J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Hannah Snell and the Press Gang

Hannah Snell (1723-1792) was a native of Worcester in England. In 1747, her husband having deserted her and their child having died in infancy, she borrowed a brother-in-law’s clothes and name and enlisted in the British marines.

Over the next three years Snell participated in an abortive expedition to Mauritius and then a long campaign in India. Reportedly she was wounded multiple times to her legs and groin, and at one point whipped on her bare back. Nonetheless, Snell maintained her identity as a male until the ship returned to London, when she revealed her secret to her shipmates.

And then Snell made a deal with a London publisher for her story. The Female Soldier turned Snell into a celebrity. Engravers issued prints of her in her uniform. Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, ensured that she received a military pension.

With Britain at war off and on throughout the century, Snell’s story was frequently republished to encourage martial patriotism from all British subjects. Isaiah Thomas put a version into his almanac for 1775 as Massachusetts prepared for armed rebellion, reusing an old cut of a woman holding a musket. (For more about that image, see my article here.)

In January 1771 the Oxford Magazine published a new anecdote about Hannah Snell, by this point in her mid-forties, a pub owner, and a mother of two new children by a new husband. The item appears to have come from a British newspaper dated 2 January:
Friday last a press gang was very busy at Newington-butts, and having impressed a poor countryman from his wife and children, the distressed woman followed her husband with lamentations, which induced many women to sally from their houses; among the Amazons was the famous Hannah Snell, who immediately demanded the captive from the Lieutenant; he refusing, and bad words ensuing, she collared and shook him; two sailors advanced to rescue their officer, whom she beat, and challenged to fight any of the gang with fists, sticks, or quarter-staff, only let her be permitted to pull off her stays, gown and petticoats, and put on breeches, declaring she had sailed more leagues than any of them; [“]and if they were seamen, they ought to be on board, and not sneak about as kidnappers; but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march through Germany as I have done: Ye dogs I have more wounds about me than you have fingers. By G—d, this is no false attack; I’ll have my man[”]; and accordingly took the poor fellow from the gang, and restored him to his wife.

Thus did the long petticoats, headed by a veteran virago, overcome the short trowsers.——

Mrs. Snell has a pension of 50 l. per annum left by the late Duke of Cumberland, for her many manly services by sea and land.
That story was soon circulating in America as well. It appeared in the 25 Mar 1771 New-York Gazette, the 28 March Pennsylvania Journal, the 2 April Connecticut Courant, the 11 April Massachusetts Spy by Thomas, and the 19 April New-Hampshire Gazette.

In addition to giving us another glimpse of Snell, that article is notable for being one of the earliest print appearances of the phrase “Brown Bess” (or “brown Bess,” as the Pennsylvania Journal rendered it).

TOMORROW: But it wasn’t the very earliest appearance.


Waldo4me said...

Wounded in the groin but maintained her secret identity? In my years as a physician I'm certain I may have missed a thing or two, but that's a real missed diagnosis!

Good blog! I've read it for years. Thanks.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ll look into that mystery. Thanks!