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“I Hate to Hear of Women on Board”: Women aboard War Ships

I BEGIN WITH CAPTAIN WENTWORTH’S VEHEMENT assertion in Persuasion, “‘I hate to hear of women on board’” (69).

The admiral abused him for his want of gallantry.  He defended himself; though professing that he would never willingly admit any ladies on board a ship of his, excepting for a ball, or a visit, which a few hours might comprehend.

“But, if I know myself,” said he, “this is from no want of gallantry towards them.  It is rather from feeling how impossible it is, with all one’s efforts, and all one’s sacrifices, to make the accommodations on board, such as women ought to have.  There can be no want of gallantry, admiral, in rating the claims of women to every personal comfort high—and this is what I do, . . . and no ship, under my command, shall ever convey a family of ladies any where, if I can help it.”

This brought his sister upon him.

“Oh Frederick!—But I cannot believe it of you.—All idle refinement!—Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England. . . . My dear Frederick, you are talking quite idly.  Pray, what would become of us poor sailors’ wives, who often want to be conveyed to one port or another, after our husbands, if every body had your feelings? . . . I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. . . .”

“Ah! my dear,” said the admiral, “when he has got a wife, he will sing a different tune.”. . .

“Now I have done!” cried Captain Wentworth  “When once married people begin to attack me with ‘Oh! you will think very differently, when you are married.’ I can only say, ‘No, I shall not;’ and then they say again, ‘Yes, you will,’ and there is an end of it.”

He got up and moved away.  (68-70) 

This exchange leads us to investigate the surprisingly large number of women in various roles on warships, including during battle. 

Ladies at sea 

A few points about this heated discourse: 

First, though Wentworth speaks of “women,” the discussion is about ladies and comfortable accommodations suited to their social status.  As Brian Southam says in his book Jane Austen and the Navy, “Jane Austen’s world is, . . . like that of her own family, . . . the world of the gentry, the naval gentry, the officers and the aspiring midshipmen.  Of the lower deck, the existence of ordinary seamen, we hear virtually nothing” (7). 

Second, Mrs. Croft, the admiral’s wife, takes space into account for ladies’ comfort:  “‘I do assure you,’” she says, “‘that nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man of war; I speak, you know, of the higher rates’” (70).  She refers here to the navy’s six rates for ships, from first rates like the Victory, carrying a hundred or more guns on three gun decks and about 840 seamen, officers, and servants, down to the fifth or sixth rating of frigates with about 30 guns, one deck, and a crew of around a hundred.  Wentworth is nostalgic about the frigate:  “‘Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia!  How fast I made money in her’” (67).  Frigates were faster, the eyes of the fleet, as at Trafalgar where a chain of frigates signaled to Nelson’s fleet that the French and Spanish were coming out of Cadiz.  Frigates also served in individual exploits and, by capturing enemy ships, accumulated prize money as does Wentworth.  Francis Austen deeply mourned not getting a frigate when Nelson, who would have got him one, died at Trafalgar.  A smaller ship still, and not rated, was a sloop like the Asp that Wentworth starts with. 

Mrs. Croft is pushing her argument somewhat far, however, when she allows, “‘When you come to a frigate, of course, you are more confined—though any reasonable woman may be perfectly happy in one of them.’”  However, she concludes successfully, dismissing all discomforts and dangers, “‘While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared.’”  And Mrs. Musgrove heartily agrees:  “‘There is nothing so bad as a separation’” (70-71).

It is generally agreed among scholars of Austen and the navy (for example, Hubback and Cordingly) that this discussion between Wentworth and the Crofts derives from Jane’s brothers, Francis and Charles, who would both eventually become admirals (Francis, Admiral of the Fleet).  Jane Austen’s letters show her interest in her brothers’ experience, advancement, characters, and opinions.  The Crofts’ argument about the comfort of ladies on war ships probably reflects the experience of Jane’s brother Charles, who served on the North American station and the West Indies and was a genial and humane officer.  Married to Fanny Palmer from Bermuda in 1807, he became flag-captain on HMS Namur to Admiral Sir Thomas Williams, who allowed Charles’s wife and two children to live with him on board:  “This arrangement lasted for some months and became a problem only when it was found that their eldest daughter, Cassandra, suffered constantly from seasickness” (Cordingly 108). 

