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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 13

Paul Loyall and the Press Gang

According to a breezy account preserved in The Virginia Gazette of October 1, 1767, press gangs attempting to recruit unwilling tars for the British Navy got a hot reception in pre-Revolutionary Norfolk.

Readers perusing that particular issue were treated to a full-column account of a press gang riot that had taken place in Norfolk one month earlier. The news was a trifle stale, for day-to-day reporting at that time was practically unheard of, but the event was still titillating.

Late on the night of September 5, 1767, Captain Jeremiah Morgan of His Majesty's sloop-of-war Hornet, anchored off Norfolk, embarked in his vessel's tender with several officers and thirty seamen, all armed to the teeth. The tender was rowed to the Public Wharf where it was made fast across the end so that its loaded swivel gun might command the wharf.

Going to a nearby tavern, they indulged in a "cheerful glass" or two and then proceeded to the lanes and alleys near the waterfront where they forced the boarding house keepers with curses and threats to open their doors. When the latter were led to believe that the party had a warrant from the mayor, they took down the bars. At that point the Britishers rushed in "like so many tigers and wolves" and began impressing seamen for the Hornet. And when several sailors put up a fight, they knocked them on their heads with stout oaken clubs and "lugged them away like dogs."

Raising the alarm by yelling, "A riot by man of war's men, with Captain Morgan at their head!" the Borough Watch caused the drums to be beaten, and this uproar brought the townspeople running into the streets.

Among them was Paul Loyall, a former mayor, who stood six feet in his stocking feet. In his excitement, Loyall turned out clad only in his nightshirt and a pair of unbuckled shoes. Loyall's first gesture to restore law and order was to collar two British seamen who were dragging a protesting sailor off to the tender. And when the sailor managed to break loose from his captors, the Britishers were seized by the mob and dragged off to jail.

Loyall then headed a party of aroused citizens to where Captain Morgan and a party of armed sailors had fled near the Public Wharf. Demanding the reason why he had dared to disturb the peace at that time of the night, Morgan answered by swearing that he would run Loyall through with his sword. When Loyall reminded Morgan that he was unarmed, the half-drunk captain thrashed the air in the former mayor's direction with his sword.

Loyall stood his ground, however, and later remarked dryly, "If he (Loyall) had been an elephant of overgrown size, Morgan might have hit his head or his tail."

At that point, Mayor George Abyvon arrived with a posse of citizens. Making himself known, he commanded peace in the King's name, but Morgan "damned him and every man in Norfolk" and ordered his men to fire the swivel gun.

Fortunately, this did not happen, and the infuriated Morgan and a sailor leaped into a small boat and rowed hastily back to the Hornet, leaving the remainder of his party high and dry on the wharf at the mercy of the thoroughly aroused Norfolk citizenry.

By that time the shoe was on the other foot. The impressed seamen were freed and ten of the ringleaders of the press gang were put in jail. The rest of the Britishers were permitted to return to their ship.

Chapter 14
George Washington in Norfolk

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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