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Saltcoats outwits the Press Gang, 1789

Posted: Tue Sep 04, 2012 3:57 pm
by down south
Through the eighteenth century, and up to the time of the Napoleonic wars, the male population in coastal areas lived in dread of the Press Gang . With its low pay, grim conditions and harsh discipline, the British Navy struggled to get enough volunteers, and any seafaring man was liable to summary conscription. Bad enough even for them; and with quotas to fill the press gang weren't always that fussy, and a lot of others found themselves caught up in the net too.

But here's the cheering and apparently true tale of how a group of Saltcoats shipbuilders, trapped at a dance by the local press gang, escaped in spite of being surrounded, thanks to the quick thinking of a local lass who took a leaf out of Flora McDonald's book.

It was told originally to the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald in 1860 by one of the group looking back to this adventure of his younger days, and for anyone who cares to seek it out their original article is in fact available to read online; it can be found at that site Richard recently reminded us of:, if you scroll down to the edition of spring 1998 where it's the first item.

But for those with less time to spare here's a retold version from the Herald of 1972, with full acknowledgements to them as usual.



There is an old story of a farmer who left home one morning, saying to his wife that he was going to Ayr to buy some pigs. When he it reached the town he was captured by the Press Gang, served on a ship of war for 11 years, made his way back to Ayr and to his farm, walked in and said to his wife: "I didn't buy these pigs."

Another tale relating to the Press Gang, which occurred in Saltcoats in 1789, is more authentic.

That year a ship had been launched from Mr Porter's shipbuilding yard at the Braes, and as was customary the workmen, most of whom were naturally carpenters, were enjoying a ball in the evening, given by the shipbuilder, and held in Mr Campbell's hall.

About half past eleven, the dance was at its height: the music being provided by an old blind fiddler called Hugh Gilmour; when a breathless messenger slipped into the hall and told the nearest workman that the Press Gang were at his heels, news of the ball and the consequent concentration having reached the Gang who were stationed mostly at Irvine.

The news quickly spread through the hall and the dancers stopped in confusion. The fiddler being made aware that he was playing only to himself asked what was wrong and on being told, suggested that the door should be securely barred, nd the dance should continue until they thought out what to do.

A glance from the window showed the carpenters that the Press Gang were posting themselves all round the hall, apparently content to wait a while until the dance should end, when they might reasonably suppose that the men would be half drunk and tired, and perhaps less able to put up much resistance.

The fiddler's advice was communicated to some of the young women who began dancing, stamping their feet and shouting loudly, while the men gathered in a corner whispering among themselves. They seemed to have two alternatives: either to go quietly, or put up a fight, and even in the latter case several of them were certain to be impressed and to serve the customary twenty-one years on a ship of the line.

However, one of the girls, who perhaps recalled Bonnie Prince Charlie's escapade, suggested that the men should disguise themselves in the women's clothing.

This plan was immediately adopted, and the young women began to remove as much of their own clothing as they decently could. All of them of course wore several petticoats under their voluminous, skirts so there was no sort of suggestion of any strip-tease about the affair.

One woman in fact, whose name is given only under the initial L...( to preserve her modesty when the account of the affair appeared in this paper ) had two brothers and a sweetheart at the ball, but so managed to dispose of her clothing as to make disguises for all three men.

While this was going on the dancing never ceased, the women relieving each other as required, and keeping up the noise, to delude the Press Gang listening outside into believing that nothing was suspected.

When all the boys were disguised, the girls gave them careful instruction on how they should walk, then Hughie Gilmour stopped playing and the door was loudly opened as though the dance were finished. The men started to issue forth mincingly, pretended to see the Press Gang for the first time: turned back into the hall as if to warn the men. The real girls did some screaming and the men some cursing: one of the men shouted that they would fight the gang-, then the boys picking up their skirts ran in as girlish a manner as they could away from the hall, as if afraid of the fight to follow.

It was by now of course well after midnight and very dark - the only light coming from the few lanterns in the hall, and the Press Gang allowed the men to escape with a few coarse remarks, the leader commenting, that they seemed to be a lot of long-legged jades.

Inside the hall, Gilmour had started playing again and the girls were dancing and shouting, so the Press Gang restrained them selves and waited for the men to come out. After another half hour or so however, they grew tired of waiting, forced open the door of the hall and burst in, to find only the blind fiddler, the elderly shipbuilder, Mr Porter, and about thirty girls dressed merely in their vests and petticoats.

The head of the Gang indulged in some spectacular cursing - the more so as the girls laughed and ridiculed him and his men; but there was nothing he could do about it so he and his men went away, cold, cramped and profitless, one is glad to say.

The women soon after left the hall, each wearing her sweetheart's jacket, and reached home quite safely. To the chagrin of the Press Gang the story spread around the locality and thereafter the Gang tended to leave Saltcoats alone: we have no record of any man from the town having been impressed into the navy - until 1914 and 1939 of course.

Re: Saltcoats outwits the Press Gang, 1789

Posted: Thu Feb 07, 2013 1:42 am
by abla43
Nice one, I like it!!!

Re: Saltcoats outwits the Press Gang, 1789

Posted: Wed Dec 26, 2018 12:18 am
by Hughie
Don't know why I didn't comment on this lovely story at the time. Brilliant! //funny

Re: Saltcoats outwits the Press Gang, 1789

Posted: Wed Dec 26, 2018 2:07 am
by bonzo
Fantastic,no doubt I'd have been caught :lol: you must've been better off taking the kings shilling?

Re: Saltcoats outwits the Press Gang, 1789

Posted: Wed Dec 26, 2018 10:34 pm
by brian f
An excellent read down south. It gives you a bit of an insight about peoples lifes at that time.