Another of the reforms, which like those we have already been describing, came in the wake of the great Reform Bill itself, was the abolition of the law of impressment for the navy. How long that law of impressment, or perhaps that custom of impressment which soon came to have the force of a law, had existed in our history, it seems hard, indeed, to decide. What we do know is, that in the days of the early Plantagenet Kings we find it alluded to as a system long in practice and accepted as one of the needs of our national defence. Of course it became, after a while, regulated by comparatively modern Acts of Parliament, which endeavoured to soften its rigours as much as it seemed possible to each succeeding generation of law-makers; but the very laws which regulated it also of necessity acknowledged and sanctioned the custom of impressment for the navy. No regulation, no mitigation, could make it anything except a horrible grievance and a disgrace to a civilised system. The principle of all the Acts relating to impressment was that when the Government wanted sailors to man our ships of war, the authorities could seize men wherever they could get them, could capture them as if they were felons, and could send them for enforced service in the navy. It was not merely a plan of conscription like that which still exists in many civilised countries, applied to the recruiting for the navy.
The system of conscription, whatever may be said for or against its merits, is a recognised system which applies to all citizens alike, which is one of the responsibilities of citizenship for which a citizen can prepare himself in advance, with reference to which he can mould his future arrangements, and for which, in most countries where it prevails, he is free to find a substitute. The impressment of men for the navy absolutely depended on the will or even the caprice of the authorities of that branch of the Sovereign's service. A sudden alarm of threatened war, a mere panic, a scare as we should call it in our days, might be enough at any time to set the naval authorities clamouring for fresh hands to the work, and enough to put the impressment system in active motion. It imposed not so much a civic responsibility as a penal responsibility, for the impressed men were simply captured and carried off as if they were escaped convicts who had to be haled back to prison. Naturally the seaport towns were the places where the naval authorities usually made their captures, and the stray seaman from a merchant vessel was preferred in all cases to the ordinary civilian. The impressment system was seldom carried on upon anything like a large scale without serious riot, and sometimes serious loss of life. The novel writer, the poet, and the painter, found ample and varied themes for their different orders of art in the workings of this extraordinary system of naval supply. Our romance is full of stories, some of which are read at the present day by young people who otherwise, probably, would never have known what the impressment system was. Many of these stories give pathetic accounts of young men pressed into the naval service just as they were returning from the church where they had been married, and sent off to serve at war on the seas, perhaps never to return to the scenes and the home of their birth.
There is at least one touching poem which tells the story of a young man thus impressed on his wedding day, who serves on board all through the great wars with France in Napoleon's time, who returns a man of more than middle age, to find that his wife has long been dead, and that in his native town nobody even remembers his name. Poetic stories, somewhat like that of Tennyson's "Enoch Arden," gave an additional pang to the pathos, by describing the man as returning to his home to find his wife, who had long believed him dead, married to another husband; and picture him in despair returning again to the sea and the service, which had been his hardest enemies, but had now become his only friends. In many of Captain Marryat's novels, once the delight of all boys and of many grown men, we have vivid pictures of the riots caused by some sudden impressment in one of our seaport towns; of the press-gang, as it was called, forcing its way, cutlass in hand and pistols in belt, through resisting streets and lanes, which fire their shots from the windows as if they were striving to check the movements of a conquering invader; of houses defended literally from room to room; of desperate hand-to-hand fights; of women joining in the struggle; of wounds given and received; of death-blows given and received; and, finally, of the captured men dragged off as convicts might have been dragged to the galleys. At last public opinion began to be aroused to the horrors of the system. The philanthropic reformer, here, as everywhere else, was asserting his presence and making his voice heard. The Anti-reformers were stubborn. It was an article of faith with every Anti-reformer that it would be utterly impossible to man the navy if the power to impress men and drag them on board ship were not left unchecked and unchallenged in the hands of the authorities. To listen to such arguments might well have made a foreigner imagine that the Englishman of the poorer class, especially in the seaport towns, was a creature who detested the sea waves, who had not the courage to fight an enemy, and who thought it no concern of his even if the Frenchman were to invade the country. The Reformers, however, had their way in the end. They were now, in fact, riding on the crest of the Reform wave; and in 1835 the Government brought in a Bill to abolish the press-gang and to fix a period of five years as the limit of compulsory service in the navy. Since the abolition of the press-gang it has not been found that the naval service of England has been wholly neglected, or that English fleets are utterly without sailors to man them.
One genuine reform usually brings another in its wake. The abolition of the press-gang system gave the first fair chance for the abolition of flogging in the Navy. When the press-gang captured and carried off dozens of men from the lower quarters of some seaport town, it was not usual to require a certificate of character from the men who were thus compelled to do service in the fleet. It very often happened that the press-gang swept off among their captives many men who helped to form the mere scum of the streets in which they were found - -men who had just come out of prison and were likely enough before long, if they remained on shore, to commit some new offence and be sent to prison once more. Men of this class, sent to do duty in the forecastle of one of our vessels of war, were not likely to exercise a moralising influence on the habits and characters of the sailors who were compelled to associate with them. The disorder, the bad example, the defiance of discipline which such impressed men brought with them, sometimes were infectious in their character, and helped to debase a ship's company. Crimes were undoubtedly sometimes committed which might excuse the maintenance of the flogging system in the minds of those who believed that anything but evil could possibly come out of such a system. The abolition of flogging in the Navy is an event which comes well within the recollection of most of us. Some of the most effective arguments made in the House of Commons against the use of the lash as a means of enforcing discipline was given by the owners of great merchant vessels or passenger vessels who happened to be Members of Parliament. These men pointed, again and again, to the example afforded by the discipline of the mercantile fleets.