For centuries, the sea was seen as a male domain. Women were not integrated into the Royal Navy as fully fledged sailors until as late as 1993. However, during the Age of Sail an astounding number of women did go to sea in warships.
In recent years, stories of young women dressing in men’s clothes and working alongside sailors for months, sometimes years, without revealing their gender have also been unearthed. William Chandler and James Gray are both names used by women who went to sea disguised as men but the true number of women who dressed in men’s clothes to go to sea remains unclear.
The first known black female to serve in the Royal Navy went by the name of William Brown. Her true name is unknown but it is believed she joined the Royal Navy in 1804 to escape after a quarrel with her husband.
Here she rose through the ranks to Captain of the Foretop, spending 12 years on British warships. For several of those years she worked on the Queen Charlotte which had a crew of 850 and 100 guns. It is thought that she worked during its previous commission in 1813-1814 as flagship of the Channel Fleet.
A View of the Launching of his Majesty’s Ship Queen Charlotte from Deptford Yard July 17th 1810. ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Her adventures emphasised her ability and strength. She led a team to set the sails on the foremast in all weathers. It was a very dangerous job as the foremast was over a hundred feet high.
In 1815, her identity was discovered. Dangerous for any woman let alone a black woman, only 8 years after the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed.
The story of her bravery and adventures soon entered the press making her name well known. Her naval career went unaffected, and she returned to HMS Queen Charlotte. She was even able to collect a large sum of prize money.
Sadly, we do not know what happened to her after 1816. Nevertheless, the story of William Brown is inspiring for all.
‘A smart, well-formed figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength an great activity’.
London’s Annual Register
William Brown is featured alongside fellow women in disguise at sea in Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard, showing in No.1 Smithery until 31 October 2021.
William Brown’s story also inspired artist Helen Wallis King. Her interpretation of William Brown in acrylic formed part of an exhibition of art by friends of the MESS ROOM, members of the Kent Association for the Blind, Peer Arts and Deaf Peer Arts at The Historic Dockyard Chatham during July and August 2021.
Written by Megan Piper (Volunteer)