Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Press Gang Definition:

A small group of men who abducted a man for the purposes of pressing him into some form of service, often aboard a ship.

Related Terms: Abduction, Kidnap

Also spelled with a hyphen as in press-gang.

A press gang picked up people from the streets and forced them to do certain labour.

The practize, as it related to forced labour on board a ship, is also known as Shanghaiing.

Press gangs were often used to forceably enlist men into armies. Benjamin Coulson Robinson wrote of the one-time practices of the British Navy:

"... an officer in the Navy with a body of his men were empowered, under the name of a press-gang, to prowl about London and our seaports, kidnapping any seafaring man or any stroller they might fall in with, carrying him on board a king's ship, and compelling him to fight for his country, whether he liked it or not."

An 1864 edition of the American Law Register (now the University of Pennsylvania Law Review) tells this pathetic story of the consequences of press-gang activity:

"At the beginning of this century, the criminal law of England was contained in a multitude of uncouth statutes, nowhere reliably collected together, of Draconian severity, of gross inconsistency, and, of course, of little effect in staying the progress of crime. The simple story of poor Mary Jones is enough to picture the whole. This unhappy girl, married, and a mother, at eighteen years of age; robbed of her husband by a press-gang, who forced him into the navy, to be paid twelve cents per day; starving in the streets, and made desperate by the sufferings of the child at her breast, snatched up a piece of muslin, which the shopkeeper, after stretching his conscience to the utmost, swore to be worth a little over a dollar. Her heart failed her, and she laid the stolen goods back again. But she had been seen, and was arrested, tried, sentenced, and hung, leaving a child not a year old behind her."

Press gang activity still continues in the inner cities as young men and women are pressed into allegiance and service to a criminal gang not of their own initiative or volition but under the duress of physical or other family member intimidation.


  • Law Reforms and Law Reformers, 12 U. Pa. L. Rev. 513 (1864), at page 514.
  • Robinson, Benjamin Coulson, Bench and Bar: Reminiscences of One of the Last of an Ancient Race, Vol. 1, page 308 (London: Hurst and Blackett, Limited, 1889)

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