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Hidden Heroines: women who dressed as men to join the Navy

28 October 2021

Bravery is required for any man who wishes to join the Royal Navy, but what about a woman in the 1700’s?

Mary Lacy

At the age of 19, Mary Lacy travelled to Chatham in her fathers’ clothes and she became William Chandler. From the working classes and a life of mischief, her career at sea began here, having boarded HMS Sandwich during a time when the Royal Navy was desperate for men.

Her sailing life was far from easy. She was beaten, her wages were appropriated by her masters, she experienced a two-day hurricane at sea and she survived the Seven Years War. She worked as a shipwright apprentice at both Portsmouth and Chatham Dockyard’s.

This extreme labour and hardship caused her to be hospitalised with inflammatory rheumatism (any disease involving inflammation and joint pain) and her identity was revealed here. Possibly due to the protection of a hospital, Lacy was discharged from service, which was considered a light punishment. It is said that Lacy had one of the most successful careers as a woman in disguise even gaining a pension from Admiralty in her true name.

The story of her bravery inspirational.

“In an age when women did not serve in the armed forces or train to become qualified shipwright or set themselves up as speculative builders, Lacey did all three.”
Margaret Lincoln, National Maritime Museum

Hannah Snell

Another woman who took a similar risk in boarding a warship dressed as a man was Hannah Snell. How can a woman survive 4 ½ years disguised as a man on a naval ship in the 1700’s without notice?

After losing her parents at just 20 years old, becoming a singer and later living with her sister and brother-in-law for a few years she met James Summs, a sailor.

Although there is no physical record of their marriage. Summs abandoned Snell, pregnant and without her possessions as he had sold them all. The child died soon after birth. Biographers of Snell argue that her decision to dress as a man and become a sailor was a search for revenge against her husband.

After being wounded at the siege of Pondicherry she sailed back to England on the HMS Eltham. Here her identity was revealed, and she was consequently discharged. Not much is said on how she was treated by her fellow sailors after this, but the press went wild. She became somewhat of a celebrity. She sang at the New Wells, artists painted her portrait, and she was even asked to perform military exercises in full uniform for the public.

It is unclear whether she ever found her husband but instead she reached fame and fortune as “a woman in men’s cloathes.” James Woodforde’s’ diary entry of 21 May 1778.  

These women were not the only women taking a big risk, Christian Davies, a foot soldier and seamen had her identity revealed by army surgeons. Mary Talbot became John Taylor during the French Revolution.

How were they never discovered?

Margarette Lincoln, editor of The Female Shipwright, explains that sailors did not wash very frequently so undressing rarely occurred. Many soldiers also experienced venereal diseases so stained clothes were not uncommon, this helped Lacey conceal her menstrual cycle.

Some would call what these women did reckless; others would call it brave?

Mary Lacy and Hannah Snell are 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.

 

 

Written by volunteer Megan Piper.

References:

Cordingly, D. 2001. Heroines and Harlots: Women at Sea in the Great Age of Sail. (London: Macmillan Publishers)

Lacey, M. 2008. The Female Shipwright. (London: National Maritime Museum)

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