Hannah Snell was an 18th-century English woman who dressed as a man and enlisted in the British Army. She served for several years before revealing her true identity. Hannah’s published story is one of determination and courage. She enlisted in the Army in order to find her missing husband. Once she was in the Army, she quickly proved herself to be a brave and capable soldier. Hannah was wounded in battle. When her story became public, Hannah was celebrated as a heroine and she even went on stage.
How much of her published life was true? What pieces of history can we put together to uncover what really happened? Listen now.
Join London tour guide Hazel Baker as she talks about Hannah Snell, the Female Soldier.
Hannah Snell was an c18th English woman who is known for having disguised herself as a man and becoming a soldier. She was mentioned in The Diary of a Country Parson by James Woodforde. In his entry on 21 May 1778 he records how he walked up to the ‘White Hart’ in his parish of Weston, Norfolk, to see Hannah Snell, who – in spite of being a woman – had served for 21 years as a soldier in the army … disguised as a man.
It’s worth noting though that this is a story of a woman written by men. We never get Hannah’s version of events. And as with any story, the facts become obscured by theatrical storytelling and it’s hard to unpick much of the truth.
The written history of Hannah Snell was produced by the publisher Robert Walker, a London publisher who lived c.1709-176. Little is known of Robert Walker’s early career. It’s believed he embarked on an apprenticeship with printer James Read of the Stationers’ Company in 1724 but quit in his fourth year to go it alone and set up shop at the White Hart at 296 Strand where he sold pamphlets. He published cheap and sometimes controversial publications such as prints, newspapers, pamphlets, etc. and was a distributor of patent medicines. This is also the Robert Walker who was in a feud with Jacob Tonson about disputes of “Shakespeare copyrights” and ownership.
Why am I giving you a backstory to Robert Walker when the main star is Hannah Snell? In order to survive the publishing world you needed to be inventive and ruthless. Robert had broken away from the norms of starting a business. Publishing pamphlets and having an eye and ear for a great story which would sell was his bread and butter. It wasn’t about accuracy or justice; it was about money. It’s something worth having in the back of your mind as you hear the story of Hannah Snell.
The Early Life of Hannah Snell
Hannah Snell was born 23 April 1723 in Friar Street, Worcester, a small Cathedral City with a thriving community of c. 10,000 people.
She was the eighth of nine children to hosier and dyer Samual Snell. (Hosiers buy wool and give it to the workers who put it through operations which allow it to be used for their goods. Hosiery is a category of knitwear including knitted socks, full-length stockings, panty hose, footgloves, and other articles.). He had two wives, not at the same time! His first wife was Elizabeth and after she died he married Mary Willams. She was most likely the daughter of Samuel Snell, a dyer, and his second wife Mary Williams on 30th Jun 1709.
Little is known about Hannah’s childhood. Her biographer mentions how Hannah, at the age of 10, liked to dress in boys’ clothing and play in the streets with her friends. Growing up with brothers, it hardly seems unusual and much of the young and working class children’s clothes in the 18th century were worn by both boys and girls. She had been born into a military family; her brother was a foot soldier and her grandfather was Captain-Lieutenant Samuel Snell.
She was given a basic education; learning how to read but not to write, why would a girl need such skills?
By the age of 17 both her parents were dead and Hannah went to Wapping in London to live with her sister Susannah Grey (32yrs) and her brother in law James Gray (37 yrs). (Think Moll Hackabout from Hogarth’s, A Harlot’s progress).They rented rooms in a small house in Ship Street, Wapping. Now Known as Prusom Street.
Hannah Snell’s London Life
During her time living in Wapping she met a Dutch sailor by the name of James Summs. On 6th January 1744, she married James Summs at the Fleet in a clandestine marriage. No marriage record appears to exist.
The majority of Fleet marriages were for honest purposes, when couples simply wanted to get married quickly or at low cost. Hannah was at this time 21 yrs old. I think we can all remember how impatient we were at that age. During the 1740s, the same decade when Hannah and James got married, up to 6,000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area, compared with 47,000 in England as a whole. That’s an astonishing number but not something I have time to go into how and why in this episode,
It wasn’t long before Hannah regretted marrying James Summs, as described in Robert Walker’s pamphlet: “he turn’d out the worst and most unnatural of Husbands. Since, though she had Charms enough to captivate the Heart and secure the Affection of any reasonable Man, yet she was despised and condemned by her Husband, who not only kept criminal Company with other Women of the basest Characters, but also made away with her Things in Order to support his Luxury and the daily expenses of his Whores.”