Francis was a different kettle of fish.  In a verse letter on the birth of Francis’s first son, Jane Austen recalls Francis’s childhood “insolence of spirit,” “saucy words & fiery ways” (26 July 1809).  Brian Southam gives an account of the grown Francis: 

In the eyes of Jane Austen he was always “amiable” Frank.  But his officers and crews found him formidable, a strict, sometimes harsh, disciplinarian. . . . He was a stickler for rules and regulations, punctilious and conscientious to a fault, a slave to “duty.”  As a devout Evangelical commanding a “praying ship” he courted no popularity; and in himself he was a reserved and private man.  (Southam 13) 

If Francis is some inspiration for Wentworth, it is a much softened and considerate portrait, as due to a loved brother—after all, Wentworth is the book’s romantic and admirable lead. 

Nevertheless, those comments about a devout Evangelical commanding a praying ship and courting no popularity may also put one in mind of an admiral familiar to the Austens:  Admiral James Gambier.  Gambier was a major source of “interest” along with the influential people who furthered the naval careers of both Charles and Francis again and again when they sought promotions or assignment to desirable ships.  Francis, the religious son of a clergyman (actually 17 percent of young midshipmen were the sons of clergy), somewhat resembles Gambier.  Consider this account of Gambier (from Robert Harvey’s Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain): 

Gambier was a dedicated tractarian Christian who distributed fundamentalist pamphlets to his crew, fiercely opposed alcohol, and refused the common practice of allowing women to board in port.  He was known as “dismal Jemmie” by his men, . . . a new type of Admiralty bureaucrat, determined to bring greater morality on board ship.  (108) 

Not only was Gambier a major patron, but Francis was for some time Gambier’s flag captain on the Neptune.  Francis too was a “stickler for rules.” 

There was no shortage of rules in the navy.  For some time there had been Admiralty rules about women on ships.  In 1731, Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea (based on even earlier rules) lays down the law for captains and commanders:  “He is not to carry any woman to sea.”  As Cordingly observes, in his Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, the regulations were revised several times.  In 1756, after some comments on cleanliness, the regulations give the following instruction:  “That no women be ever permitted to be on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to, and the ship not to be pestered even with them” (Cordingly 92).  But this limited permission for actual wives to come aboard pertains only when the ship is in port and not under sailing orders.  In 1806 article 14 tells the captain, “He is not to allow of any woman being carried to sea in the ship . . . without orders from his superior officer, or the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty” (Cordingly 92).  The Army allowed wives to follow the army to sea, but the process involved holding a kind of lottery on the docks to decide which wives might embark.  As far as strict obedience to the navy’s rule went, Alexander Pope’s aphorism “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” applies, and officers did as they pleased. 

Admiral Jervis, made Earl of St. Vincent for his victory over a Spanish fleet, was much less victorious in his obsessive campaign against women and water.  “Women,” he writes, “still infest His Majesty’s ships in great numbers and . . . will have water to wash, that they and their reputed husbands may get drunk on the earnings” (qtd. in Stark 57).  Jervis repeatedly urges ships’ captains to “admonish these ladies upon the waste of water and other disorders committed by them.”  In the next year he writes again in the same vein.  This time Nelson responds to Jervis’s harangue: 

The history of women was brought forward I remember in the channel fleet last war.  I know not if your ship was an exception, but I will venture to say that not an Honourable [a captain] but had plenty of them, and they always will do as they please.  Orders are not for them—at least I never yet knew one who obeyed.  (qtd. in Stark 57) 

However, class enters here, so it is worth looking closer at Mrs. Croft’s experience of pleasure and comfort on an admiral’s man of war.  In early 1800, after the Battle of the Nile, Nelson took Emma Hamilton and her husband, Sir William, British envoy to Naples, with some friends on a cruise to Malta aboard Nelson’s flagship Foudroyant (French for “Terrifying”).  The great cabin, where Nelson held parties, was decorated with mementoes of his victories, including the coffin made for him by Canadian Captain Hallowell from a piece of the mainmast of the great French flagship L’Orient, blown up on the Nile.  No doubt Nelson made his guests comfortable.  As for romance, it is considered that Horatia, daughter of Emma and Nelson, was conceived on this cruise.  That’s what we call comfort and accommodation! 

