêt and prêter is a trace of the etymological s in præstare.)


Before the end of the 16th century, the verb press had already been substituted for – or altered from – prest to mean to force (a man) to serve in the army or navy.

The reason for this change is the evident influence of the sense of the verb press, which is to subject to pressure or force.

And the past tense and past participle prest could be understood as the past tense and past participle either of prest (on the pattern of verbs such as cast and cost), or of press (cf. forms such as past and drest, for passed and dressed), so that ‘he was prest’ could be understood either as ‘he was prested’ or as ‘he was pressed’.


Similarly, the verb impress, formed on press (i.e. prest) and meaning to compel (men) to serve in the army or navy, came to be understood as to ‘press in’, ‘press into service’It was first used by Shakespeare in The First part of King Henry the Fourth (1596):

                                               Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ,
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight,
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy.


During the same period, press-money began replacing prest-money to designate the earnest money paid to a sailor or soldier on his enlistment, the acceptance of which was the legal proof of his engagement.

The change to press-money may have partly been a phonetic simplification, the t between two consonants being squeezed out (as in criss-cross from Christ-cross – read here).

This would naturally encourage association with the notion of pression and pressure. Indeed, Samuel Pepys used the form pressed-money in his Diary (30th June 1666):

Up, and to the office, and mightily troubled all this morning with going to my Lord Mayor (Sir Thomas Bludworth, a silly man, I think), and other places, about getting shipped some men that they have these two last nights pressed in the City out of houses: the persons wholly unfit for sea, and many of them people of very good fashion, which is a shame to think of, and carried to Bridewell they are, yet without being impressed with money legally as they ought to be. But to see how the King’s business is done; my Lord Mayor himself did scruple at this time of extremity to do this thing, because he had not money to pay the pressed-money to the men, he told me so himself; nor to take up boats to carry them down through bridge to the ships I had prepared to carry them down in; insomuch that I was forced to promise to be his paymaster, and he did send his City Remembrancer afterwards to the office, and at the table, in the face of the officers, I did there out of my owne purse disburse 15l. to pay for their pressing and diet last night and this morning; which is a thing worth record of my Lord Mayor. Busy about this all the morning, at noon dined and then to the office again, and all the afternoon till twelve at night full of this business and others, and among these others about the getting off men pressed by our officers of the fleete into the service; even our owne men that are at the office, and the boats that carry us. So that it is now become impossible to have so much as a letter carried from place to place, or any message done for us: nay, out of Victualling ships full loaden to go down to the fleete, and out of the vessels of the officers of the Ordnance, they press men, so that for want of discipline in this respect I do fear all will be undone.


The term press gang is first recorded later, in 1693:

That all officers who send men to the press shall give them tickets, n°1 to 15, expressing in their tickets what press-gang they belong to.

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