Women on tall ships (part 1)

Were there women on tall ships when they were the biggest vessels afloat? The wooden world is often seen as totally masculine, full of Russell Crowe types with their supporting cast of thugs and young gentlemen.

Son of a gun

It depends rather on both the work of the ship and the country of origin but the short answer is, yes there were woman at sea. Indeed, the presence of women in the British Royal Navy can be inferred from a simple cliché. When a woman gave birth on a warship, it was said, there was so little flat space they would rig a bed sheet tight between two canons to create room for her labour. Other versions describe canons being let off to hasten labour though I doubt gunpowder would be wasted. Her child was known as the ‘son of a gun’.

(The picture below is from http://www.contemporarysculptor.com is of the Victory’s gun deck as it would have been at the Battle of Trafalgar.)

Some people argue against this etymology and continue to argue for the ships as a masculine preserve. But of course women travelled on tall ships in all sorts of capacities. There were women conveyed as passengers of course, including the aristocracy conveyed around the world for diplomatic purposes. Others had less choice, whether being deported or in the appalling inhumanity of the specially created ships used for the Middle Passage of the slave trade.

Evidence abounds of women taking more active roles on board, well-documented by historians such as Suzanne Stark, Hilary Wheelwright, Joan Druett and David Cordingly. I have been enjoying their work for years and weaving stories around the adventurous women whose histories they have unearthed. (This collection, entitled Stronger than Longing is a publishing project for later this year.)

Mary Lacy, Shipwright

Standing officers such as the ship’s armourer or carpenter stayed with the ship (unlike the Admiralty officers who moved about, as Jack Aubrey does throughout the O’Brian books). Their wives sailed with them sometime as otherwise the pair would never be together, and she might take on unofficial roles such as supporting the ship’s doctor. One can imagine too that the boys being trained as midshipmen, some very young, welcomed a wee bit of maternal recognition. At least one such officer was a woman, the strong-willed and adventurous Mary Lacy.

Mary was a servant girl with a lust for adventure. In 1759, already a wild young woman of 19, she ran away and stole some clothes so she could disguise herself as a boy. She enlisted and became part of the crew of the Royal William, giving her name as William Chandler. She served as a ship’s carpenter for years successfully keeping her gender a secret and even surviving rumours about it put about by someone she had imagined a friend. In her autobiography she tells this story, saying that one reason no-one believed she was a woman was her well-known flirtatiousness and sexual success: Mary was indeed intimate with many women who certainly knew what she was. Lesbianism might not have been given a name at the time but it flourished in the dockside world of eighteenth century Portsmouth. (The picture, by Thomas Rowlandson shows rowdy scenes on the docks in 1811.)

In 1770 Mary became a certified shipwright but a year or so later rheumatoid arthritis in her hands forced her to leave the Navy. She applied for a pension, revealing herself as a woman, and Admiralty Board recognised her service paying her £20 a year. To supplement her income, she published an autobiography which sold well for several years in the UK and the US. She is frank about her experiences, although occasionally a moralising tone creeps in, perhaps interjected for a prudish readership by her publisher. In herself, Mary was obviously a hearty and energetic person with a great lust for life.

Hannah Snell, marine

Some women sailed as marines on fighting ships, soldiers conveyed to their wars by ship and integral parts of the fighting complement.  One of the most famous was Hannah Snell. Born in 1723 in Worcester, at 20 she moved to Wapping to live with her sister and brother-in-law. For unknown reasons, at 25 she disguised herself as a man, took the name James Grey and enlisted in the army Sometime in the next two years, she deserted and we next find her signing on to the Swallow as a marine, still calling herself James Grey. The ship sailed for Pondicherry, on the east coast of India, to besiege the French fortifications there.

In the intense fighting, Snell was wounded in the thigh but somehow still managed to keep her gender secret. Her own lurid version includes telling how she extracted the bullet herself, but it may also be a testament to the quality of medical care at that time and place. After a year in hospital she was eventually assigned to the Eltham on which she returned to Portsmouth where she was paid off. At that point she came out as female and was discharged.

Snell wrote an unreliable autobiography which accompanied her successful stage career. She became quite the celebrity, starring in musicals dressed in uniform, sitting for portraits of which this contemporary image is one) and the subject of popular songs. Eventually her star waned and she settled in Stoke Newington, winning a pension for her service from the Chelsea Hospital. Sadly she went mad and died after twelve years in the notorious Bethlehem Infirmary, better known as Bedlam.

More stories ahead

Lacy was crucial to the ships she served on. Snell spent short periods as an able seaman (not uncommon for marines between assignments during this period). It might be said though that neither woman sailed or navigated the ships on which she passed. We can find women who did. Mary Patten, who skippered her husband’s clipper is one, while the elusive William Brown of the Queen Charlotte may be another. And that’s to say nothing of the famous pirates. I will write more about them in posts to come.

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  1. Millie Pickering

    I wait in anticipation .. For my next history lesson.. Oh wise one !!
    Just loving it .

  2. Portsmouth library seemed to have a lot of research info on female tars in the 90’s hopefully it is still there .

    • Hi Melanie. I haven’t tried Portsmouth Library but I reckon they would have a lot. I’ve spent quite a bit of time trawling other places though, like the National Maritime Museum and the archives at Kew (which include lots of muster books). Thanks for coming by and the thought.

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