The Women of the Royal navy
- by Susan Lucas
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Women’s life in England in the 1700’s and early 1800’s was not an easy one. There were very little options depending on your social status what your lot in life would be. You hoped to marry well into a good and wealthy family, or at least become a mistress to a man of good fortune. For the rest, everyday life was faced with more challenges than the day before. Some women who were able to work taking in laundry, or working as seamstresses skimmed a meager living to help support their families. Other families pushed their daughters into Domestic service for wealthy families - some of these girls as young as eight or nine years old. Most children from the lower classes were uneducated and unable to even write their own name.
As was custom at the time women were chattels for their men, and all their earnings went to him as head of the household. Wives were left alone as their husbands went to war, with many men not returning, and some that did came back had injuries too severe to find any employment. For the women who lost their Husband’s getting a small pension was fraught with so much red tape often women would not receive a penny, leaving her to pawn off her positions to put food on the table for one more day. Several women became homeless. The out come was inevitable many turned to prostitution and petty crime. Often women would sleep with a man, and steal the clothes off his back to pawn his clothing later. They drank heavily abiding in gin, to get them through to the next man. These women were often brutalized, and died young of disease. Gonorrhea being the most prevalent illness of the trade.
1783 the situation got worse with 137 thousand men returning from the war,
eliminating any chance for a women to seek a living at all. Prisons became so
full that the government had to rid themselves of these down-trodden women and
shipped them to “Parts beyond the sea” in prison ships.
Many died on the journey.
lucky few who were prostitutes jumped aboard Royal navy Ships, the Admiralty
often turning their heads to the whole affair to keep their men happy. Women
aboard ships were not uncommon. Some women did join their husbands, and became a
valuable asset during battle. Working as nurse maids tending to the injured and as powder monkey’s, and bringing drink to the men at their
stations. These women were given no special privileges they lived and worked and
slept along side the men in cramped
quarters. Admiral Nelson had no problem with this either in fact it is supposed
that Horatia was conceived on the Foudroyant while the Hamilton’s were aboard
during a voyage to Malta & back.
is recorded that only a very small handful of these women were mustered, or
received a small pay. And then only if it was an officer’s wife who lost her
man during battle. These women we not beyond picking up a scabbard and joining
in the hand to hand combat. They were a tough breed, fighting for crown &
country like their men. After all what was there left to lose.
there were those who cut their hair and put on men’s clothing and joined the
navy as a man. This is the story of but a few, of this special breed of women
the real Jane Tar’s.
earliest known Female Tar was a woman by the name of color="#ff9933">Anne
Chamberlyne; she joined her
Brother’s ship in 1690 and fought
against the French in Beachy Head. She was an unusual case coming from a wealthy
family. There was a plaque to her memory at All Saints Church Cheyne Walk London
it was destroyed during a bombing raid in WW11, but there is a record in
a Latin inscription that has been preserved, it says:
an adjoining vault lies Anne, the only Daughter of Edward Chamberlyne, Doctor of
Law’s, born in London, the 20th January, 1667, who having declined
marriage at 23, and aspiring to great achievements unusual to her sex, and age,
on the 30th of June 1690, on board a fire ship in man’s clothing,
as second Pallas, chaste and fearless, fought valiantly six hours against the
French, under the command of her
from the engagement and after some few months married John Spragg, Esq., with
whom, for sixteen more months, she lived most amiably happy. At length, in
childbed of a daughter, she encountered death 30th October 1691. This
monument, for consort most virtuous and dearly loved, was erected by her
alas, how soon by sudden death, unhonoured by progeny like herself, worthy to
rule the Main!”
Prothero – Her real name not recorded, all we know is that she was Welsh and
she served from 1760 – 61 in the
32 gun ship the Amazon under Captain Basil Keith, her time is recorded in the
Captain’s log, and the ship’s muster. As per Admiralty Order she was
discharged after nine month’s when it was revealed she was a women
Brown – The first know black women recorded to join the Royal navy, her
real name also not mentioned, was
born in Edinburgh she joined the navy in 1804 and served several years till
A London newspaper in 1815 reported details of her career as follows:
the crew of the Queen Charlotte, 110 guns, recently paid off, is now discovered
to be a female African who served as a seaman in the Royal navy for upwards of
eleven years, several of which she rates able on the books of the above ship by
the name of William Brown. She served for some time as Captain of the foretop,
highly to the satisfaction of the officers.”
