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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.

In 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.

The 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.

It 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.

Then 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. 

The 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:

“In 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 Brother.

Returned 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 husband.

Snatched, alas, how soon by sudden death, unhonoured by progeny like herself, worthy to rule the Main!”  

color="#ff9933" William 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 

color="#ff9933" William 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 1816.

A London newspaper in 1815 reported details of her career as follows:

“Amongst 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.

In 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.

Brown 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.


color="#ff9933" Hannah Snell color="#ff9933" -  using 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.



color="#ff9933" Mary 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.

In 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.

By 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 Talbot  John Taylor color="#ff9933"> >(Fact or Fiction?).

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, but it did make for exciting copy at the time. Here is her story…………..


Mary 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 . This 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:


Mary 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).

Mary 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

The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees

>Hannah Snell: >The Secret Life of a Female Marine, 1723-1792 by Matthew Stephens

Heroines & Harlots: Women at Sea in the Great Age of Sail By David Cording

Women at War by Peter Caddick-Adams


 The Rambling Female Sailor
(circa 1830)
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

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