Impressed Sailors: What were they?

Do you have a British ancestor who suddenly seems to have vanished? If he worked on the seas, or perhaps even if he did not, he may have been pressed into service by the Royal Navy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Royal Navy used press gangs, as they were commonly known, to forcibly seize sailors, both from other vessels while at sea, and from docks, pubs, and homes while ashore.

Why did the navy’s impress service employ such tactics? During times of war, there was a need for greater recruitment for the navy. Legislation allowed for both voluntary enlistment and forcible service.

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First World War Resources at Archive.org

Not all service records from WWI survive. Of those that do survive, some are available for free. For example, those for Canada are currently being digitised and placed online by Library and Archives Canada. Fire destroyed some of the service records for the United Kingdom; those that remain are available through subscription websites such as Ancestry and findmypast. Fire was also responsible for the loss of many service records in the United States.

Fortunately, many towns, counties, schools, and companies created biographical directories to honour those who served in WWI. Local libraries often hold some of these in their collections.

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Domestic Service & The Girls' Friendly Society

Between 1919 and 1930, more than 120,000 female domestic servants arrived at Canadian ocean ports, and of those, nearly 75,000 were from the British Isles. My aunt, Florence Clarke, was one of them. She was a young woman of twenty-five when she disembarked, alone, at the port of Quebec on 30 July 1926. Like many women of her age, Flo had grown up in rural England and had made her way to the city, in her case, Liverpool, to seek work as a domestic servant. By the time she left England in 1926, Flo had been in domestic service for 12 years, having obtained a labour certificate to leave school at the age of 13.

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