Hannah Snell: The Female Warrior

by JoHarrington

It began with a search for the husband who'd deserted her. It ended up on the battlefields of Europe and India. No-one guessed she was a woman.

In 1746, Hannah Snell joined the British Marines. She was dressed as a man and living under the name of James Gray.

She served for four years, traveling halfway across the world and getting badly injured in battle. But still none of her fellow Marines ever suspected that she was female. Her gender never emerged until she told them herself.

Hannah Snell was one Georgian lady who bucked the conventions of the time. She was also a rare example of a woman who received a military pension for her own active service.

Hannah Snell: The Secret Life of a Female Marine 1723-1792

Hannah Snell: Not your Average Georgian Lady

Women did not join the army. They stayed home, looked after the kids and didn't trouble their pretty, little heads over weighty matters.

Think of women in the Georgian Era and your mind wanders into a Jane Austen novel.  These females are dainty in aspect and mercenary in the ways of love and marriage.

Not so Hannah Snell, though indeed it did begin with a hunt for a husband.  In this case, her own, who'd abandoned her shortly after the birth of her daughter.

While other women fluttered around with ribbons and the organizing of formal dances, Hannah was donning a military uniform and marching into war.   While other women ran their homes and raised their children, Hannah was feverishly fighting infection from a bayonet to her groin, in a battlefield hospital in India.

But then her life was never going to be the stuff of a Jane Austen novel.  She was born too poorly for that.  Her husband had fled and her tiny daughter Susannah had not survived the first few weeks in this world.

There was nothing left for Hannah in her native Worcester, so she dressed as a man and joined the Royal Marines.  It was one way to see the world and get paid doing it!

Books about Georgian England

Read these history books to discover more about the world in which Hannah Snell was born and lived.

Hannah Snell's Early Life: Worcestershire Runaway to London

Like most Georgian girls, Hannah was supposed to be gentile and docile. Settling down with a husband and kids. She tried.

The trouble with chronicling Hannah Snell's biography is that so much myth and fact is interwoven in the telling.  She became a celebrity within her own life-time and some stories were embellished greatly.

We can be sure that she was born in Fryer Street, St Helens, a district within the rural city of Worcester, on April 23rd, 1723.  She was one of nine children, most of whom ended up in the military.

Her elder sister married and moved to the capital.  When Hannah was seventeen years old, she followed.  She lived with her sister, brother-in-law and their children in the heart of London's docklands.

For a Worcestershire girl, this must have been a shock to the system.  While Worcester was by no means the rural idyll so beloved of painters, it was not Wapping. 

Here the rowdiness and crime rate were so high, that it regularly featured in the headlines of the more sensational newspapers.

Each new ship mooring spoke of exotic lands. Their sailors spoke in a variety of tongues; and their skins were the colors of all the known world. The customs men were run ragged, as goods were constantly smuggled in.

Pirates were regularly hanged in gallows erected alongside the River Thames.  It seemed that every other house was a brothel.  Drunkenness was rampant. 

In short, it was probably not the environment that Mr and Mrs Snell had in mind for their daughters.  But two of them were there and Hannah had caught the eye of a Dutch sailor. 

Hannah Snell: Female Soldier Poster Print

Hannah Snell's Marriage to James Summs

Wedded bliss as Mrs James Summs... well, that was the plan anyway.

Hannah married James Summs on January 6th 1744. The couple settled down in their own home in Wapping, close to her sister and her family.

Her future now seemed set, as just another Georgian working class woman.  She was nearly twenty years old.  Her future held housework and babies.

By the end of 1745, she was pregnant with Susannah.  The story goes hazy on when James actually left her.  Was it during her pregnancy or as soon as the baby was born?  He was certainly gone by 1747, when his infant daughter died aged one year old.

This in itself was tragic, but not that surprising.  Infant mortality was very high in Georgian London and Wapping was hardly a great area in which to raise a child.  But James wasn't there to comfort his wife when it happened.  He was never there again.

We know very little about James Summs, but for those key facts.  He was Dutch.  He was a sailor.  He married Hannah.  He left his wife and child in a dodgy place.  Later on, we can add one more detail.  He was hanged for murder, while on active service.

But Hannah didn't know this.  She lived in a world where a wife was her husband's chattel.  Now he was missing and there was no money coming in.  Her daughter was dead and she didn't know what to do.

So she went to look for her husband.

The Female Soldier; or, the Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell

Did Hannah Snell Fight at Culloden?

The female Georgian soldier said that she did, but there's plenty of doubt concerning that particular story.

In later life, Hannah Snell repeated her story many times.  It was the subject of a biography, published in her lifetime.  She was hired by theater companies to dress up in male clothing and demonstrate drills on the stage.  Her tale was told then too.

