Monday, March 19, 2012

Elizabeth Bowden


Women At Sea: Witness for the Prosecution
Elizabeth Bowden (or Bowen) seems to have had it rough from the very beginning. Born into obscurity and poverty some time in 1793 in Truro, Cornwall, she seemed destined to a bleak life. Things went from bad to worse when she was orphaned at age twelve or thirteen.

Elizabeth had an older sister who, to the best of the girl's knowledge, lived in that haven of the Royal Navy: Plymouth. Being nothing if not hardy, Elizabeth walked from Truro to Plymouth with the idea that she would take up residence with her sibling. Unfortunate as usual, Elizabeth could not find her sister. Elizabeth, who in our day and age would be termed a little girl, was penniless, starving and alone. Like so many nameless others of her generation, she turned to the sea.

Dawning a boy's trousers (and perhaps looking similar to this drawing by Thomas Rowlandson), Elizabeth signed aboard HMS Hazard at Plymouth in the last half of 1806 using the name John Bowden. Deemed fit to serve, she was rated a boy 3rd class and given the usual advance on her pay. Hazard left for sea not long after the new boy was taken aboard. No one seems to have questioned her sex, at least not right away.

Within six weeks something occurred, history is silent as to what, that gave Elizabeth's gender away. One wonders if her menarche wasn't the culprit but that is purely speculation. At any rate, rather than being turned ashore at the next port, Captain Charles Dilkes gave Elizabeth a separate sleeping space and made her an assistant to the officers' stewards. This would have kept her out of the general ship's population and put her more closely in contact with not only the stewards but the galley crew as well.

With all this, Elizabeth would probably have fallen through the cracks of history as did so many other women at sea. But a well publicized case of sodomy aboard HMS Hazard, and Elizabeth's insistence that she had witnessed at least one of the incidents in question, brought her briefly into the lime light.

In August of 1807, while the ship was underway, Lieutenant William Berry was accused of regular abuse of a boy named Thomas Gibbs. Berry was twenty-two at the time but Gibbs, a ship's boy second class, had to have been younger than fourteen as he was not charged at the court-martial. According to the trial records, Gibbs finally got fed up with Berry's actions and told the gunroom steward, John Hoskins, what was going on. From the young man's testimony it sounds as if there was physical as well as sexual abuse going on, although Hazard's surgeon would say that he could "find no marks on the boy" and that Gibbs had only "complained of being sore".

Hoskins took Gibbs to Captain Dilkes and had him repeat his story. Berry was questioned by the Captain who was evidently inclined to believe the boy. The Lieutenant was arrested and a court-martial was arranged in October, aboard HMS Salvador del Mundo, when Hazard reached Plymouth once again.

I won't go into the details of the trial, which was presided over by Admiral John Duckworth, as that is not the focus of this post. What is interesting is that Elizabeth Bowden, known to be a girl, felt comfortable enough to step up and offer her story in the case. Even more fascinating is that the Royal Navy court took her testimony, it seems without batting an eye.

Elizabeth claimed to have seen an exchange between Berry and Gibbs by peering through the keyhole of Berry's cabin. She was asked if she observed Gibbs entering Berry's cabin frequently and answered yes. When asked "...and what induced you to look through the keyhole?" Elizabeth replied, quite simply, that Gibbs in Berry's cabin seemed curious, and "...I thought I would see what he was about." The court recorded this testimony and noted that she was "Elizabeth alias John Bowden (a girl) borne on the Hazard's books as a Boy of the 3rd class."

Lieutenant Berry, who called in family and friends to vouch for his good character and even had a girl come along side ship and offer to marry him, was found guilty under the 29th Article of War and hanged from the starboard fore yardarm of Hazard on October 19th.

And that is all we know about fourteen-year-old Elizabeth "John" Bowden. Whether she continued on in navy service, like the intrepid William Brown, found a husband and settled down, or came to what would then have been called a bad end is impossible to say. Her brief story, however, gives us another example of the much debated acceptance of women at sea.

Women Who Have Become Sailors
Colonist, Volume XXVII, Issue 4355, 22 January 1886, Page 4

In the reign of George III. an Irishwoman named Hannah Whitney served for five years in the Royal British Navy, and kept her secret so well that she was not known to be a woman until she retired from the service.
     A few years later, a young Yorkshire girl walked from Hull to London in search of her lover. She found him enlisted on His Majesty's man-of-war Oxford, and thereupon she donned a sailor's suit, assumed the name of Charley Waddell, and enlisted on the same ship. Her lover, not being as faithful to her as she to him, deserted the ship, and in attempting to follow his example she was arrested and her sex discovered. The officers raised a contribution for her, and she was dismissed from the service and sent home.
     In 1802, a Mrs. Cola became somewhat famous by serving on board a man of war as a common sailor. She afterwards resumed her proper attire and opened a coffee house for sailors.
     In 1800, a girl of 15 tried to ship at London on board a South Sea whaler, and being refused, she put on boy's clothes, hired herself to a waterman, and became very skilful in rowing. She did not learn to swim, however, and one day the boat capsizing, she was nearly drowned. In this crisis her sex was discovered, and she ceased to be "jolly young waterman," and became a dometic servant in her proper apparel.
     Another girl, aged 14, named Elizabeth Bowden, being left an orphan, went up to London in 1807 from a village in Cornwall, in search of employment. She, did not succeed in finding such work as she desired, and putting on male attire, she walked to Falmouth, and enlisted as "boy" on board his Majesty's ship of war Hazand, and did good service aloft and beowv Her sex was finally discovered, however, and by the kindness of the officers the poor girl was placed in a proper position.
     Still another, named Rebecca Ann Johnston, had a cruel father, who dressed her as a boy when she was 18 years of age and apprenticed her to a collier ship where she served for lour years.
     In 1814, when the British war vessel Queen Charlotte was being paid off, a negro woman was found among the crew, who had served eleven years under the name of William Brown, and had become so expert a sailor that she was promoted to the captain of the foretop. She had all the peculiarities of a good sailor, and had kept her secret so well that none suspected her real sex.

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