A romantic tale of women on war ships concerns Sir Thomas Fremantle, one of Nelson’s “band of brothers,” who at Trafalgar was to engage the huge Spanish 136-gun battleship Santissima Trinidad.  In 1798 he had rescued some British citizens stranded by Napoleon at Leghorn, including Mr. and Mrs. Robert Wynne and their five daughters.  Even Admiral Jervis, disapproving though he was of women on war ships, was won over by the girls, and called them “the Admirables.”  Fremantle fell in love with one of them, Betsey, and the two were married at Naples, much to the delight of Emma Hamilton, Nelson, and even Jervis himself.  For several months Betsey accompanied her husband on his ship (White 127). 

Women of the lower deck: Wives of petty officers

Sailor's Farewell

The Sailor’s Farewell, by C. Mosley (1743).
©National Maritime Museum,
Greenwich, London.

So much for ladies.  But what about another category of women?  Below deck were the wives of warrant or petty officers:  the wives of the boatswain, the carpenter, the gunner and the purser, the sailing master, the cooper, the sail-maker, and the cook. 

Regulations were often ignored by the sailors, Suzanne Stark observes: 

The royal Navy operated as much by unwritten tradition as by written regulations, and the tradition of taking women to sea was firmly established by the eighteenth century. . . . Captains were given a great deal of latitude in running their ships according to their own rules, and while they grumbled about the women of the lower deck, most of them accepted the women’s presence as inevitable and simply carried on as though the women did not exist.  (Stark 51) 

These women had some privacy in their husbands’ canvas cabins and a ship’s boy as servant.  They had various chores, such as cleaning decks (which could be dirty and stinking), helping the cook, and assisting the surgeon.  Still, on the ship’s muster, they didn’t exist.  They were allowed two-thirds of their husband’s food ration, and any children got half. 

The life was dreary and dangerous, and might last for years.  Ordinary sailors, though on the whole respectful of their superiors’ wives, were a rough lot.  Wellington famously described the army that won the Battle of Waterloo:  “They are the scum of the earth, enlisted for pay.”  A great many of Nelson’s navy were not even enlisted for pay but were gathered by force, captured by the press gangs from the streets, the taverns, or in some cases, all the men in the village.  Why then would a woman choose to go to sea in a man of war?  The answer must be the one that Mrs. Musgrove and Mrs. Croft agree on:  “‘There is nothing so bad as separation.’”  Being on a war ship, however, could also lead to separation.  When the ship goes into battle, “England expects every man will do his duty,” but, expected or not, so did the women; a woman helped the surgeon on the horrific orlop (lowest) deck, or as a powder-monkey busily toting heavy cartridges up the ladders from the magazine to the guns, racing “along the sand-strewn but still blood-slippery deck through the choking smoke and deafening gunfire to her assigned gun, deposited the cartridge, and once again ran down to the hold for another load” (Stark 72).

In June 1812, for example, the small sloop Swallow engaged close up to a powerful French ship off Frejus and took fierce damage.  Mrs. Phelan, helping the surgeon, heard from a badly wounded and dying sailor that her husband was wounded on deck.  The Annual Register for 1812 records: 

She rushed instantly on deck, and received the wounded tar in her arms; he faintly raised his head to kiss her—she burst into a flood of tears, and told him to take courage, “all would yet be well,” but had scarcely pronounced the last syllable, when an ill-directed shot took her head off.  The poor tar, who was closely wrapped in her arms, opened his eyes once more—then shut them forever.  (qtd. in Adkins 178) 

The story doesn’t end here.  Mrs. Phelan left aboard a week-old baby boy, and the sympathetic crew appointed themselves as one hundred fathers.  But they couldn’t breast-feed a child needing milk to live.  Someone remembered that the officers had a Maltese goat; the goat became wet nurse to the baby, supplying milk a-plenty, and the baby survived.1

Log Book

From The Log Book, or, Nautical Miscellany, after George Cruikshank (c. 1826).