Hannah Snell the Soldier
The pamphlet tells the story of James Summs abandoning his wife when she is 7 months pregnant. We know that their daughter Susanna Sums was born c. 5 September 1746. So date wise James had left in the Spring, after being married for just over a year. Susanna was baptised on 3 Oct 1746 at St George in the East when 29 days old. James and Hannah were named as parents in the parish register. Little Susanna Sums didn’t survive her first winter. She was buried in St George, Middlesex (which is now in Shadwell) on 31 January 1747 without having ever met her father.
Hannah had lost her child and she hadn’t heard from her husband. Robert Walker attempts to explain that she made the decision to impersonate a man for she had little to lose. She assumed the identity of her brother-in-law James Gray and set off to Coventry in search of her wayward husband (23 Nov 1745). It took Hannah four days to make the 87.66 miles / 141.07 km from London to Coventry.
The story in the pamphlet states that once Hannah had arrived in Coventry she was pressed into the Army; into Captain Miller’s company, part of Colonel Guide’s regiment. Press gangs were groups of soldiers or sailors sent out to enforce naval or military service on able bodied but unwilling men, often by violent coercion.
After three weeks in Coventry she and seventeen other new recruits took a three week journey north to Carlisle (located 8 miles south of the Scottish border). It was there that Hannah supposedly received 500 lashes of the whipchord whilst tied to the gates of Carlisle Castle for stealing a woman her sergeant had tasked her to woo for himself. 500 lashes does seem to be rather extreme. Saying that though flogging in the British military, was a form of corporal punishment inflicted by means of whipping the back of the prisoner. Flogging was authorised in the British Army by the Mutiny Act 1689 and by the 18th century was in common use, with sentences of up to 1,000 lashes not being unusual. It wasn’t until 1832 when Mr Henry Hunt, MP for Preston brought forward the motion of suspending the punishment of flogging in the army for a year, if not forever. For years he had heard with disgust and abhorrence of the treatment of which private soldiers experienced whilst in the British army. He recounted a time when in the 15th Light Dragoons, then commanded by his the Duke of Cumberland, two private soldiers had, to avoid the punishment of flogging, put themselves to death, the one by drowning, and the other by cutting his throat. It wouldn’t be another 56 years until flogging in the ARmy was abolished entirely.
After surviving such a lashing Hannah leaves the Army after noticing a former lodger of the Gray’s house in Wapping. She deserts the army, swapping her regiment coat with one belonging to a pea picker and headed to Portsmouth, a 293 mile / 472 km journey.
However, the dates don’t quite match up; firstly the pamphlet states Hannah enlisted as a soldier in Coventry in late 1745, which is the same year as the Jacobite Rebellion, also according to parish records, her daughter Susanna wasn’t born until a year later, and also Guide’s regiment was not even in England during the time of Hannah’s supposed enlistment and only returned to Carlisle in 1747, a year after Walker places Hannah there. Were Hannah’s cross-dressing adventures between 1745 and 1747 untrue?
Hannah Snell the Sailor
Not a year had gone by since the burial of Susannah Snell, the Royal Navy’s sloop the 24 gun Swallow was anchored off Portsmouth under Captain John Rowzier. 110 men were stationed in the Swallow, including James Gray (aka Hannah). The Swallow was a sloop. In the 18th century and most of the 19th, a sloop-of-war in the Royal Navy was a warship with a single gun deck. The Swallow carried 10 British 6-Pounders and 14 British 1/2-Pound Swivel on its Upper Gun Deck and was built at Rotherhithe at the cost of £2,144.0.0d.
A sloop was no bigger than the length of three London buses. Conditions must have been cramped, more so during bad weather.
On Wednesday 1 November 1747, the Swallow weighed anchor as part of a fleet of ten naval ships, with 1,200 soldiers and 800 marines plus vessels belonging to the East India Company made the largest European expedition that had ever sailed to the East Indies. Admiral Edward Boscawen was in command.
This was a time when England was at war with France. The object of the mission was to secure British supremacy of the region of Madras which included seizing the strategic island of Mauritius and the Indian west coast town of Pondicherry – both held by the French.
During the voyage Hannah’s domestic talents had been noticed by her lieutenant Richard Wagget who asked her to become one of “their Mess…. and from thence forward she acted in the Capacity of their Boy, and by her Knack in Cookery and her Care in washing their Linnen and mending their Shirts, &c. whenever they wanted repairing, she became a Favourite amongst them all, and was looked upon as the most handy Boy belonging to the Sloop.“
Hannah was also assigned military duties including:
She was stationed upon the Quarter-Deck as “One of the After-guard” and was “always in readiness in Case of an Attack.” The division of the crew which is stationed on the quarter-deck to work the after-sails were generally composed of ordinary seamen who are not required to go aloft; unlike the Topman.
After a month The Swallow arrived at Lisbon, Portugal, where repairs took three weeks. On Christmas Eve 1747 the Swallow set sail on a journey of 6092 nautical miles for Cape Town, accompanied byHMS Vigilant, a 60 gun British Fourth Rate ship of the line, once belonged by the French. Within hours the two ships were separated. Instead of returning to Lisbon, Captain Rowzier changed course for the British colony of Gibraltar.
Lieutenant Richard Wagget had fallen seriously ill. Upon arriving in Gibraltar, Hannah nursed him back to health before the Swallow continued her journey to Cape Town (29 January 1748). The Swallow rejoined the fleet having arrived at Cape Town on 6 May 1748. Two days later the Swallow joined the fleet on a seven week journey to Mauritius. The Swallow undertook a survey of the island’s coast. The mission’s primary objective was the invasion of Pondicherry and so Admiral Boscawen after a Council of War deciding that losses would potentially be too much the fleet headed for the Coromandel Coast of India.
The fleet arrived at Fort St. David (twelve miles south of Pondicherry) on 27 July 1748. The French were prepared for the British Navy and Monsoon season was coming. The pressure was on.
The siege of Pondicherry (August – October 1748) was conducted by British forces against a French East India Company garrison under the command of Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix at the Indian port of Pondicherry.
On 31 July the Swallow’s marines went ashore, ordered to set up camp two miles from Fort St. David. Marine and East India Company battalions, in addition to three thousand Indian troops and porters prepared for battle.
On the cool early morning of 8 August 1748 the English battalions marched towards the French fort of Ariancoupan (only four miles from Pondicherry) and made camp. The French abandoned their position after nine days and the English took possession. 1,100 sailors were trained to boost numbers. On 26 August the British marched towards Pondicherry, digging trenches in order to set up their cannons.
Hannah and her comrades lay in trenches, avoiding gunfire and mortars. The weather began to turn, the rains filled the trenches with mud up to the waist. In Walker’s pamphlet “She stood so deep in the Water, she fired no less than thirty-seven Rounds of Shot, and during the Engagement received six Shot in her Right Leg and five in the Left, and what affected her more than all the Rest, one so dangerous in the Groin…”
However, the official ships; muster rolls shows that James Gray and a number of his comrades were transferred from the Swallow to the Eltham, man-of-war on 30 September with no injuries noted.
Walker’s story puts Hannah in a hospital at Cuddelore, just outside Fort St David, where she removed the bullet from her groin herself and treated the wound with ointments she had purchased from an Indian nurse. There she convalesced for three months. She rejoined the Eltham where they set sail for Bombay where the ship underwent extensive repairs for five weeks. Here is where another story of unfair behaviour occurs, where the first lieutenant of the ship George Allan orders Hannah to sing a song for him, which she refuses. She is then accused of stealing his shirt for which she is clapped in irons for five days and given twelve lashes.
Naval records show James Gray survived the siege of Pondicherry unscathed. On 24 October 1748, the Eltham, with Gray on board, set sail for Bombay. On the journey half of the crew became ill with scurvy. They arrived in Bombay 3 January 1749. The Bombay didn’t leave Bombay until 3 May. The Eltham’s muster rolls reveal that James Gray was involved in a second siege between June and August of 1749. Eleven ships were ordered to sail to Porto Novo and seize the Fort of Devicotta. The Eltham anchored off Porto Novo (with James Gray) on 29 May 1749. 11 June the marines were sent ashore and the fort was captured the next day returning to the Eltham on 13 June before returning to Fort St David on 1 August.
What are muster roll books?
The muster roll books of the Royal Navy recorded the names of every person present on board a ship. The books were kept on an 8-week basis. They were used for accounting and administrative reasons.
On 2 August James Gray was admitted to Cuddalore Hospital and remained there for two months before rejoining the Eltham and setting sail for England on 19 October.
Why was James Gray admitted to Cuddlemore Hospital?
