Throughout the course of our beloved series, women are seen primarily as land-going creatures, not meant for life at sea. While both Sophie and Diana take passage as guests on various ships, women are rarely said to be serving on board any of Jack Aubrey’s vessels. The most notable exception would be the unfortunate gunners wife in The Far Side of the World, and that event seemed to prove Jack’s general belief that women at sea are more trouble than they’re worth.
The more one reads of life within the wooden world the more confusing the role of women within that world becomes. To be sure there are regular references to women being carried,, but this is usually as a result of a charter or delivering an official and his family to some far-flung British outpost. As early as 1587 the printed regulations forbade women on board ship and the threat of severe punishment was proposed for those who contravened the order. However from then on written sources hint that the rule was ignored, and that for the next 250 years women were glimpsed on board but only as shadowy figures flitting around below decks.
There is, however, a clear distinction to be made between those who visited the ship to further their trade, the oldest profession in the world, who left when the ship sailed and those who were there when the ship sailed, often with the collusion of the ship’s officers. Of those living aboard the ship, they appeared to represent the social classes in that there were the women who served the needs of men and others who served the officers. Most of the contemporary references to this situation are drawn from various ribald songs which have survived from the time. Furtiveness was their watch word as they existed in a gloomy half-light between decks. What we lack is a first-hand account; so far as we know, no women recorded their exploits of life at sea.
However, there was obviously concern from official quarters that this practice existed judging by the regulations in successive rule books. All through the eighteenth century the rules included articles such as this example from 1756:
” … no woman ever be permitted on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to, and the Ship not to be too much pestered with them. But the indulgence is only to be tolerated in Port and not under Sailing Orders.”
The Captain of the Camilla in 1809 wrote that he disapproved of the previous Captain’s habit of “having with him a kept mistress, a companion that did not do much honour to his station”.
Naturally many women visited ships when then were in harbour and it was noted that “it is frequently the case that men take two prostitutes on board at a time, so that sometimes there are more women on board than men … Men and women … shamelessly and unblushingly couple like dogs”
It was always the case when a ship entered harbour that the bum-boats flocked out to it full to the gunwales with prostitutes which were selected by the sailors and brought on board. The boatman who brought them out often acted as a pimp and Jack Nastyface in his book describes the boatmen getting three shillings on top of his regular fare for each woman he brought out.
The other group of women to be found aboard ship were the wives of officers, marines and seamen. There are allusions to officer’s wives living on board at least semi-permanently from 1600. By 1800 it was certainly not unusual for admirals downwards to take their wives with them on a cruise. After Nelson had been seriously wounded at Santa Cruz he asked to be taken to another ship so that he would not offend the wife of Captain Fremantle, Betsy, with his wounds. She was on board his flagship the Seahorse.
In 1800 Captain Sir William Henry Dillon took his wife to sea with him in the Leopard, the reason for this we are told was that he had recently married her and found out too late that she was a total spendthrift and would quickly squander his fortune. By taking her with him she would have no opportunity to spend anything. We know too that Dillon’s Second Lieutenant also had his wife on permanently on board. The warrant and petty officers also applied to various Captains for permission to take their wives on board and this was rarely refused. We hear of Admiral St. Vincent complaining of the amount of water which women used while at sea for washing and the like.
Richardson, the Gunner of the Tromp in 1800 took his wife with him on a cruise to the West Indies. He originally felt this was not suitable due to the terrible disease problems in their destination, Martinique. However, “after some entreaty I gave my consent, especially as the Captain’s, the Master’s, The Purser’s and the Boatswain’s wives were going with them: the Sergeant of marines and six other men’s wives had leave to go.”
Although women were on board they rarely appeared, but we do know that when the Horatio struck a rock in 1815 and all hands were called to the pumps five women appeared to help. Only one of them was known to the officer present and that was the bosun’s wife. Fifty years before that a dead woman was found “sewn up in a hammacoe” in the bread room of the Defiance. After a court of enquiry it was decided that she had died of a fever and that those who knew of her existence were acquitted.