A more cheerful instance of a lower-deck woman in battle is a French one on the Achille at Trafalgar.  The flash from an arms chest in the foremast set the sails on fire, and the fire quickly spread (this was the reason that Nelson forbade musketeers in the rigging).  Knowing the ship would soon explode, the crew threw themselves into the sea naked, lest their clothing drag them down.  Jeanette, a woman who had been carrying powder from the ship’s magazine to the guns, unable to find her husband in the turmoil, also jumped into the sea naked, just before the Achille exploded in a great ball of fire.  Boats from the British schooner Pickle rescued hundreds of French sailors from the water and in about an hour or two saved Jeanette.  Too small itself, Pickle transferred them to HMS Revenge.  In the words of a Lieutenant on board the Revenge

[I]n the boat which picked her up . . . her sex was no sooner known than the men, whose hearts were formed of the right stuff, quickly supplied her with the articles of attire in which she first made my acquaintance.  One supplied her with trowsers, another stripped off his jacket, and threw it over her, and a third supplied her with a handkerchief.  She was much hurt . . . and when she reached the Pickle was more dead than alive.  A story so wonderful and pitiful could not fail to enlist, on her behalf, the best feelings of human nature. . . . I caused a canvas screen berth to be made for her, to hang outside the wardroom door . . . and I placed my cabin at her disposal for her dressing room.

Although placed in a position of unlooked-for comfort, Jeannette was scarcely less miserable; the fate of her husband was unknown to her . . . and he was perhaps killed, or had perished in the conflagration.

 However, on the fourth day, 

she came to me in the greatest possible ecstasy and told me that she had found her husband, who was on board among the prisoners, and unhurt. 

At Gibraltar, 

[o]n leaving the ship, most, if not all of us, gave her a dollar, and she expressed her thanks as well as she was able, and assured us that the name of our ship would always be remembered by her with the warmest gratitude.  (Fraser 222-26) 

The wives below decks were every bit as courageous and committed as the men in scenes of horror, awful on the surgeon’s deck, and in the energetic and fearful serving of the guns. 

Sex workers 

Now let us turn from officers’ wives, and petty officers’ below-deck wives, to women who were not wives at all.  What these women lacked in status, they made up in large numbers.  As the Adkinses say, “The main ports had large populations of prostitutes awaiting the arrival of warships—at least one thousand in Portsmouth alone, according to the 1801 census figures—and out of all their potential clients, naval seamen were likely to provide rich pickings,” as a contemporary song demonstrates: 

Oh! My little rolling sailor
Oh! My little rolling he;
I do love a jolly sailor,
Soldiers may be damned for me.  (Adkins 155)

 Seaman William Robinson writes of arriving at Portsmouth: 

[S]warms of boats came round us . . . many . . . freighted with cargoes of ladies, a sight that was truly gratifying . . . and a great treat for our crew, consisting of six hundred and upwards, nearly all young men, had seen but one woman on board for eighteen months. . . . In the course of the afternoon, we had about four hundred and fifty [women] on board.

Of all the human race, these poor young creatures are the most pitiable; and ill-usage and the depredation they are driven to submit to are indescribable; but from habit they become callous, indifferent to delicacy of speech or behavior . . . they seem to retain no quality which belongs to women but shape and name. . . . Thus these poor unfortunates are taken to market like cattle, and whilst this system is observed, it cannot with truth be said that the slave trade is abolished in England.  (Robinson, Nautical Economy [1836], qtd. in Stark 6-7) 

As for the slave trade:  in the West Indies arrangements were made between officers and plantation owners to supply large groups of slaves—female field hands—to their ships (Stark 10). 

