Short jacket and white trousers this young girl she put on
And like a gallant seaman bold went roving through the town.
She did sign on with our Captain Blare a sailor for to be
And it was to seek her own true love all on the raging sea…
Ballads and stories about girls who dressed as boys and went to sea are part of our maritime culture, and are based on fact. Hannah Snell, Mary Anne Talbot, Mary Lacy, and Jeanne Baret, are some of the more well-known 18th century women who were successful in their shipboard masquerades. We’ll never know how many women actually chose this way of life because we only hear about those who were found out — usually due to injury or punishment in the line of duty!
How many women during the age of sail do I think dressed as boys or men and went to sea? (Or, as in the case of Mary Lacey, became a shipwright, “to whom the Government granted a superannuated pension of twenty pounds per annum, during her life.”) Perhaps not a very great number — but I’ll bet there were quite a few more than have been noted in the official records.
As Samuel Johnson said, “Being in a ship is being in prison, with the chance of being drowned.” So, why on earth would a woman put herself in such an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation? For love? Perhaps, but methinks more joined up for the the steady paycheck (though in a-rears), the lodging, the hammock, the three square meals and the chance for prize the navy offered. Though a sailor’s life was hard and dangerous, so were the workhouses, the prisons and the waterfronts where the girls who had resorted to prostitution plied their trade. If a young maid was in search of love, it was probably because her missing beau had been pressed into service and she had not heard from him, nor had she received any support from him!
Another reason may have been for the adventure and opportunity a ship offers. I fell for that one myself… But then, I confess, I have an ongoing shipboard romance with a sailor named Bob, who happens to be my husband. And come to think of it, Bob is the one who introduced me to sailing. But that’s another story!
I thank Gavin Atkin for including this ballad sung by A.J.Lloyd on his blog, where I discovered it.