Female Tars

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Simon Bellamy

by Suzanne J Stark

There are several excellent social histories of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Navy which discuss women at sea. The late author of this book from the US chose to make it the sole topic of a slim volume, now available in paperback more than twenty years after its original publication.
As the cover points out, women were on board ship in a variety of very different guises, from warrant officers’ wives, to prostitutes, to those disguised as men in order to serve in ships’ companies. In the introduction, the author states her aim as being to disentangle fact from myth and to understand why women chose a life in the harsh environment of a sailing warship. The introduction also prompts readers to wonder why, if females were officially ignored and their presence unwelcome to conservative and superstitious sailors, the practice was so often condoned by the authorities.
Having provided this interesting context, the first chapter looks at prostitutes and seamen’s wives on board in port. The story starts with first-hand accounts from Pepys’s time, and primary sources are a rich source of anecdote throughout the book. It would be easy to take a flippant approach, and there are some lighter moments; in 1801 Nelson (ironically perhaps) writes to a superior that before sailing “we shall get rid of all the women, dogs, and pigeons”. Space is also found for Dr Johnson’s famous remark that being in a ship is like being in jail with the added chance of being drowned. However, other stories demonstrate the grim reality and gloomy prospects for many females who found themselves on board.
In addition to contemporary accounts, one of the book’s notable features is the author’s analytical approach. She seeks to understand why women were at sea, as well as what they did on board, and to explain why this changed over time. For example, we learn that the decline in numbers of prostitutes was due less to an active reform movement and more to improvements in the sailor’s lot, with a drop in desertions leading to a greater willingness to grant shore leave.
The next chapter looks at “women of the lower deck”. Despite regulations prohibiting females on board without express permission from the Admiralty, the author observes that the Navy of the time operated as much by tradition as rules. There is a vivid depiction of daily life on board for seamen’s wives, before we learn of their roles in action, including stirring examples from famous battles such as the Nile. In a sad end to the chapter, the story is told of how surviving women were denied the Naval General Service Medal when it was created in the 1840s.
Women in disguise, serving as sailors or marines, are the next topic. Again seeking explanations, the author suggests that, in an age of limited female opportunity, joining the Service was a way to improve social and financial status. An eventual decline in numbers is ascribed to the coming of peace, which enabled recruitment processes to be more rigorous and to include fuller physical examinations. New practices regarding sailors’ hygiene, including regular washing and clothes changing, were similarly likely to detect disguised females. The story ends with a chapter on Mary Lacy, a servant girl who apparently served in the navy for twelve years in the eighteenth century.
In combining first-hand accounts with thorough analysis, the author makes a valuable and readable contribution to the social history of the sailing navy. Whatever their reason for being at sea, these often forgotten women have now found a voice.