Social and economic conditions for farming and lower-class young women were severely hard, and the sex trade paid them more.  As for the sailors, as a French prisoner of war, Major-General Pillet, put it, 

Some English sailors have been in the service twenty-five years; they have sailed to every part of the known world, and these sailors have never set foot on land for six hours. . . . To deprive the sailor of a wish to visit the land, and to prevent the spirit of revolt . . . the vessel is opened to all the girls of a dissolute life, who offer themselves. . . . These women never fail to bring a great abundance of provisions of the dearest kinds; some spirituous liquors, but not without some contrivance and secrecy.  (qtd. in Adkins 156) 

Some women claimed husbands on board, and since officers wanted proof, there was a minor industry of writing false documents; and some sailors, if anyone cared to know, had three or four wives.  Marine Lieutenant Robert Steele records a song he says the women sang:

Come, ferryman, ferry me over,
To a ship that’s call’d Fame,
For there I’ve got a husband,
But hang me, if I know his name.  (Adkins 157)

Saturday Night

Saturday Night at Sea (ca. 1794).
©Lewis Walpole Library.

Needless to say, the scene below decks when a ship anchored in Plymouth, Portsmouth, or foreign parts was chaotic.  Says Goodall, “The brawling and uproar never ceased the whole day long and sometimes during the greater part of the night also” (qtd. in Adkins 159).  At sea hammocks were allowed a mere sixteen inches, but since the crew on watch left their hammocks, half were empty.  In port, however, the watch routine of on and off being cancelled, hammocks were filled, and there was no space between hammocks.  There was not even that degree of privacy.  For this chaste readership, I refrain from further description of this scene. 

If I have qualms about writing it, we need to consider how the officers—Wentworth, for example—might feel about the ladies, their wives, witnessing such a scene.  But if we don’t have the reactions of Mrs. Croft or Anne, I offer instead those of her Royal Highness Princess Caroline, consort of George, Prince of Wales.  For her visit to Admiral Sir Richard Strachan aboard the Caesar, the ship was cleaned, a twenty-gun salute fired, and some hundreds of girls hustled down below.  But, walking the deck, Caroline looked down a hatchway, and there, as Sir William Richardson described it, she saw a number of girls peeping up at her.

“Sir Richard,” she said, “you told me there were no women on board the ship, but I am convinced there are, as I have seen them peeping up from that place, and am inclined to think they are put down there on my account.  I therefore request that it may be no longer permitted.”

So when Her Royal Highness had got on the quarterdeck again the girls were set at liberty, and up they came like a flock of sheep, and the booms and gangway were soon covered with them, staring at the Princess as if she had been a being just dropped from the clouds.  (qtd. in Stark 10) 

Given the Princess’s reputation, the girls may have been studying her for the same reasons that she gazed at them, but Princess Caroline was not prudish.  She was interested in those of her own sex who were on a war ship.  Jane Austen had her own sharp opinion of Caroline:  “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband. . . . I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first” (16 February 1813). 

In Jane Austen’s later years, there was increased public controversy over reform in the navy.  Dismal preaching Jemmie, of course, as well as many others took up the issue.  Another Evangelical, Admiral Edward Hawker, after trying without success to have the Admiralty ban prostitutes on ships in port, wrote an anonymous pamphlet in 1821 for general distribution called A Statement Respecting the Prevalence of Certain Immoral Practices in His Majesty’s Navy.  He berated the Admiralty and the King, who, though providing Bibles, prayer-books, and chaplains on ships, still allowed prostitutes aboard in port, with the tendency “to render a ship of war, while in port, a continual scene of riot and disorder, of obscenity and blasphemy, of drunkenness, lewdness, and debauchery. . . . All this to permit and even sanction the practices which . . . convert our ships of war into brothels of the very worst description” (qtd. in Stark 41).  Stark observes that though Hawker was shocked that ships’ surgeons were forced to inspect the lower-deck men for venereal disease and was indifferent to their welfare or feelings, he was worried about the sensibilities of officers’ wives in witnessing such scenes.  Mrs. Croft, however, has no complaints. 

Hawker wrote, “In a case that has lately occurred, the captain and his wife were actually on the quarter deck on a Sunday morning while seventy-eight prostitutes were undergoing inspection [by] the first lieutenant to ascertain that their dress was clean” (Stark 43).  As Stark observes, Hawker even raised the subject, taboo in polite society, of homosexuality.  Even in courts martial it was only referred to by such euphemisms as “unclean” and “against nature.”  Article 29 of the Articles of War read, “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial” (in short, by hanging at the yard-arm).  Homosexuality remained a capital offence as late as 1861.  In Hawker’s opinion, by polluting the sailors’ minds with grossness, prostitutes on board encouraged such unnatural crimes.

