Hannah Snell (James Grey) 1723 - 1792
At age seventeen, in 1740, Hannah’s parents died and she moved to Wapping, where she fell in love with a Dutch seaman, James Summs. After seven months of marriage, Summs went back to sea again. Nothing was heard from him but Hannah knew he would return. She convinced herself that he had been forced to join the Army or Navy against his will - a common enough occurrence in the eighteenth century. Not one to sit at home, Hannah decided to look for her husband. She bound her breasts and borrowed some of her brother-in-law’s clothing and set off dressed as a man.
Hearing that troops were gathering to counter the Jacobite Rising in Scotland, she made her way to Coventry. Here were the Sixth Foot, newly returned from the West Indies after losing many soldiers to tropical illness and now recruiting to get back up to strength. The Regiment was then known as ‘Guise’s’ after the Colonel’s name and Hannah enlisted as ‘James Grey’ in Captain Miller’s Company.
The Corporal who enlisted her was a rogue, as were so many recruiters, but it is probable that Hannah joined of her own free will, reasoning that at least she would be fed, paid and protected in her search for her husband. The army was moving north and the Sixth Foot marched to Carlisle, taking twenty-two days. Her disguise went unremarked and she set about learning how to handle her arms and perform drills properly. She was quick to learn and the company officers noticed her progress.
One of her Sergeants, named Davis, set his sights on seducing or raping a girl in Carlisle and tried to enlist Hannah’s aid, practically ordering her to do so. Instead she warned the girl and, hearing of this, Sergeant Davis alleged ‘neglect of duty’ against Hannah. This was a serious offence and the punishment reflected it; she was sentenced to 600 lashes of the whip.
This was a vicious but not uncommon punishment and the lash was vigorously laid on. Hannah was tied to the barrack gate, hiding her breasts and thus her disguise remained unsuspected. Although her flesh was torn and bleeding, she bore 500 lashes without a whimper. The officers admired her courage and the Commanding Officer cancelled the final 100 lashes.Having had no luck in the search for her husband, and recognising a recruit as a former neighbour from Wapping, she deserted and made for Portsmouth. Here again she enlisted, this time into Frazer's Regiment of Marines which was about to leave for the East Indies. Here she saw action at Pondicherry, killing several Frenchmen before being wounded herself.
She escaped the discovery of her sex by operating on herself and removing a musket ball from her groin. Declared unfit for marine's duty she now served as a deck hand. Still searching for her husband, she finally met a man who told her that James Sums had been executed for murder in Genoa.
When her ship eventually returned to London, she returned to her sister in Wapping. However, her story became known and she was referred to as ‘the heroic marine of Pondicherry’. The Duke of Cumberland ordered her to wear men's clothes. To earn a living she went on the stage and then leased a tavern, naming it ‘The Widow in Masquerade, or the Female Warrior’.
With a Sovereign’s grant of £30 a year for life she lived more comfortably than when on the march to Carlisle. In 1792 this brave and unusual woman died, her portrait being hung in Chelsea Hospital.