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LOCAL History -- A Matter Of Life And Death When The Press Gang Sailed Up The Clyde

LIFE was hard in the narrow streets clustered around Greenock docks in the 1800s, writes David Carnduff.

Many men and boys went to sea in sailing ships that traded in far corners of the world, leaving the womenfolk at home to raise children at a time when poverty, disease and infant mortality cast a constant shadow.

Rampant crime and drunkenness made life doubly difficult for people trying to scrape together a frugal living, and the few policemen patrolling the streets struggled to keep order.

But another, sinister threat stalked these dark lanes and alleys. The country was at war with France and the King needed a constant supply of sailors for his navy's warships fighting on the high seas.

Enter the Press Gang -- the hated Navy henchmen who knew the seaport of Greenock was home to many sailors with the skills needed to keep the fleet in fighting condition.

The Gang's methods were both cunning and cruel as they hunted suitable "recruits". Men were captured and forced to leave their families for a grim life at war where death by cannon ball was a constant risk, and deserters were put to death by flogging.

The gang's ominous arrival at the Tail o' The Bank in their ship, The Impress, was announced in the local newspaper of the day, the Greenock Advertiser. The authorities used the notice to issue an strong warning that violent resistance by anyone would be "fruitless and unavailing".

The state of fear in Greenock caused by the Press Gang's arrival is described in a remarkable account contained in the archives of The Innerkip Society: "Men were afraid to walk the streets. They dressed up as females if ever they wanted to go out. They could not join their ships for fear of detection and, in many cases, the rejoining of the ship had to take place from remote parts of the coast."

This dire situation was well known to procurator fiscal George Williamson, a fearless guardian of law and order, at a time when Greenock had no sheriff and only a few policemen. Williamson knew that anyone suspected of collaborating with the gang to identify suitable "recruits" would suffer brutal retribution by the local "Mob".

The Innerkip Society's archives include Williamson's account, from 1813, of how he saved the life of a woman suspected of being an informer.

Williamson describes how one day near the quayside  he saw a crowd watching two young men "with the appearance of apprentice seamen" forceably trying to drown a woman at the water's edge by ducking her head under the water.

Williamson immediately resolved to rescue the woman, who he saw being thrown into a rowing boat by her attackers. Williamson and local clerk William Findlater, who joined in the rescue bid, made chase in a second boat and a fracas developed at the harbour mouth with one of the men trying to hit Williamson with an oar.

The terrified woman was hauled safely into Williamson's boat but the mob on the quayside refused to let her be brought ashore. The rescuers had no option but to take the woman to the Press Gang's tender at the Tail o' The Bank and leave her there.

Williamson had the culprits apprehended and jailed but no conviction followed and the pair escaped without trial or punishment. A month or six weeks after the incident, the woman came to Williamson's office.

He wrote: "She dropped to her knees, pulled off her cap and implored God's blessing on me for having saved her life.

"I inquired how she got on shore from the tender. She told me the people of the brig had landed her where some boats lay turned upside down on the beach and that she had crept under one of the boats and concealed herself for several hours and then made her way to a friend's house where she lay for several weeks, bruised and hurt all over.

"I forget what she called herself. She was a little, short-made Irish woman about 30 years of age. I feel some pleasure in reflecting that I was instrumental in saving the life of a fellow creature."

-- The Innerkip Society was founded in 1798 to provide financial assistance to local individuals in need, a practice it continues to the present day.

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