The answer to Hawker’s lurid outrage came in 1824 in what Stark describes as “the most clear-headed response,” with a more temperate approach to the problem of ridding naval ships of prostitutes from Captain Anselm Griffiths in Observations on Some Points of Seamanship with Practical Hints on Naval Oeconomy.  Stark summarizes the argument: 

Griffiths cautioned that “you cannot make men moral by mere force of authority,” and he maintained that women should be banned only if the seamen were given “every liberal indulgence of leave on shore.”  He pointed out “that the admission of two or three hundred profligate women into the confined space of a ship’s between-decks is bad,” but since shore leave is denied, “it is a sort of necessity” and “it has to plead long, very long, prescriptive custom.”  He was even sympathetic toward the prostitutes.  “Generally speaking those women do,” he wrote, “ preserve as fair a portion of decency as you can expect.” . . . It was Griffiths’ belief that lack of women did increase cases of sodomy.  He pointed out that “during the late war the crime [of sodomy] increased to a most alarming extent, . . . due to the very lengthened periods at sea and the consequent absence of female society.”  (43-44) 

Griffiths’s practical solution was the same one advocated by Wentworth and Dismal Jemmie Gambier:  The necessary first step, he said, was to withdraw the privilege that officers enjoyed of bringing women on board.  Such a measure, of course, annoyed the officers as it would annoy Admiral Croft and his wife.  Even those like Dismal Jemmie, who didn’t allow any women aboard, nevertheless “disapproved of any official restrictions on the [officers’] freedom” (Stark 43-44).  Like many of us, they evidently felt that regulations were for other people. 

Happily, Stark notes, Griffiths practiced what he preached about giving seamen leave in port.  According to Griffiths’s Impressment Fully Considered, “He had given shore leave to his men even during the late wars, and few deserted” (Stark 178 n. 97).  In the end, though the topic of women on board excited much public interest, Stark concludes, “neither Parliament nor the Admiralty took any action on the matter, and the public’s interest in the subject soon waned” (44). 

An official conversation at the Admiralty between Admiral Thomas Hardy (Nelson’s flag-captain at Trafalgar) and a moralistic Lieutenant Wauchope dramatizes the opposing viewpoints on the matter.  Wauchope proposed to refuse promotion to flag-captain on Admiral Campbell’s ship if prostitutes were allowed on it.  Campbell himself dodged the matter by sending Wauchope to settle the question with Hardy, who was currently one of the Lords of the Admiralty.  Wauchope himself recorded a version of this exchange in what he called A Short Narrative of God’s Merciful Dealings

Hardy: I understand you object to women going on board.
Wauchope: I object to prostitutes going on board.
Hardy: You go contrary to the wishes of the Admiralty and will therefore give up your commission.
Wauchope: No.  If the Admiralty choose to take my commission on this account, they may.  I will not give it up.
Hardy: As one of the Lords of the Admiralty, I consider it right that women should be admitted into ships; when I was at sea, I always admitted them.
Wauchope: Sir Thomas, it is written that whoremongers shall not enter heaven.  Many officers hold the same opinion about admitting women aboard as I do.
Hardy: I am sorry to hear it, sir. . . . You have given up your commission.  (qtd. in Stark 20) 

However, for Wauchope, taking his stand seems to have been sufficiently satisfying, since he did receive his commission, and in time became an admiral. 

Women disguised as seamen 

So far we have considered three categories of women on men of war:  ladies, below-deck wives of warrant officers and the like, and sex workers.  But there is still one more—less numerous, but perhaps the most remarkable category of all:  women who served in the navy disguised as seamen.  Stark assures us, “There are verified accounts of more than twenty women who joined the Royal Navy or Marines dressed as men in the period from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century.  Some of them served for years before their true gender was discovered” (82). 

When a large number of the men were there not by choice but by force and against their will—virtually slaves, captured by press gangs—why would women want the hard and dangerous life of a seaman on a war ship?  How did these women conceal their sex when they had no privacy, and where hammocks, only sixteen inches wide, were packed tight against one another? 

