WordPress Meets the Press Gang

Through the medium of WordPress, several bloggers are offering me some unusual prompt words for today. I even had to look up three of them to be certain of their meanings.
Ragtag Daily Prompt: HARDIHOOD
— boldness, daring, courage; self-confident audacity

Word of the Day: URGES
— (noun): strong desires or impulses.
— (verb): to repeatedly or insistently try to encourage or persuade someone.

Your Daily Word Prompt: RECONDITE
— Difficult or impossible for the ordinary person to comprehend, as a DEEP subject
— Referring to something little known or obscure
— Hidden from sight. Concealed

The original meaning of this word has provided the track for my train thoughts this morning.
Scuttlebutt: a ship’s water butt – a cask holding the day’s supply of fresh water. And since this was where sailors gathered to drink and exchange gossip, the word eventually included the gabfest that went on around the scuttlebutt.
The old oaken cask (scuttled butt) has been replaced by the office fountain or water cooler and the term has come to mean “gossip and rumors that circulate.”


One day my great-great-grandfather John Smith sat visiting with his youngest son, Moses, and John was telling Moses what happened when he was nine years old that shaped his entire future. Fortunately for me, Moses’ youngest daughter happened to overhear the conversation. A few years ago I able to track down this long-lost relative, in her late 90s and still of clear memory. She shared this story with me:

As a nine-year-old boy John was walking down the street in an English city – he thought it was London – when a couple of sailors from the British navy grabbed him and hustled him onto a ship in the harbour. This was one of the press gangs that worked the English port cities, kidnapping boys and young men to serve on the ships. John must have been a husky lad; I can’t imagine they’d grab a puny little guy who might not survive the rough sea life.

So who was this lad and what were his origins? Was his name actually John SMITH, or did the sailors tack that label on him, possibly to deflect inquiries? From info on his death record, John was born circa 1828. Young boys in those days likely weren’t so informed about their family history or even their location – perhaps he’d never even been to school. Was he from a caring home, or were his parents down-and-out sorts? Maybe he was an orphan, just a street urchin that happened to wander too near the port? Was John’s father a Swedish sailor, or why does my DNA show that I have 9% Scandinavian ancestry when I find so little in my known family tree?

If our children go missing, it’s a tragedy. Did John’s family search for him? Was he hidden from the authorities – or did any authority ever check on ship’s crews or search for missing boys and young men? After all, press gangs operated with the collusion of the Crown. I try to imagine the recondite lives these fellows lived as captives of the British Navy: the possible abuses, the hard labour, primitive medical care, rickets and scurvy, wild storms, dim prospects of deliverance. I have to admit I’m living in one of the best eras ever.

For the next four years gr-gr-grandfather was held on that ship, working as a cabin boy, never allowed to set foot on shore. I can picture him gathering around the scuttle-butt with the other sailors, hearing their tales of the sea, of exotic ports, of ships that went down in storms. Did John have a natural hardihood, or was he terrified in this new setting? I’m sure he had the urge many times to escape this forced servitude and find his family again – if he had any – but he was never allowed ashore.

When he was fourteen the ship docked in Halifax harbour and somehow John managed to escape. He told his son Moses that the sailors turned the ships guns on him as he was fleeing, but he made it into the woods and hid there in the forest until the ship sailed away. From Halifax he made his way to southwestern Ontario and worked as a labourer; in time he managed to buy a farm near Listowell. To the best of my knowledge, he never again had contact with any family in England.

Around 1855, when he’d have about twenty-seven, John married Ruth Dobson, a young woman from a very religious home. Her parents were John & Ruth; her brother Jonathan grew up to become a well known Methodist preacher. Ruth called herself a Methodist and John listed himself on all the Ontario censuses as an Unbeliever. Their oldest daughter, Mary – my great-grandmother – was born in 1856. Their oldest son, William, apparently became a policeman in Toronto. Mary, as Mrs Sam Vance, moved west and lost all contact with her Smith relatives.

Oct 19, 2020:
My dentist’s office just called about my appointment tomorrow. Can’t just walk into the office now, must wear a mask, etc. Yes, my activities are being restricted and everyone is fearful of COVID – and who knows what the economy will do? Scuttlebutt has it that a vaccine is in the works, but may take awhile yet. Yes, these are uncertain, fearful times – but as I let my thoughts drift back through the years to young John, hiding in the woods near Halifax, totally alone, with only his own hands and hardihood to provide for him in this new land – I can’t complain about my lot!

So I’m sitting here this morning enjoying my coffee, playing with these new words, and wondering about my DNA results – all because “John Smith” acted on his urge to escape and jumped ship in the Halifax harbour circa 1842. Hope you’ve enjoyed hearing great-great-grandfather’s story.

18 thoughts on “WordPress Meets the Press Gang

  1. That’s an amazing story, and I’m sure there are lots of others similar to it. As you pointed out, being pressed into the navy against one’s will was common in that day, and there doesn’t seem to have been any redress for the victims. Well told, Christine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, around the port cities it was. After all, given the conditions and life expectancy, not many land-lubbers would go to sea willingly. Reading the life of Sir Francis Drake, I see how many ships went down in storms. Nevertheless, his life in Victorian England, had he remained there, may not have been any better. The industrial revolution put a lot of men out of work and left them to starve.

      Being English, he couldn’t claim any special discrimination. Everybody had it tough. Maybe the concept of victim, as we know it, didn’t exist in those days — unless maybe as victims of a violent crime? Basically, whatever your lot and however you suffered, this was just life as it was dealt to you, “Now make the best of it,” kind of thing.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The DNA tests are sold as a means of answering questions, but they do often create more that than they can answer. I also have that Scandinavian question mark among all the others that make me scratch my head. Being a bit piratical and maritime I’ve decided to be creative and label it the “Viking rover’ contribution to my family heritage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that’s as good as any. 🙂
      Since John Smith came from a port city where every variety of sailor would have passed through, the Norway+Sweden origin is quite believable. I’ve the tiniest bit from my Mom’s side, too. So 7.5% from a gr-gr-gr-grandpa and 1.5 % from mom’s side would work.


    1. My British penpaIs say it was a fairly common thing around the port cities; we had a story in our school reader called “Escape from the Press Gang.” Many sad acts have been perpetrated in this old world; I’m so thankful we have recourse to justice nowadays — though it may not be as fair as it should be.


  3. That was a fascinating read, Christine!
    My family has been here in Quebec for so many generations, any stories of the first one come over from France are long lost. And on my father’s side, there is not much. Mind you, I just discovered a cousin (not sure where he falls in the branch) who might have a bit more info…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I gather the first immigrants to New France were Huguenots. As far as going back to France for records, Bob was disappointed that he couldn’t access anything from Alsace-Lorraine where his grandmother Bigarel’s (Bigaré’s) grandparents came from.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Have you ever read the origin of the name Phanuf? (Hope I’m spelling it right.) Now that’s fascinating! A New England lad named Farnsworth, captured by Mohawks, ends up in Quebec.. 🙂


      2. They had a family reunion at one point and Bob read about it in La Presse. Farnsworth was a young English lad brought to Quebec by his captors and ransomed. So he stayed, but francophone tongues couldn’t wrap around all those consonants. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your post about Press Gangs. I am studying the War of 1812. Impressment and trade issues were the reasons Madison declared war The British Empire.
    So that was an acceptable form of human trafficking.

    Liked by 1 person

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