Monday, 4 February 2019

In the navy: women serving as men in the Royal Navy

We know that women served as sailors in the Royal Navy as early as 1650. Unfortunately what is we know about these women is not first hand. Few sailors (men or women) knew how to write. As a result, there exists no first-hand, autobiographical accounts, with three exceptions.

Three women, “The Lady Tars”, have left memoirs of their experiences serving as men in the Royal Navy. They are Hanna Snell (1723-1792), Mary Lacy (1740-1773+) and Mary Ann Talbot (1778-1808). Mary Lacy had strong Deptford links.

Hanna Snell

Originally joined the army but deserted over an unfair punishment to which she was subject. She then joined the marines and was wounded several times in the Battle of Pondicherry. She later worked on stage where she would wear her uniform, do military drills and sing patriotic songs.

Hannah Snell in uniform.

Mary Ann Talbot

Started her military career in the army disguised as a boy servant to an officer. After his death at the Battle of Valenciennes, she deserted and was pressed into the Royal Navy. She served as a cabin boy, and fought at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where she was wounded.

Engraving of Mary Anne Talbot

Mary Lacy (c. 1740 – 1801)

A British sailor who became a shipwright. She is the only known, fully credentialed female shipwright of the era for which she later received a pension.

Lacy ran away from home dressed as a boy at the age of nineteen in 1759, and worked as a servant for a ship's carpenter of the British navy under the name William Chandler until 1763. She then studied as an apprentice to be a shipwright. In 1770, she took her exam as a shipwright, arguably the first woman to have done so. In 1771, however, she was forced to stop working because of her rheumatism, and applied for a pension from the admiralty under her legal name, Mary Lacy, which was granted.

On 25 October 1772, at St Mary Abbots, Kensington, Mary Lacy married Josias Slade, a shipwright, of Deptford, Kent.

In 1773,she published her memoirs The Female Shipwright or Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Mary Lacy.

That same year, Mary gave birth to her first child, Margaret Lacey Slade, who was baptized at St Nicholas, Deptford, Kent, on 29 August. Their other children were Josias Slade (1775–1777), Mary Slade (1777–1777), Josias Slade (1778–1781), Elizabeth Slade (1780–1780), and John Slade (born 1784).

In 1775 Mary petitioned for her husband to be granted a servant because of his 16 years' service as a shipwright. She had also applied unsuccessfully before Lord Sandwich for her husband to succeed Thomas Boyles, who lined the stuff for the Sawyers at the dockyard.

Mary died in 1801 and was buried at St Paul, Deptford, Kent, on 3 May 1801. Her husband, Josias Slade, died in 1814 and was also buried at St Paul, Deptford, Kent, on 13 February 1814. In his will and codicil, he only mentions his son, John Slade, and daughter, Margaret, now wife of Joseph Ward (Margaret Lacey Ward died the following year and was buried at St Paul, Deptford, Kent, on 23 April 1815).

Opening page from Mary Lacy's autobiography first edition.

Further reading

Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot.The Lady Tars: the autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot (2008). Contains all the three memoirs. (Available at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre-reference only).

Peter Guillery. The Further Adventures of Mary Lacy: 'Seaman', Shipwright, Builder. History Workshop Journal, Volume 2000, Issue 49, 1 January 2000, Pages 212–219.(Not available from Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre).

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