The popular theory on why women went to sea as men is that they did it for love, enlisting in order to be with a seaman lover.  There are even ballads on the subject, such as “Jackaroe”—in which

Jack [has] gone a-sailing, with trouble on his mind
To leave his native country and his darling girl behind. 

His darling girl, who calls herself “Jackaroe,” 

. . . went into a tailor’s shop, and dressed in man’s array,
And stepped on board a vessel to convey herself away. 

Despite the Captain’s objection that her cheeks are “too red and rosy to face the cannon ball,” she sails to the battlefield, finds her true love “among the dead and dying,” picks him up “all in her arms,” carries him to town, and finds “a good physician who swiftly heal[s] his wound.”2  This stirring tale of cross-dressing, love, and female heroism may have influenced other women to adopt a sailor’s life. 

Another motive for joining the navy was to live a life free of the social and economic restraints on women.  Consider the remarkable case of William Brown, recorded in the Annual Register for 1815: 

Amongst the crew of the Queen Charlotte, 110 guns, . . . it is now discovered was a female African who had served as a seaman in the Royal Navy for upwards of eleven years, several of which she had been rated able on the books of the above ship by the name of William Brown.  [She] has served for some time as the captain of the foretop, highly to the satisfaction of the officers. 

It’s worth noting that the captain of the foretop, the top section of the foremast, requires the most agility, skill, steady nerve, and authority of anyone in the crew.  According to the Register, she was “a smart, well-formed figure, about five feet four inches in height, of considerable and great activity; her features are rather handsome” (qtd. in Stark 82). 

In her manner she exhibits all the traits of a British tar and takes her grog with her messmates with the greatest gaiety.  She is a married woman, and went to sea in consequence of a quarrel with her husband, who it is said has entered a caveat against her receiving prize money.  [A husband legally controlled his wife’s earnings.]

She declares her intention of again entering the service as a volunteer. 

Stark adds to the Register’s account:  “Brown not only reentered the service on 31 December 1815 but even rejoined her old ship, whose officers, surprisingly, were either unaware of the news story or chose to ignore it” (86-87). 

Because of male dominance in economics, education, and trades, some women were attracted to adopting a male role, psychologically and physically, and to participating in the rough manners, downing of grog, and roughhouse of their comrades, as well as the severe rigors, like William Brown’s of working in the rigging, hauling anchors, and handling sails.

Hannah Snell

Hannah Snell, after Richard Phelps (1750).

Three such women left memoirs:  Mary Lacy, Hannah Snell, and Anne Talbot.3  Hannah Snell, after earlier adventures in the army, joined the Marines and at Pondicherry suffered multiple wounds in legs and groin; she was in hospital over a year.  Her story, as she tells it, is that—determined to keep her gender under wraps—she herself removed the musket ball from her groin; she allowed the surgeons to treat only her legs and a nurse to dress her wounds.  Her memoir of 1750 was a success, and she went on the stage in uniform, singing. 

Stark suggests several possible answers to the question of how female tars avoided discovery:  

  1. Seamen rarely bathed, and they slept in their clothes.  Only when flogged and stripped to the waist would women get discovered.
  2. Surgeons, like those treating Hannah Snell, gave “only the most cursory examination to sick or wounded men.”
  3. For toilet visits, “it was not as difficult as it might seem. . . . A woman could go to the ‘head’ (the toilet facilities at the bow of a ship overhanging the water) when no one else was there.”
  4. Aboard ship, “men tended to keep psychological distance from one another. . . . They ignored, if they could, any strange behavior or evidence of sickness in their mates,” and signs of a woman’s period might be assumed to be venereal disease, a common complaint.  (86-89) 

Of all the categories of women at sea in ships of war—ladies, warrant officers’ wives, prostitutes who contrive to stay aboard, and cross-dressers—all except the ladies seem to have served bravely in battle. 

