For the British Navy of the eighteenth century, there was no aspect of naval warfare that caused as much difficulty and anguish as manning the fleet. Finding the necessary skilled seamen to man warships was the alpha and omega of the navy's problems. Over the course of the so-called ‘Second Hundred Years’ War’ between Britain and France, British fleets were forced to grow in order to gain and maintain seaborne superiority, in both home and distant waters. Larger and more numerous warships required increasing numbers of men. The English Navy of 1695 employed around 48,000 men, while the Royal Navy of 1810 employed over 145,000 men to face Napoleonic France. As each progressive conflict superseded its predecessor in size and scope, so too did the matter of manning British warships. Finding enough men, and in particular enough skilled men, to man the navy's ships was a strategic as well as a logistical problem for naval administrators. This chapter argues that successfully manning the fleet was the foundation of British naval strategy in the late eighteenth century. The Impress Service and the controversial system of impressment largely succeeded in providing skilled seamen for the navy and laid the foundation for the navy's remarkable performance in the two decades of war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. However, contrary to most of the received historiography, impressment did not provide the majority of naval recruits.
The historiography of British naval manpower, and in particular the extensive literature on impressment, has suffered from a noticeable lack of statistical data. At the heart of this chapter is the first substantial and statistically significant study of naval manpower, which examines the recruitment of over 27,000 sailors during the French Revolutionary Wars. Its analysis suggests that most of the assumptions underpinning the current scholarship on impressment are inaccurate: most members of the lower deck were volunteers; impressment was comparatively rare and targeted a select group of experienced sailors. By examining the archival record – rather than relying, as too many historians have done, on Victorian polemics on the evils of impressment – this chapter revises the historiography of British naval manning policy and simultaneously demonstrates its significance for British naval strategy in the eighteenth century.