Crimping in London – 1767
At the time of this account the East India Company was at the height of its powers, trading extensively with goods and products from India and shipping them around the world; including tea, spices, printed fabrics and opium. Apart from maintaining an army in India to administer their operation they also ran a fleet of clippers to ship their goods to every port. In India, local labour was used to produce their products but they were always short of sailors to crew their merchant craft. This article from the Gentleman’s Magazine illustrates one method used to recruit crew for their sailing vessels:
The City of London would not tolerate the impressment of sailors but it did allow the practice of crimping, namely, forcibly enlisting recruits for the East India service. Typically, a young country-man was accosted by a plausible fellow who pretended to advise him and to warn him; he followed the man to a tavern and drank with him to his destruction. When the country-man recovered from the drunken stupor which followed, he found that he had enlisted in the service of the East India Company. He was then kept confined in a lock-up house with other poor wretches also caught in the trap. The house was barred and bolted; escape was impossible. When the number was complete they were all marched off on board the vessel that was to carry them to India, whence they never came back again.
The influence of the East India Company was so strong in the City that no attempt was made except by the mob to suppress these infamous houses. There was one in Butcher Row and others at the back of St. Clement’s, in Chancery Lane, in Wapping; and many others of which I have no record.
The following story shows the suspicion with which these houses were regarded:
On February 24, 1767, an inhabitant of St. Bride’s parish brought before the Vestry information that the gravedigger of the parish had brought a corpse to the burial-ground on the side of Fleet Market at eleven o’clock the previous night. The gravedigger denied the hour but acknowledged the fact. He said that he brought the body to the ground at nine, not eleven, at night; that he had received it from a lock-up house in Butcher Row, and that nothing had been said as to the cause of death. He also confessed that it was not the first time that he had received a body from such a house. On another occasion when the mob wrecked a lock-up house, the dead body of a young man was found lying on the boards of the garret in a putrefying condition. But recruits had to be found for the service of the Company.
A favourite trick with crimps was, after accosting a young fellow who looked a likely subject, and failing with him, to produce a paper and declare that they had a warrant against him for stealing a silver cup, value £2, or something else. They then seized the man and carried him off to a lock-up house where they kept him until they succeeded in enlisting him for the East India Company’s service.
In one case, in 1767, a gentleman caught a crimp trying on this trick, and compelled both the crimp and the lad to go before the Lord Mayor. This case caused a great deal of indignation. The man received a year’s imprisonment in Newgate. One Captain Young, who was a master crimp, was also imprisoned for illegally confining a man in a lock-up house.
The fellows who manned the ships were in the merchant service in time of peace; when a war broke out the pressgang swept the ships in port, and swept the streets of Wapping in the north and of Deptford in the south. The men seem to have served with perfect goodwill when they were on board: the life and work were no worse in the navy than in the merchant service; they were liable to flogging in one service as much as in the other.
Occasionally the prisoners on board a ship rose and recaptured the ship. To prevent this, they were all confined together in the after-hold, near the stern. The flooring of this pleasant residence was made of planks loosely laid on casks; a grating separated it from the cockpit, and a sentinel was placed at the grating night and day; no daylight reached the place. The prisoners were allowed on deck by a small number at a time.
A tender sailing down the river full of imprisoned men was suddenly seized by the impressed men, who broke open the hatches and got on deck. They were in number 110; they overpowered the officers and men without bloodshed, and ran the ship ashore at Grays, in Essex, where they landed and dispersed.
The illustration is East Indiaman “Asia” by William John Huggins; digital copy is courtesy of Wikimedia.