Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mary Anne Talbot

Mary Anne Talbot (February 2, 1778 – February 4, 1808) was an Englishwoman who wore male dress and became a sailor during the Napoleonic wars. She was born in London and later claimed that she was one of the 16 illegitimate children of Lord William Talbot, Baron of Hensol. Her mother died in childbirth after which she spent her childhood in the care of different guardians and boarding schools until she fell in the hands of a man she called Mr. Sucker, who was also in charge of her inheritance from her sister.

In 1792 Mary Anne unwillingly became the mistress of Captain Essex Bowen who enlisted her as his footboy, under the name "John Taylor" for a voyage to Santo Domingo. She served as a drummer-boy in the battle for Valenciennes, where Captain Bowen was killed. Mary Anne was also wounded and treated the injury herself.

She deserted and became a cabin boy for a French ship. When the British captured the ship she was transferred to the HMS Brunswick in Portsmouth, England where she served as a powder monkey. In June 1794, she was wounded for the second time when grapeshot almost severed her leg during the battle of the Glorious First against the French fleet. She never recovered the full use of it but later rejoined the crew. She went ashore at St. Katharine’s Dock and, upon being approached by a press gang, revealed herself to be a woman.

Mary Anne went to the Navy to get the money due to her because of her service and wounds and finally found a sympathetic magistrate. At the same time her leg wound got worse and she continued to wear male clothing. She visited Sucker who told her that all her inheritance was lost. He apparently died of heart attack the same day and she decided to go on disguised as a male sailor, working in menial jobs and even trying her luck on stage at Drury Lane.

At the age 18 she was homeless and unemployed and in 1804 she published book about her life in the navy. It’s almost certain that the publisher, Robert Kirby, embellished her story in order to sell copies. The book brought her fleeting fame, but she ended up in debtors’ prison and died at the age of 30. Following her death, Kirby published The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Anne Talbot (1809). Mary Anne’s tale aroused some sympathy and even a case of imposture when a woman in a Light Horseman's uniform tried to use a name “John Taylor” to solicit money in London.

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