Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hannah Snell, The Female Warrior

Name of Birth:                           Hannah Snell

Place of Birth:                            Worcester, England

Date of Birth:                             April 23rd, 1723

Place of Death:                          Bedlam, England

Date of Death:                           February 8th, 1792

            Hannah Snell, AKA James Gray, was one of the most important mariners in England’s history. Disguised as a man for two years, this woman sailed to India through great storms and fought in mud-filled trenches at the siege of Pondicherry. What made her go to the Marine? After her baby died, her husband deserted her. She began dressing as a man, tracking down her husband who had been executed for murder.

            Born into a large Worcester family in 1723, she travelled to London to live with her half-sister, Susannah Gray. In 1744, at the age of twenty-one, Hannah married a Dutch sailor, James Summs, and soon fell pregnant. However, in mid-1745, Hannah's husband abandoned her while she was seven months pregnant. After the baby’s premature death, Hannah decided to pursue her deceitful lover, disguising herself in a suit belonging to her brother-in-law, James Gray. A victim of her success at masquerade, Hannah says she was pressed into the English army and forced to march in pursuit of the fleeing troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She then joined the marines and was sent to India, aboard the ship Swallow on 23rd October, 1747. It sailed to Lisbon and after India, where she fought against the French at Pondicherry. She claims to have been severely injured at Pondicherry, but managed to conceal her sex by treating her wounds in secret.

            When she revealed herself to a comrade – right after returning to London – he suggested that she presented a petition to the head of the British Army, the Duke of Cumberland, requesting financial recognition. After a time debating the veracity of her story, the Army accepted and granted a lifelong pension. In the meantime, she became the fuss of London – and in consequence, the whole of Britain – by appearing in her male clothes and telling her story. Her portrait appeared on every street corner.

            For over two centuries people have been fascinated by Hannah’s life, and her story has appeared in a great variety of forms, but her life remains a mystery, due to her lowly beginnings. In addition to these simple sources, however, is a document that has proved invaluable in recreating Hannah’s life. In June 1750, the printer and publisher Robert Walker made an agreement with Hannah to publish her biography, The Female Soldier; or The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell.2 The book was a runaway success and Walker published a much longer serialised edition barely a fortnight later which was to ensure Hannah’s place in history. However, it is said that her story is filled with inaccuracies, but it is due to an era when biographies were little concerned with establishing a factually based "truth".

            After her “grand debut” and ascension to one of the biggest gossips of Britain, she opened a pub that had the same name as her biography, The Female Warrior (or The Widow in Masquerade, accounts disagree), but it didn’t last long. She remarried to Richard Eyles, in 1759, and had two children and lived another forty years. In 1772, she married Richard Habgood of Welford, also in Berkshire, and the two moved to the Midlands. In 1785, she was living with her son George Spence Eyles, a clerk, on Church Street, Stoke Newington. However, after a few years, in 1791, she was admitted to a lunatic asylum, with an unknown disease, in Bedlam, were she died six months after.

“Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell.” - The Female Soldier, 1750


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