Hearing Wentworth’s discussion focused on ladies’ comfort, his sister objects, “‘I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures.  We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days’” (70).  Katharine Cochrane, wife of Admiral Thomas Cochrane,4 is an instance of a lady in rough waters.  With his wife and two young children aboard, Cochrane temporarily served as an admiral for Chile, which was rebelling against Spain.  When he heard of a nearby Spanish treasure ship, he caught it up and opened fire.  In his Autobiography of a Seaman, he writes about his wife in this action: 

Lady Cochrane remained on deck during the conflict.  Seeing a gunner hesitate to fire his gun, close to which she was standing, and imagining his hesitation from her proximity might, if observed, expose him to punishment, she seized the man’s arm and, directing the match, fired the gun.  The effort was, however, too much for her, as she immediately fainted, and was carried below.  (qtd. in Cordingly 107) 

England may have expected every man in the fleet to do his duty.  But England, except for those with families, like Jane Austen’s brothers, hardly knew that women also bravely did their duty, and then some. 

In dramatizing Wentworth’s objection to women at sea, Austen clearly presents an issue with immediate topical interest.  Wentworth’s attitude must concern us, since it affects what we may choose to imagine about Anne’s “happily ever after.”  The narrator asserts, “She gloried in being a sailor’s wife” (252).  But will she be obliged to do her glorying alone, at home while Wentworth is off at sea and facing the hardships that he thinks ladies should not have to endure?  It would be sad to think of Anne when married as tied perpetually, because of her husband’s scruples, to woman’s lot as she describes it:  “‘We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us’” (232).  When Wentworth’s sister argues from experience, “‘I know nothing superior to the accommodations of a man of war,’” Wentworth responds, “‘Nothing to the purpose. . . . You were living with your husband; and were the only woman on board’” (69).  It seems he objects to women on board, in the plural—to women as powder-monkeys carrying heavy cartridges from the hold, women having babies behind canvas screens on the gun-deck—but not to a woman, as, for instance, a captain’s wife.  So Anne may yet have the chance to follow her darling boy to sea, like Jackaroe and her sister-in-law Mrs. Croft; she may be “‘forced on exertion’” like the men, participating in “‘pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take [her] . . . into the world immediately’” (232).  That sounds more like glorying in being a sailor’s wife, and a woman on board.


Rowland McMaster delivered this paper to local chapters of JASNA in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, to considerable applause.  In adapting it for publication I have removed some of the signs of oral delivery and added a final paragraph.—Juliet McMaster 

1Giving birth on war ships was not unusual.  The noise of guns and the stress and uproar of warfare seem to have brought on the pangs of childbirth.  In their book Jack Tar, an account of the lives of ordinary sailors, Roy and Lesley Adkins record that Mary Campbell “was born at sea on board the Ardent during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and spent her early years with her mother aboard navy ships” (176-77).  Birth on a man of war occasioned the term “son of a gun”:  if paternity was uncertain, that is the way the child was entered in the ship’s log. 

2See YouTube for multiple performances of this song by Joan Baez. 

3The most authentic memoir is that of Mary Lacy, who became a shipwright and served for years.  Suzanne Stark prints a good length of Lacy’s memoir in her own excellent book, Female Tars, from which I have been quoting liberally.  All three of these memoirs appear in Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, published by Fireship Press (2008). 

4Cochrane’s naval exploits caused Napoleon to nickname him “the sea wolf” and inspired Patrick O’Brian for the hero of his novels about Jack Aubrey.

Works Cited
  • Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins.  Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy.  New York: Little, 2008.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • Cordingly, David.  Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women: An Untold Maritime History.  New York: Random, 2001.
  • Fraser, Edward.  The Enemy at Trafalgar: Eye-Witness Narratives, Dispatches, and Letters from the French and Spanish Fleets.  1906.  London: Chatham, 2004.
  • Harvey, Robert.  Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain.  New York: Carroll, 2000.
  • Hubback, J. H., and Edith Hubback.  Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. Being the Adventures of Sir Francis Austen, G.C.B., Admiral of the Fleet, and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen.  1906.  London: Lane, 1905.
  • Stark, Suzanne J.  Female Tars: Women aboard Ship in the Age of Sail.  Annapolis: Naval Institute P, 1996.
  • Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy.  London: Hambledon, 2000.
  • Wauchope, Robert.  A Short Narrative of God’s Merciful Dealings.  London, 1862.
  • White, Colin.  The Nelson Encyclopedia.  London: Chatham, 2002.
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