Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the age of sail names such as Mary Lacy, Hannah Snell, or woman known as William Brown and many more were connected to cases of women disguising themselves as men and signing up as seamen to serve in the Royal or Merchant Navy.

These women strove to escape their restrictive female bonds in an age where women were considered weak, not able to look after themselves without needing the protection and guidance of men. Why did they run away to sea? One good reason was to gain financial independence and freedom. The harsh life they signed up for had the compensation that any money they earned was theirs to spend as they liked. For those who chose this unconventional path the rewards of freedom from the narrow obedient life of a woman at home must have outweighed the difficulties and possibility of discovery. Others wished to become men, they preferred wearing male clothes and the company of men. Some must have sought excitement and adventure and some followed a man whom they were in love with.

The women, if discovered, were never punished but simply dismissed from the navy. Under the Admiralty rule, no women were allowed on board a naval vessel without the permission of the Admiralty, this would have most definitely included any female in the disguise of a man no matter how good a seaman they were. Some must have been discovered fairly quickly but many were only found out when they were about to be flogged and they voluntarily revealed their true identity or admitted it when they were in trouble. We don't know how many had a successful career without discovery except for a few cases after fighting in battles and being paid off they received a pension and ended their silence to tell their story. Mary Lacy was one of those women who fortunately decided to tell her fantastic story giving us a detailed picture of life as a sailor aboard a warship. In 1759 she went to sea in men's clothes as William Cavendish apprentice carpenter, the ship she joined was involved in the Seven Years War between Britain and France. In 1763 she decided to become a shipwright's apprentice based Portsmouth Dockyard and gained her certificate in 1770 despite being discovered and confessing she was a woman to two male colleagues who surprisingly swore to keep her secret.

However, rheumatoid arthritis meant she was no longer able to work in such a physically demanding environment and in order to gain a pension she revealed her identity as Mary Lacy and not William Chandler, as she later called herself. Her petition was successful and she retired publishing her story under the title The History of the Female Shipwright.

To successfully pass as a man in an extremely harsh and physical world these women learnt to fit in with the men, chewing tobacco, drinking and sometimes chasing women. Mary Lacy had proved by gaining her shipwright certificate to be a talented craftsman as well as a good imitator. In the case of a woman known as William Brown, whose real name is unknown, her seaman's skills enabled her to became the captain of the foretop.
Her skill with sails and directing the crew in her section earned her the responsibility of an area that in storms and gales was very perilous; many were blown over board whilst at the top of the mast.

These stories and others show us that women found many guises in order to go to sea but often the most popular was as a ship's boy. The uniform of loose baggy clothes and hair worn long enabled women to pass themselves off as young boys, if discovery ended their journey or adventure; mention of it made short reading in the newspapers. For the stories which passed into song and legend you have to turn to the more dangerous women who went to sea as men and as pirates.