No records survive but… twenty members of the crew in total were sent to the hospital in August and September with a further six dying before reaching hospital.
A wound was necessary though, for without them she would not be entitled to a military pension. The siege of Pondicherry would have been a big story back home, a skirmish in Devicotta not so much, if at all, so being wounded at Pondicherry would have made for a better story.
Hannah Snell Returns Home
19 Oct 1947 the Eltham started its journey back to England. While the ship was being repaired in Lisbon, Hannah gained the nickname “Miss Molly Gray” due to her inability to grow a beard.
While out being a boon Companion with her crew in Lisbon, Hannah hears from a sailor formerly acquainted with her husband Summs that he sailed to Genoa (via Amsterdam and Cork) and within weeks of his arrival had quarrelled with a local gentleman and fatally stabbed him. Summs was sentenced to death, placed in hessian sacks filled with stones and thrown into the harbour. There is no evidence for this. For whatever reason, Hannah needed to be free of James Gray.
The Eltham arrived at Portsmouth 25 May 1750. Hannah took lodgings with her comrades at the “jolly Marine and Sailor” in Portsmouth. Two days later Hannah headed back to London with ten marines after having been paid five shillings “conduct money”. She went back to Ship Street, Wapping, to the home of her sister and brother in law. the real James Gray.
In Walker’s pamphlet it was Saturday 9 June 1750 that Hannah and her fellow marines went to Downing Street to the house of John Winter, agent to their regiment, for their payment for two and a half years service. She received 15 pounds, along with two suits which she sold for sixteen shillings. In the eighteenth century, for instance, clothes in particular represented a much higher proportion of normal spending than they do now. A man’s suit could cost £4 and a gentleman’s easily over £8.
Typical men’s dress in the mid 18th-Century
A typical outfit consisted of a full-skirted knee-length coat, knee breeches, a vest or long waistcoat, a linen shirt with frills and linen underdrawers. Men wore silk stockings and leather shoes with stacked heels of low or medium height. The whole ensemble would have been topped by a tricorne (three-cornered) hat with an upturned brim.
The co-workers went to celebrate their new found wealth at a local tavern where Hannah’s sister and brother-in-law were waiting. She revealed her true identity to her comrades who were initially shocked by her revelation.
16 June 1750 Hannah approached the Duke of Cumberland’s carriage while stationary in St James’ Park. The Duke was the Captain-General of the British Army. Hannah gave him her petition and Adjutant-General Colonel Napier was ordered to test the authenticity of her petition. A week later (23 June 1750) The Whitehall Evening Post broke the story with a rather romanticised version of events.
28 June 1750 Hannah performed a “New Song” at the New Wells Theatre, in Goodman’s Fields. Hannah’s act would be one amongst others such as acrobatics, rose-dancing, slapstick. Hannah dressed in her Marine Habit sang two songs. Between 29 June and 6 September Hannah made sixty appearances in only 70 days, performing every night except Sundays. 19th July the General Advertiser announced that in addition to her “New Songs” she will go through the manual exercises of a soldier in her regimentals. “The Tabor and Drum give a Life to her March”. Hannah performs this improved act for six weeks. Hannah received a weekly salary although the amount is unknown.
3 July 1750, the printer and publisher Robert Walker published Hannah Snell’s biography, The Female Soldier; of The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell. This 46 page pamphlet (known as a chap book) at the price of one shilling was a runaway success. A longer nine-part serialised edition was published on 14th July. By mid July there were four different portraits of Hannah sold on the streets across England. Walker was a prolific producer of both pirated and original editions and a leading figure in the fledgling provincial press. He was a businessman who knew how to tell a captivating story.
Only three days after Robert Walker published Hannah’s story it was in 6 July 1750, The Scots Magazine and describes her thus: “She wears man’s clothes, a laced hat, and cockade, sword and ruffles; and is not to alter the military dress, till further orders from the Duke.” They continue:
“For a supply of ready money, she has been induced to sing a song, and perform the military exercise at Goodman’s-Fields-Wells; which is alluded to in the conclusion of the following verses.
The Female Soldier
Hannah in breeks behav’d so well,
That non her softer sex could tell;
Nor was her policy confounded,
When near the mark of nature wounded:
Which proves, what men will scarce admit,
That women are for secrets fit.
That healthful blood could keep so long,
Admidst young fellows hale and strong,
Demonstrates, tho’ a seeming wonder,
That love to courage truckles under.