She must have
been one tough woma to be entrusted to such a dangerous position, and having the
respect the men who followed her. Many a man lost his life working in the
topsail falling to their death.
a further news report, it mentioned her prize money was said to be considerable,
and in her manner she exhibits all
the traits of a British Tar.
re-entered the service in 1815
rejoining her ship, the crew although knowing she was a women at this point,
continued to work along side her quite happily. She earned the men’s
respect and became one of them. It is extremely unusual that she was not
released from service upon discovery.
her Brother in Law’s clothes and name, joined the Marines as
James Grey in 1747. She served on the Swallow and sailed to India in
August 1748 she and other marines were sent on shore to fight a siege of the
French Fortifications at Ponicherry, it was an unsuccessful event leading her to
receive severe injuries to both legs. After a year in hospital and still being
undiscovered she continued to serve on the Tartar and the Eltham. It was not
till 1750 she revealed herself, after she was paid off of coarse. Hannah was
married twice and in 1780 was committed to hospital after being judged insane.
She died in 1792.
Lacy – Used the name of William Chandler. She was born in Wickham in 1740.
In 1759 Mary Lacy ran away from home, according to her autobiography she
dressed herself in men’s clothes, at the time she really had not thought of
what she was going to do, or exactly where she was heading. She had very little
money from working as domestic servant, a job that she had begun at the age of
twelve. Her mistress treated her well and supplied her with an education. But
Mary was adventurous and wanted more of her life, and thus she became the first
female shipwright. She arrived in Chatham after spending her first night in a
farmer’s barnyard next to his pigs. While in the town pondering her next move
she was approached by a gentleman asking her if she would to
sea. The Sandwich was a 90 gun ship and had recently been launched at
Chatham, and had not received her compliment of crew. She arrived on the
Sandwich and was invited aboard. Lacy was then directed to the gunner with whom
she stayed for 4 days. A carpenter came aboard, he took her gladly as his
servant. Although he often showed moments of kindness he had a bad temper. Often
beating Mary for perceived infractions. In May of 1759 the Sandwich sailed to
Blackstakes where the remainders of the crew were collected to a total of 750
men. In June she set sail joining Admiral Hawke’s fleet blockading the harbour
of Brest where the French were gathered. At this time they took on a group of
young boys mainly
from the upper classes being groomed to be commissioned officers.
Although well bred their manners we not. It did not take long for them to
pick on the young Mary and initiate a fight. Mary had little choice but to take
these boys on, or to she would have been tormented by them as long as she was
aboard ship. She took off her
jacket and was instantly engaged, despite several powerful punches from her
opponent and in her own words says the
punches were almost enough to dash her brains out,
she bravely fought on. The contest ended with her the clear victor. The
ships cook then rewarding her with Plum pudding.
October, and November the Sandwich sprung her maintop mast during terrible
storms each time having to go to Plymouth for repairs
And in December was nearly wreaked on the French Coast east of Ushant.
The ship was not in good shape from the many storms she encountered, it was
leaking everywhere, and they also had 120 sick aboard and made their way to
Spithead. By late 1760 Mary was in
Portsmouth suffering an affliction she had for most of her life. Rheumatism
caused her joints and legs to swell so badly she was unable to walk this time
she was put in Hospital. By the time she was discharged the Sandwich had sailed
away along with her ill tempered master. She then joined the 100 gun guard ship
the Royal Sovereign. For a year and nine month’s Lacy never set foot on land.
In 1762 the crews were paid off and Lacy was dismissed. She rejoined the Royal
Sovereign 1763 as a purser’s servant, and while on errands she applied to be a
shipwrights apprentice at Portsmouth and was accepted by the spring of 1763. By
the spring of 1770 Mary had received her certificate as a shipwright, now no
longer having to work for cruel masters, she now received a living wage. After a
terrible fire at the dockyard in July of 1770, all the dock yard workers were
pressed into overtime, they worked roughly 17 hours a day, it began making her
affliction all the worse but she did not stop doing her work in spite of the
pain and near crippled condition she was in.
the end of 1771 she applied for her pension no longer able to cope with the pain
and listed her name as Mary Lacy on her forms. Unbelievable the Admiralty in
their minutes report of January 1772 gave her the support for the rest of her
life at 22 pounds a year granted to Superannuated Shipwrights. What happens to
Mary is unknown after this time, it had been suggested she married, but I think
her sense of adventure was to strong to be held down by any man, and likely she
went on to new experiences.
color="#ff9933" Mary Anne
John Taylor color="#ff9933"> >(Fact
Mary Anne Talbot’s story is probably the most
famous, although the facts are either hard to prove or non existent, at the time
her story begins England had become enamoured with stories of Female Tar’s. I
have found news paper articles about her in US news papers of the time as well.