It is known for certain that women were present on many cruises and that they took part in some engagements. Those present at the Battle of the Nile (1798) certainly petitioned to be awarded the commemorative medal claiming they had served a gun during the fight. John Nicol, who served in the powder magazine of the Goliath at the Nile kept abreast of what was happening in the heat of action by consulting the women and boys who carried the cartridges. “Any information we got was from the boys and the women who carried the powder. The women behaved as well as the men … I was much indebted to the Gunner’s wife who gave her husband and me a drink of wine every now and then … Some of the women were wounded and one woman belonging to Leith died of her wounds.” After Trafalgar (1805) Jane Townshend of the Defiance applied for her medal “presenting strong and highly satisfactory certificates of her useful services during the combat”.
What did these women do during combat? The usual job seemed either to help the surgeon with his gruesome task or else to run cartridges to the guns. One of the problems for the modern historian in determining the roles filled by women on board is that the women were not rated and therefore did not appear in any of the muster lists. However, in 1798 four women appear on the Goliath’s muster books , “victualled at two-thirds allowance, per Captain’s order, in consideration of their assistance in dressing and attending on the wounded, being widows of men slain in fight with the enemy on 1st August, I798.”
The births of children at sea were occasionally reported and perhaps the most famous is that of the son of Mrs McKenzie. He was delivered at the height of the Glorious First of June in 1794 in the bread room of the Tremendous (the Purser must have had a fit!). Thereafter he rejoiced in the name of Daniel Tremendous McKenzie! He was also awarded the Naval General Service Medal for his part in the action and was rated ‘Baby’! In John Nichol’s account of the Battle of the Nile he states “… One woman bore a son in the heat of the action; she belonged to Edinburgh.”. In Captain Glascombe’s log the following is recorded. “This day the surgeon informed me that a woman on board had been labouring in childbirth for twelve hours and if I could see my way to permit the firing of a broadside to leeward, nature would be assisted by the shock. I complied with the request, and she was delivered of a fine male child.”
There were a third category of women to be found aboard the ships – those who masqueraded as men. The most famous case, admittedly during an earlier war, was that of Hannah Snell who served for at least five years as a seaman, soldier and even marine. At the battle of Pondicherry she was wounded in twelve places and removed one bullet herself to avoid detection! When she finally returned home she declared herself and was given her pay. During the Napoleonic era most of the references to female sailors are taken from popular songs and must be greeted with some scepticism. However from a court-martial document of 1807 we read that “ one of the witnesses in this awful and horrible trial was a little female tar, Elizabeth Bonden, who has been on board the Hazard these eight months. She appeared in court in a long jacket and blue trousers…” Another ‘cross-dresser’ was recorded in the Queen Charlotte where, in 1815 William Brown had been serving for eleven years. William was a ‘ negress’ and reportedly an excellent seaman, having filled, for many years, the prime position of Captain of the Main Top.
Another woman, “Tom Bowling” was brought before a magistrate for petty theft and as evidence of her good character cited that she had served as a Boatswain’s Mate in the Royal Navy for 20 years and was even drawing a pension for the same! Earlier in the eighteenth century one William Prothero, a private marine on board the Amazon, was discovered to be a Welsh girl of eighteen who had followed her lover to sea.
The instances of cross-dressing were not confined to the Royal Navy either. Jeanette Colin, who abandoned the French Achille at Trafalgar before she blew up was fished out of the water stark naked by the crew of the Pickle and transferred to the Revenge. Here the arrival of a naked woman caused not a little excitement and she was quickly given the wherewithal to make some clothes for herself (women’s at that, as she was given some sprigged muslin). The story emerged that when the fleet left Cadiz she had decided to stay with her husband, and dressing as a sailor, she served alongside him until during the battle he was killed. She then took passage to Gibraltar where she disappeared. At the same time the Britannia also picked up a woman who had been serving on the Achille.
It would be easier for a young woman to pass herself off as a boy and this is presumably what happened to Nellie Bowden, a woman on an American ship, who when eventually discovered had her rating on the ship’s books changed from Ship’s Boy to Domestic.
There is another case where the Admiralty themselves told a captain to engage a respectable woman for the voyage and rate her able seaman. However she was to act as a maid to some princesses who were to be carried to foreign climes.
The role of women within the wooden world can therefore be seen to be much more complex than previously supposed and it was only the complex rules and expectations of the time which prevented the whole subject being acknowledged and talked about more openly. The women on board his Majesty’s vessels of war encompassed all social classes and indeed seemed to have performed most of the roles that men did with the exception of holding a commission.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: