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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Hannah Snell - The Female Warrior

Hannah Snell was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing female figures in military history. Her achievements included being the first woman ever to join the Royal Marines, more than 270 years before females were first allowed to do so.

Hannah Snell, the Female Soldier, published by R.S. Kirby, 1804 (engraving).

While women have served in the British Armed Forces for many years, playing an important part in various jobs, it was only in 2016 that the UK Government removed a restriction which had previously prevented females from serving in ground close combat roles. Although, since 1992, the only branch of the Royal Marines that had been open to women was the Royal Marines Band Service, as of 2019, like their male counterparts, female recruits can now attempt to earn the right to wear the coveted green beret of the Royal Marines Commando.

Yet, Hannah Snell managed to serve on the front line in the 18th century, in an era when the military was entirely a male domain, even though she had to pose as a man for almost three years in order to do so. In 1747, at the age of 24, she left home in search of her missing husband and ended up travelling halfway across the world and getting badly wounded in battle, without any of her fellow marines ever suspecting that she was female. When she finally returned home and revealed her true gender, far from being shunned, she became an instant celebrity throughout Britain, especially after the London publisher Robert Walker released her memoir, entitled The Female Soldier, in 1750.

The Female Soldier, Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell (1750), by Robert Walker.

Since Walker undoubtedly embellished his account of her life, it is not always easy to determine fact from fiction. One thing that we know for sure is that Hannah Snell was born at 25, Friar Street, Worcester, on 23rd April 1723, to Samuel Snell, a hosier and dyer, and his second wife, Mary Williams. She was the eighth of nine children: Three boys and five girls. Little is known about her childhood. Her parents were wealthy enough to live comfortably and to provide an adequate education for all their children, although Hannah learned to read but not to write. Her biographer mentions how even from a young age, she had a fascination with soldiers and liked to dress in boys’ clothing and to play in the streets with her friends.

25, Friar Street, Worcester, where Hannah Snell was born on 23rd April 1723.

By the time Hannah was 17, both her parents had died, and so she moved to Wapping, London, to live with her married older sister, Susannah, and her brother-in-law, James Gray. Her new surroundings must have come as a shock to the system. Wapping's position, on the north bank of the River Thames, gave it a strong maritime character. The area was inhabited by seafarers of many nationalities, all recounting stories of exotic lands they had seen on their travels. Pirates were regularly hanged at the gallows on 'Execution Dock', their bodies left dangling from a gibbet until they had been submerged three times by the tide. Crime and drunkenness were rampant, and every other house seemed to be a brothel.

It was here that Hannah caught the eye of a Dutch seaman by the name of James Summs, with whom she found short-lived happiness. On 6th January 1744, the two were married, and 20-year-old Hannah and her new husband moved into their own home in Wapping, close to her sister’s family. Her marriage, however, was not a happy one. It seems that Summs soon grew bored of his wife, and allegedly used her possessions to pay for his luxurious lifestyle and to solicit prostitutes. The couple soon fell into debt and became impoverished.

To make matters worse, Hannah soon fell pregnant, and, according to Robert Walker’s account, Summs abandoned his wife soon after. Their daughter Susanna was born on 5th September 1746. She was baptised at St. George-in-the-East on 3rd October, when 29 days old, but sadly did not survive her first winter. Having never met her father, Susanna was laid to rest in the graveyard at St. George on 31st January 1747. It was at this point that, for whatever reason, Hannah decided to track down her husband. Having heard a rumour that he had been pressed into military service, she borrowed some male clothes from her brother-in-law, James Gray, and assumed his identity to try and locate Summs.

According to Walker’s account, Hannah made her way to Coventry, where, still in disguise, she enlisted in the 6th (Guise's) Regiment of Foot. After three weeks’ military training, together with other recruits, she was marched north to Carlisle, located just south of the border with Scotland, where the Jacobite Rising was in full swing. Soon afterwards, she somehow incurred the wrath of her sergeant, who falsely accused her of neglect of duty. Originally sentenced to receive 600 lashes, she in the end received 500 after the intervention of some of the officers. Incredibly, she managed to conceal her chest whilst being whipped, supposedly due to the manner in which her hands had been tied. Although the same sergeant continued to make her life a misery, it was only when a new recruit showed up that Hannah decided to desert: The man in question had been a former neighbour in Wapping, and she feared that he might recognise her.

Soldier of the 6th (Guise's) Regiment of Foot (1742).

The problem with this part of Robert Walker’s story is that the dates do not tally. According to him, it was in November 1745 that Hannah set off for Coventry. Yet, according to parish records, her daughter Susanna was not born until a year later. Indeed, it is now believed that this part of the story was a fabrication, perhaps added by Walker to make the account more dramatic. It is what came next that is more believable since it is mostly backed up by documented evidence. Hannah Snell, still posing as James Gray, travelled down to Portsmouth and enlisted in Colonel Fraser's Regiment of Marines, just a few months after the death of her daughter. Perhaps she was really looking for her husband, or maybe she was just looking for money and adventure. On 1st November 1747, Hannah left Portsmouth on board HMS Swallow, a 14-gun sloop that was part of a squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Edward Boscawen. Their mission was to capture the strategic island of Mauritius from the French.

During the voyage, Hannah’s domestic talents were noticed, and she was appointed assistant steward and cook to the Officers’ Mess. After stops at Lisbon, Gibraltar, and the Madeira Islands, Boscawen’s squadron arrived at Cape Town in May 1748. Soon after, they sailed on towards Mauritius, reaching their destination on 23rd June. Yet, after having reconnoitred the coastline, hoping to find defensive weaknesses and suitable landing points, Boscawen concluded that any invasion would come at too high a cost. Three days later, the British squadron set sail towards the Coromandel Coast, intending to attack the French settlement at Pondicherry instead.

The French East India Company first set up a trading centre at Pondicherry, on India’s southeast coast, in 1674, and this soon became the main French settlement in the region. In September 1746, during the War of the Austrian Succession, the French also captured the British stronghold of Madras but were unable to seize the main remaining British position in southern India, at Fort St. David, in Cuddalore, some 20 kilometres south of Pondicherry. Now, in July 1748, Boscawen arrived at Fort St. David with his squadron, intending to capture Pondicherry, which was defended by a mixture of European and Indian troops, under the command of Joseph-François Dupleix, the Governor-General of French India. Dupleix had been strengthening the defences and built an outlying fort at Ariancopang, which Boscawen decided to capture first.

Admiral Edward Boscawen (1711-1761).

On 8th August, the British marched towards Ariancopang, located just six kilometres south of Pondicherry, and made camp nearby. They began with a costly frontal assault on the position, which Boscawen believed to be weakly held. The attacks were however repulsed at great cost, and the engagement soon turned into a siege. With things not going particularly well for the British, they eventually enjoyed a stroke of luck when one of the magazines in Ariancopang exploded, forcing the defenders to abandon their position and re-join the main garrison at Pondicherry, having delayed the British for three weeks. Hannah Snell had been at the centre of the fighting throughout and witnessed the explosion of the French magazine which ended the engagement.

On 26th August, the British marched on towards Pondicherry and began digging trenches and setting up their artillery batteries. This, however, took them more than a month to achieve, during which time Dupleix was able to modify his defences accordingly. When the British bombardment finally began on 7th October, the French counter-battery fire proved twice as powerful, and shallow water prevented the British fleet from coming close enough to assist with a naval bombardment. To make things worse, the monsoon rains began early, flooding the British trenches, where Hannah lay with her comrades, trying to avoid the enemy fire. With the weather worsening, and casualties mounting, Boscawen decided to abandon the siege on 11th October, having suffered heavy losses and achieved nothing.

The Siege of Pondicherry (1748).