Mary Anne spun a long tale of her life in the Royal navy we will probably never
know if any part of her story is true,
it did make for exciting copy at the time. Here is her story…………..
Anne was born in 1778, her Mother having died in childbirth, spent the next
several years under the supervision of various guardians. When she was fourteen
or fifteen she eloped, in the disguise
of a boy, with
a captain by the name of Essex Bowen. When Captain Bowen was sent to the West Indies he took her
along as his servant, she at this point became John Taylor. In 1793 Essex & Mary returned to Europe both fighting at
Valenciennes Bowen was killed at this time. Mary Jane made her way to Luxembourg
and joined a French privateer as a cabin boy
ship was captured by the British , the
seventy four gun ship the Brunswick.
She served as a powder monkey on the Brunswick, being wounded in Lord Howe's
victory of the First of June 1794. For this she later received a small pension.
After leaving the Hospital in Gosport, Talbot was assigned to the ship Vesuvius,
this ship was then captured by the French.
After her capture she spent the next few years in a French Prison. After
her release she served as First Mate of the schooner Ariel an American ship.
Finally after returning to London, she was set upon by the press gang, and it
was then Mary revealed herself as a woman. Talbot’s story did not quite end
there, as late as 1804 I found a news paper story written in the Columbian
Repository, taken from a London Paper it is as follows:
Anne Talbot, who has served several years in the navy, and been in several
engagements , under the name of
John Taylor, on Friday returned her seaman’s dress, and went down
the river in a boat to see the review. The waterman attempted to impose
on her and on rejecting his demand he used much abusive language and challenged
her to a fight: the proposal was accepted,
they landed at the Isle of Dogs for this purpose. Her superior dexterity
prevailed and the fellow declared himself beaten and gladly consented to carry
her to Greenwich without further payment, she however paid him his fare, and he
remitted the small wager which he risked on his battle.
Mary was known to frequent sailors’ taverns still in men’s clothing. She finally became a household servant to Robert Kirby, a London publisher, who included an account of her adventures in his Wonderful Museum (1804) and in Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Anne Talbot (1809).
died at the age of thirty in 1808.
If you wish to know more about Female Tar’s, here are a few books I have come across:
Female Tar’s by Suzanne Stark
Floating Brothel by Sian Rees
Secret Life of a Female Marine, 1723-1792
by Matthew Stephens
& Harlots: Women at Sea in the Great Age of Sail By David Cording
Rambling Female Sailor
Ballad printed by W. Fordyce,
Come all young people far and near,
And listen to my ditty,
At Gravesend lived a maiden fair,
Who was both young and pretty.
Her lover he was press'd away,
and drowned in a foreign sea,
which caus'd this maiden to say,
I'll be a Female Sailor.
This maid she was resolv'd to go
Across the foaming ocean,
She was resolv'd to let them know
How she could gain promotion.
With jacket blue and trowsers white,
Just like a sailor neat and tight
The sea it was the heart's delight
of the rambling Female Sailor . . .
From stem to stern she'd boldly go,
She brav'd all dangers, fear'd no foe,
But soon you'll hear the overthrow
Of the Rambling Female Sailor.
This maiden gay did a wager lay,
She would go aloft with any,
And up aloft she straight did go,
Where times she had been many.
This maiden bold--ah, sad to tell,
She missed her hold and down she fell,
And calmly bid this world farewell!
Did the Rambling Female Sailor.
This maiden gay did fade away
Just like a drooping willow,
Which made the sailors for to say
Farewell, young faithful Willy.
When her snow-whitebreast in sight
became, She prov'd to be a female frame,
And Rebecca Young it was the name
Of the Rambling Female Sailor . . .
On the river Thames she was known full well,
Few sailors could with her excel
One tear let fall as the fate you tell,
Of the Rambling Female Sailor