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Hearts of Oak are our Women

In the early 1990s, at the end of a long campaign for gender equality, all positions on Royal Navy ships were finally opened to women. Two hundred years earlier, during the age of sail, the official position was firmly to exclude women from warships at sea during time of war. Wives were permitted onboard when the ship was in port (with the definition of a ‘wife’ being routinely stretched to include large numbers of prostitutes) but all of these women were expected to be put ashore when the ship received her sailing orders. Yet it was a rule that was frequently broken.

One category of women at sea came about for administrative reasons. On the outbreak of war with France in 1793, the Royal Navy was two thousand marines below compliment to man the fleet. As an emergency measure, this shortfall was made up by drafting soldiers from the army until enough marines could be recruited and trained. This situation lasted for over three years, but came with a dilemma. While admiralty regulations forbade wives serving with their men, the army permitted camp followers on campaign. As a result, large numbers of army wives accompanied their men folk to sea. The men of the 69th Foot, for example, who provided the marine contingents for the ships Britannia, Courageux and Agamemnon came aboard with some twenty-two women in tow.

These administrative anomalies were only the tip of a much larger female iceberg. Because women were not permitted onboard, most official records omit their presence, except in extreme circumstances. One of these was the Battle of the Nile in 1798. By then all soldiers and their wives had long returned to their regiments, yet we still find plenty of evidence of women serving on board Nelson’s fleet. The ship’s books of the Goliath, for example, which led the British line at the Nile, included four women widowed during the action. The ship’s captain had them added to the muster (against regulations) so they would be paid ‘in consideration of their assistance in dressing and attending on the wounded.’ Given that the Goliath suffered 61 casualties in the battle, from a compliment of almost 600, it is reasonable to assume that the four widows represented only about a tenth of those women onboard, with those fortunate enough not to lose their husbands never listed.

Court martial records are another source of evidence of women on ships, although only when something noteworthy occurred. This happened in 1779 when Midshipman William Kirke of the Alexander was convicted of murdering his mother on board that ship. Why she was on board is not explained, but she was clearly not alone because most of the witnesses who testified were also female, mainly the wives of sailors.

The presence of women is often revealed in private diaries and letters, especially when they gave birth at sea - a not infrequent event. For this reason, we know there was at least one woman in the Channel Fleet on the night before Howe’s victory at the Glorious First of June, because several people recorded her going into labour. The wife of an able seaman, her baby was christened Daniel Tremendous McKenzie, after the ship on which his parents served. Whether the poor child was ever able to live up to the promise of his name is not recorded.

Another group of women who served at sea were revealed when the Naval General Service Medal was introduced in 1847. The citation was for “all persons present” in a list of actions of the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars. The word ‘persons’ rather than men in the proclamation led to numerous women coming forward to claim the medal, including several who said they were present at Trafalgar.

There was one source of ladies on board ship that was particularly beloved by writers of 18th century romances - that of women disguising themselves as men to follow their lovers to sea. Surprising as it may seem, given the difficulties of concealing gender on the crowded lower deck of a warship, there were several examples of this happening. Private William Prothero, a marine serving on the frigate Amazon during the American War of Independence was only discovered to be a welsh girl of seventeen after she was wounded in action and carried below to be treated by the surgeon. She had chosen the marines because she would be able to request to serve on a specific ship, in this case that of her lover.

Perhaps the most surprising category of women at sea in the 18th century was that of female pirates. Pirate ships, not unlike the navy, had a prohibition on women on board to avoid the risk of fights breaking out over them between male members of the crew. Despite this, there were several notable exceptions, including Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Both women served under the notorious pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham. At first they concealed their identities by dressing as men. When they were eventually discovered by the crew, they had become sufficiently valued to be allowed to continue their buccaneering career. The two were eventually captured and tried for piracy in 1720, alongside the rest of Rackham’s crew. The women pirates "pleaded their bellies" i.e. asked for clemency because they were pregnant and were granted a stay of execution until they gave birth. Read died in prison, possibly while in labour. Anne Bonny’s eventual fate is not recorded.


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