Oh how her bed-mate bit his lips,
And mark’d the spreading of her hips!
And curs’d the blindness of his youth,
When she confess’d the naked truth!
Her fortitude, to no man’s second,
To woman’s honour must be reckon’d.
Twelve wounds! ’twas half great Caesar’s number,
That made his corpse the ground incumber.
How many men, for heroes nurst,
Had left their colours at the first!
‘Twas thought Achilles’ great glory,
That Homer rose to sing his story;
And Alexander mourn’d his lot,
That no such bard could then be got. –
But Hannah’s praise no Homer needs;
She lives to sing her proper DEEDS.
Hannah’s run at the New Wells Theatre lasted until 6 September of the same year. She also gave a one off performance at the New Wells Spa on 11 September (across the New River from the New Wells Theatre).
On 27 November 1750 at the age of 27 “Hannah Snell, alias James Gray” was admitted as an out pensioner to the Royal Hospital. The records of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea Regimental Register of Pensioners record that Hannah, in the guise of James Gray her brother in law, served for 4 years and 6 months in the 2nd Regiment of Marines. Having been wounded at Ponticherry in the thigh and both legs, born at Worcester, her father a Dyer. Her pension awarded her £18.5.0 per annum (paid for each June); 5p a day for the rest of her life.
Hannah’s popularity waned and she took her show to both Bristol and Bath, that we know of.
By 1751 the Gray’s no longer lived on Ship Street.
On 3 November 1759 Hannah married Richard Eyles in Newbury, Berkshire. They had two sons together, the youngest Thomas would die young. They lived in Berkshire. Hannah and Richard had a son George Spence Eyles born in 1759 but baptised at St Luke Chelsea, London on 17 Jan 1765, at the age of six years.
In the 1760s her sister Susannah and James Gray died, possibly Hannah’s husband too. All died in poverty. James Gray died of consumption at St George Workhouse (a few streets from Ship Street). Susannah Gray died in the same workhouse the following year.
16 November 1772 Hannah married bachelor Richard Habgood at Wickham Chapel, Berkshire. Her son George became an attorney having completed his clerkship with the King’s Bench attorney, Augustine Greenland, in Marylebone.” On Christmas Day 1781 George married Jane Sympson at St Paul’s in Covent Garden. They had two daughters, Harriot and Elizabeth.
Seven years later, in Dec 1779 The Gentleman’s Magazine wrongly listed Hannah’s death in its obituary pages claiming she was “found dead on a heath in Warwickshire.” However Hannah lived on until 1792.
By 1785 the Board of Commissioners at Chelsea Hospital received a petition to increase Hannah’s pension. The Board agreed and increased her pension to one shilling a day “in compassion to her infirm state of health.” Was it a coincidence that the request was sent at the same time George and Jane were expecting their third child and George was due to pay one hundred pounds duty on his Articles of Clerkship?
In 1785 Hannah moved with George and Jane and their children to Church Street, Stoke Newington. George commissioned a copy of Richard Phelps’ 1750 portrait of Hannah in December and sold it by subscription.
6 August 1791 the Hospital’s Board of Governors at Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) read a petition requesting the admittance of Hannah. Two weeks later on 20 August her son George Eyles admitted his mother to Bedlam hospital. A Parliamentary Committee in 1814 described the conditions at Bedlam Hospital:
“Many women were locked up in their cells naked and chained, on straw, with only one blanket for covering, and the windows being glazed, the light in winter was shut out for the sake of the warmth.” Six months after being admitted to Bedlam hospital Hannah died.
It was customary for deceased patients of Bedlam hospital to be buried in an unmarked grave at the Royal Chelsea hospital, under the new infirmary. However, five days before her recorded death, on 3rd Feb 1792, a James Gray was buried at Chelsea Hospital. Hannah’s death prompted the odd comment in periodicals but little else. However, her story captures our imaginations even to this day.
What became of the son who abandoned his mother? George Eyles lived until the ripe old age of 85 and died in Ratcliffe Workhouse, in an area now split between the modern day districts of Limehouse, Stepney and Shadwell.
Hannah Snell was one of only two women to have been granted a pension by the Royal Hospital. Christian Davies, or Mother Ross, was reported to have received a pension after many years of service at the beginning of the C18th. Unconfirmed sources say Davies was buried at Chelsea Hospital with military honours in 1739. Was this who Hannah got her inspiration from?
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