Posted on: August 31, 2014

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I came across the remarkable story of Hannah Snell when I was reading James Woodforde’s diary (‘The Diary Of A Country Parson 1758-1802’). 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.

Hannah had been born in Worcester in 1723. She came from a military family. Her father had been a distinguished soldier, and her numerous brothers all served in the army or navy. I guess you could say the military was in her blood. At the age of 21 she married James Summs, a Dutch seaman, and moved to London. She had a daughter, Susanna, who died when still a baby. Summs deserted Hannah, who promptly borrowed a suit of men’s clothing from her brother-in-law and went in pursuit of him. She hot-footed it to Portsmouth and joined the Marines, taking the name of James Grey, and setting sail for India in the autumn of 1747.

The story has it that Hannah was wounded at the battle of Devicotta in 1749, sustaining injuries to her legs and groin. There is some understandable scepticism as to how Hannah was successfully treated for her injuries (particularly having a musket ball removed from her groin) without her true sex being disclosed. Wikipedia suggests she may have been treated by a sympathetic Indian nurse, which makes a great story, but after all these years it is impossible to know.

In June 1750 Hannah’s ship returned to England. On her way back, whilst docking in Lisbon, Hannah heard that her absent husband had been executed for murder in Genoa. Back on English soil once more, Hannah promptly astounded her shipmates by revealing her true identity. Her male colleagues were quite supportive of her, and encouraged her to apply for a pension from the Duke of Cumberland, head of the British army. Hannah was successful in her claim. Not surprisingly, she became something of a celebrity. She sold her story to a journalist, and appeared on stage, where she would dress in military uniform and perform drills. She had her portrait painted, and she was officially granted, and she was also given permission to dress as a man, and wear a cockade in her hat.

For a while Hannah kept a pub in Wapping, appropriately called ‘The Female Warrior’, but within a few years she had moved to Berkshire. She married twice more, and had two children. When James Woodforde met her in 1778 Hannah seems to have been working as a pedlar, travelling the country “with a basket at her back, selling buttons, garters, laces etc”. He also remarks that the forefinger of her right hand was “cut by a sword at the taking of Pondicherry”.

Not surprisingly, there is some scepticism about some elements of Hannah’s story. In one version she claims she was once given 500 lashes for helping a girl get away who was being threatened with rape by a Sergeant Davis. Considering men were usually whipped topless and in full view of everyone on deck, you would think her gender would be exposed there and then. I’m not really sure I believe the explanation that Hannah had found a way of hiding her breasts! The men would have to have been remarkably dense to not have noticed anything.

Parson Woodforde, although very sympathetic to Hannah, also expresses astonishment that “she had laid in a room with 70 soldiers and not discovered by any of them”. This is especially amazing considering how notoriously cheek-by-jowl men lived on board ship, with precious little space or privacy. There are all sorts of practical problems one can imagine here.

Anyway, whatever the exact truth of the matter, there is no denying that Hannah was a truly remarkable woman. Tragically, her story has a sad ending. Hannah was admitted to the notorious Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) in the summer of 1792, to be treated for mental illness, where she died six months later. She was buried in the soldiers’ graveyard at Chelsea Hospital, as she had requested. She goes down in history as the first woman to ever be granted a military pension.



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