History has given us many famous cross-dressers, including such notables as J Edgar Hoover and the legendary Pope Joan, but during the 18th and early 19th century there developed an English tradition for “female sailors” some of whom became legends in their own lifetime.
The most famous was Hannah Snell (1723–1791) who, in 1745, escaped a troubled marriage by dressing in her brother-in-law’s suit and running away. A few days later, she was approached on the streets by a recruitment officer who mistook her for a man. In no time, Hannah was serving as “James Gray”, a Marine onboard HMS Swallow.
Hannah found it easy to pass herself off as a young man, although her ability to cook, clean and stitch led to her being called “the most handy boy”. After three years of battles, Hannah was promoted to second lieutenant. Some of her colleagues had grown suspicious at her inability to grow a beard and gave her the nickname of Miss Molly Gray, but her luck held out until August 1749, when a French sniper placed six shot in her right leg, a further five in her left leg and one in her groin.
Hannah lay at death’s door for two days but still managed to conceal her groin wound from the surgeon after extracting the embedded musket ball by “probing the wound with my finger till I came where the ball lay, and then… thrust in both my finger and thumb and pulled it out.” Hannah survived and in May 1750 was shipped back to London.
Once onshore, she collected her pay and went to the pub with her shipmates. There she announced to her soldier friends that she would shed her skin “like a snake, and become a new creature”. Hannah loosened her clothes, revealed her true identity and said, “I am as much a woman as my mother ever was.” Her friends were impressed, praising Hannah for her courage and fortitude.
The “Female Soldier” became a local celebrity. She published her life story, which made her enough money to buy a pub (The Widow in Masquerade) and retire. She caused a second sensation when, in 1791, she was admitted to London’s Bedlam Hospital suffering from what would appear to be dementia. She died soon afterwards and was buried, with ceremony, at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, an institution that cared for old and injured soldiers. She was only the second woman to be laid to rest among male Army colleagues.
Hannah Snell was the first and most famous of the female sailors (although still part of the Army in the 1740s, the Marines were based on naval boats) but in the decades to come there were to be two other similar cross-dressing celebrities. The first of these was Mary Anne Talbot (1778–1808) who joined the Navy in 1792 as “John Taylor” to be near to her lover, Captain Essex Bowen. Follow-ing his death at sea, Mary remained part of the crew and had many remarkable adventures before being wounded and captured by the French. She only revealed her female identity when, on her release from French captivity, the Navy tried to force her back into service. Mary Lacy (1740-?) had a similar career after joining the Navy in 1759 as William Cavendish, a carpenter. She served as a shipwright for 12 years before being invalided out with arthritis. Both she and Talbot were awarded full pensions.
These were not isolated cases, as searches of The Times index produced five other examples between 1807 and 1840 (intriguingly, similar searches for female soldiers drew a blank), including four anonymous female sailors, plus Marianne (alias William) Johnson, who served for four years in the Merchant Navy and was discovered in 1807 after she fainted, causing a colleague to loosen her uniform. All these women were summarily dismissed from service, but most received either recognition for their service and/or a pension.
Why the Navy should have been so attractive to women is a mystery, but it might be linked to an indiscriminate recruitment policy and a lack of formal medical assessment, making it easier for a woman to hide her sex than in the Army, where fitness for duty was of more concern. As regards motivation – there have been hints that Snell and others cross-dressed out of sexual gratification, but there is no evidence of this. They seem to have joined the Navy to escape a troubled domestic life. Like many others, they may simply have joined up in search of pay and adventure.
A final word should perhaps go to the myth of William Brown, a grog-swilling African woman who was said to have served for 12 years as “captain of the fore-top” aboard HMS Queen Charlotte. This story first appeared in the 1815 Annual Register and has been repeated many times. However, a recent investigation of the Queen Charlotte’s muster rolls found that a sailor named William Brown had joined the ship in May 1815, but a month later was discharged for “being a female”. In that time she did not leave dry land.