What is the King’s Shilling?

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The expression ‘to take the king’s shilling’, meant to sign up to join the armed forces. Rather like with the ‘prest’ money for the ‘impressed’ man, a bonus payment of a shilling was offered to tempt lowly paid workers to leave their trade (an average daily wage during the Napoleonic period was 2p (at 12p to a shilling, this represented six days wages in one go). Once the shilling had been accepted, it was almost impossible to leave.

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Since the Navy like the Army was not seen as an attractive career, recruiters often had to use less than honest methods to secure their ‘prey’, such as getting the recruitee drunk, slipping the shilling into his pocket and then hauling him before the magistrate the following morning (still hungover) to get him to accept the fact that he was now in the army. Sometimes the ‘King’s shilling’ was hidden in the bottom of a pewter tankard. Having drunk his pint, the unfortunate drinker found that he had unwittingly accepted the King’s offer. As a result, some tankards were made with glass bottoms.

Impressment was a long standing authority from the state for the recruitment to military service, either on land or on sea. The impress service, or more commonly called the press gang, was employed to seize men for employment at sea in British seaports. Impressment was used as far back as Elizabethan times when this form of recruitment became a statute and later the Vagrancy Act 1597, men of disrepute (usually homeless vagrants) could be drafted into service. In 1703, an act limited the seizure of men for naval service to those under 18, although apprentices were exempt from being pressed. In 1740, the age was raised to 55. Officially, no foreigner could be impressed although they were able to volunteer. If, however, the foreigner married a British woman, or had worked on a British merchant ship for two years, their protection was lost and they could be impressed. However, these limits were often ignored and the impressment of Americans into the British navy became one of the causes of the American War of 1812.

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Once a man had been seized by the press gang, he was offered a choice. He could either sign up as a volunteer and receive the benefits that came with being a volunteer (advance payment etc.) or he could remain a pressed man and receive nothing. Some governments issued “Protections” against impressment, including Britain. These were mainly issued by the Admiralty and Trinity House for specific types of employment. These protections had to be carried at all times and shown to the press gang on demand to prevent the holder being impressed. However, in times of crisis, even the protections became invalid. The order “press from all protections” – known as the “hot press” meant that no person was exempt from impressment.

Since these times the methods of recruiters have changed dramatically, we no longer seek to trick, cajole or misrepresent… much.

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