Women disguised themselves as men in order to serve in the military long before they were allowed to enter military service as women.
The advancement in warfare technology in the 18th century meant that the work of a soldier no longer depended on brute force and endurance on the same level that it did before. That meant that young females who were not as physically strong or built as the young men in the military could still perform vital roles during armed conflicts without their identities being compromised. Women, who served as men in battle and then returned to civilian life as women, were received highly in society, with songs written about them and their stories being dictated to biographers while they were still alive. Women who served in the military or navy generally even received their wages for the time they served in those institutions.
One of the brave women who served in the military in the 1700s was Hannah Snell.
Hannah Snell found life in the British navy in order to escape her life of poverty and her failed family life. Snell was born in Worchester, England on April 23rd, 1723, and lived there with her parents until they died when she was twenty years old. She then moved to London to live with her sister and brother-in-law for a couple years until she met a Dutch sailor named James Summs, whom she married in 1744. Summs did not keep the best company; his associates included criminals and other women. He would sell Hannah’s possessions in order to pay off his debts and was not the kind husband Hannah could have hoped for. Summs eventually deserted Snell and shortly after that Hannah gave birth to their daughter, Susannah. Susannah did not live long though and after her baby died Hannah decided to join the army.
Snell adopted her brother-in-law’s name, James Grey, to complete her disguise as a man, a disguise that she would continue for four and a half years, and enlisted in Colonel Frazer’s regiment of the Marines in Portsmouth in 1747. On, October 27th Snell joined the crew of the naval sloop, Swallow, where she sailed to India to take part of the siege of Pondicherry. Snell proved that she was a tough and formidable fighter with a gun, having shot thirty-seven shots during the course of the battle. During the battle, Snell was injured with six shots in her right leg, five in her left and one in her groin. Fearful that her identity would be exposed Snell dug the bullets out herself as she recovered in Cuddalore rather than risk a doctor noticing that she did not have the anatomical parts of a male body.
Snell served as a seaman on the HMS Eltham, once she recovered from her wounds and was ready to make the journey back to England. When the ship landed back in England Hannah took off her disguise and returned to dressing as a woman again. With the help of her sister and brother-in-law, Hannah received her payment of fifteen pounds and two suits, which she sold for fifteen shillings. Even though she was a woman, the military recognized her service as legitimate and was one of the two women to be admitted into the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Hannah found herself being welcomed as a celebrity once the press found out about her story. Several portraits were done of her and she was not afraid to cash in on her newfound celebrity. Starting in June of 1750, to September of that same year, Hannah performed on stage at New Wells. She demonstrated military exercises dressed in uniform and sang patriotic tunes with lines that reflected what the public thought of her at the height of her fame such as “Never yet did any women more for love and glory do”.
Her time as a celebrity though did not last and Snell seems to have disappeared from the limelight. The audience got tired of her as she was no longer the latest headline and moved their attention to the next war heroine turned starlet. It seems that after Snell could no longer cash in on her celebrity she retired to what seems to have been a quiet family life and less than ten years after she took the stage an announcement in the Universal Chronicle in November 1759 proclaimed the marriage between Hannah Snell and Richard Eyles, a carpenter, at Newbury. The marriage resulted in two sons named George and Thomas, but the union did not last because the record shows that Snell married again in 1772 to a man named Richard Habgood. In Hannah’s later life, her health declined and she spent some time living with her eldest son, George. When her health and mental abilities further worsened, she was sent to stay in a hospital, Hannah Snell was admitted into Bethlehem, Royal hospital, more notoriously known as Bedlam, where she died (probably of Syphilis) on August 6, 1791. While Hannah received fame and celebrity in her right after her return from the navy, it seems that she was only a fleeting fad in the eyes of the public.
As Snell grew older, she fell into obscurity and ended up dying alone in one of the most infamous mental hospitals in all of London.