It was during this abortive attack on Pondicherry that, according to Robert Walker, Hannah suffered six wounds to her right leg, and another five to her left, as well as having a bullet lodged in her groin. Yet, naval records show that ‘James Gray’ survived the siege of Pondicherry unscathed, and was eventually transferred to HMS Eltham, a 40-gun fifth-rate frigate, which set sail for Bombay on 24th October. Yet, Hannah would soon be involved in yet another siege. Eltham was part of a squadron that was dispatched to capture the fort of Devicottah, located at the mouth of the Coleroon River, in May 1749. Devicottah was defended by some 5,000 Indian troops. Landing opposite the fort, the British established siege batteries, which opened a breach in the wall, and Hannah was among the troops who were ferried across on rafts, under heavy fire, to successfully storm the fort.

It was more likely during this action that Hannah received the wounds that had been referenced earlier by Walker: The action at Devicottah would not have been as big a story as the siege of Pondicherry back in Britain, and thus, claiming that Hannah had been wounded at Pondicherry would have made for a better story. Records show that on 2nd August 1749, ‘James Gray’ was admitted to a hospital at Cuddalore, where most of her injuries were treated by doctors. Yet, to avoid revealing her sex, she allegedly extracted the bullet lodged in her groin herself, with the assistance of a local woman. After two months’ recuperation, she re-joined Eltham, which set sail for home on 19th October.

Throughout all of this time, Hannah had continued to make enquiries about her missing husband, and, according to Walker, it was on the return voyage that she learned that he had been executed in Genoa, sometime before, after having been accused of murder. Her reason for posing as a man had vanished, although she decided to wait until she had received her pay before revealing her true identity. The ship docked at Portsmouth on 25th May 1750, after which Hannah travelled to London with some of her fellow marines. On 9th June, after they had received the last of the pay that was due to them, they went to a local tavern, where Hannah divulged her secret, to the shock of all those present.

With the encouragement of her comrades, Hannah successfully petitioned the head of the British Army, the Duke of Cumberland, to grant her a lifetime military pension, as a result of the wounds she had received whilst serving her country. In the meantime, she had become a celebrity, as the British public yearned to learn more of her incredible story. Artists flocked to paint her, while The Gentleman's Magazine reported her claims. On 3rd July 1750, Robert Walker published her biography, which proved to be a runaway success. Hannah also took to appearing on stage at the London theatres, where she wore men’s clothing whilst singing sea shanties and recreating military drills.

The Gentleman's Magazine reported Hannah Snell's story in July 1750.

Sometime later, Hannah opened a pub in Wapping, which she named ‘The Female Warrior’, but this did not last long, as by the mid-1750s, she was living in Newbury, Berkshire. It was there that, on 3rd November 1759, she married a carpenter by the name of Richard Eyles, with whom she would have two children, George Spence and Thomas. Sadly, Thomas died young, while George would go on to become a lawyer. During the course of the next decade, Hannah’s sister Susannah died, as did her brother-in-law, James Gray, and her husband, Richard.

In 1772, Hannah got married for a third time, this time to Richard Habgood, of Welford, Berkshire, yet, by 1785, she seems to have been widowed once more, as in that year, she moved to Stoke Newington, London, to live with her son’s family. Sadly, her mental health began to deteriorate in her later years, and on 20th August 1791, she was admitted to the notorious Bethlem Hospital, having been diagnosed as insane. She died there just a few months later, on 8th February 1792, aged 68, and was buried at Chelsea Hospital.

Hannah Snell, ca.1750 by Daniel Williamson (Oil on canvas).

The problem with chronicling Hannah Snell's life is that, over time, so much fiction was interwoven with the actual facts. Robert Walker’s account remains the main source of much of what is known about her, and there is no doubt that the author greatly embellished his work, in an effort to sell more copies. Yet, whatever the truth, there is no doubt that Hannah Snell was a remarkable woman, and her story, despite its unhappy ending, continues to capture the imagination to this day.

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