All of these accounts began with the same battlefield.  Hannah told how she traveled to Coventry, in order to sign up with Cumberland's army.  She marched to Scotland and fought at Culloden.

It was universally believed.  The illustration in Munsey's Magazine (left) is just one of the sources to perpetuate this myth.

If Hannah Snell was anywhere near Drumossie Moor, then she was heavily pregnant with Susannah at the time.  Given the woman's genius in covering up her gender in other places, then maybe that isn't too remarkable.  But she can also be simultaneously placed back in Wapping.

Hannah's biography and talks went on to state that she left the Colonel John Guise's 6th Regiment of Foot after Culloden.  A sergeant gave her 500 lashes for some unmentioned misdemeanor. That is a lot of lashes to be endured.  For some, that would be a fatal amount. 

It would also be done bare-backed, which makes us wonder why the sergeant didn't notice the bindings on her breasts.  Or, indeed, the fact that she had breasts and was in the later stages of pregnancy.

There appears to be a consensus amongst historians that Hannah Snell was never at Culloden, nor a soldier in the Duke of Cumberland's army.   The facts just don't add up, even with that lady's resourcefulness taken into account.

Culloden was so huge, so controversial, so infamous a battle that we're still talking about it now.  At the time, it was no less the subject of much discussion.  By including it in her life's story, Hannah Snell anchored her travels into an extremely famous event.  She'd only missed it by a year anyway, so she easily could have been there.

Except that she didn't ever join the land army, she joined the navy.

On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.

Biographies of Hannah Snell

Hannah Snell: The British Marine

The real James Gray was married to Hannah's sister in Wapping.  But from 23rd October 1747, there were now two of them in the world.

One remained in Wapping.  The other, dressed in clothing belonging to her brother-in-law, enlisted in the British Marines in Portsmouth.   Hannah Snell was apparently looking for her husband, but those who knew her weren't so sure.

Even as a child, Hannah had kicked against the conventions of her sex.  While other little girls were encouraged to play with dolls and engage in a little needlework, she was playing at soldiers.

It all seemed a little convenient for her plan of action to now involve becoming a member of the military herself.  It wasn't like she even left from where James Summs had sailed.  She traveled hundreds of miles along the English south coast to sign up.

From now, the naval records back up her claims, so we can be sure that she's telling the truth.  She did board the naval ship Swallow on that day, and it sailed to Lisbon on November 1st.  There was no looking back now.

The unit were stationed in Lisbon for a while, awaiting orders to sail to Mauritius.  The island was being styled the Isle de France, as it was a French naval base. The expectation was that the British would invade and take it into their Empire instead.

However, there was a last minute change of plan.  The Swallow was redirected to India instead, taking Hannah Snell with it.  It was here where she was to enter a theater of war for the first time.

Hannah Snell in India

The British Empire was busy taking land throughout India. As a Marine, Hannah Snell was one of those doing it.

During the 18th century, the imperial super-powers of Europe were all in India, trying to carve it up to serve their ambitions.  Poor Puducherry had once been a calm and reasonably prosperous fishing region, until the French arrived in 1673.

Since then, it had been the scene of much conflict, ranging from a brief skirmish through to full blown battles.  The French had lost it to the Dutch, who had then been forced to hand back control.  Now the British wanted the ports.

The Swallow was sent there in August 1748.  The fighting was ferocious, but Hannah conducted herself with bravery and skill. The battle ended with a French win, but Hannah survived unscathed.

She wasn't so lucky at the Battle of Devicotta, aka the Seige of Devikottai, on 23rd June 1749.

There was a garrison of 5,000 people inside the fort.  These weren't colonists from Europe, but local people with long historical roots in the area.  Led by the Rajah of Tanjore, Pratap Singh, they were determined to not become part of anyone's Empire.  They'd already repelled an earlier British invasion, just a couple of months before.

On that day in June, the scene was one of carnage.  As each naval ship docked, it was bombarded by fire arrows from the fortress above.  There was no way to disembark, except by rafts from ship to shoreline.  All the while, death came swiftly at the hands of the defenders, inside and outside the Devi-Cottah gates.

Hannah was just one of 800 British soldiers and 1,500 sepoys (Indian soldiers pressed into service) that day.  She traveled into that port and was ferried through the fire on a raft.  Then, and in the fierce fighting that ensued, she was hit in the leg and groin no less than eleven times, and must have thought that her time had come to die.

She survived.  Her injuries were severe, but they were treated and she was eventually carried safely away on the Swallow.  The British took the fort and still no-one guessed that Hannah was female, even as she sought medical assistance.

For her valor and service, on that day and others, she would later be awarded a military pension. That was not given out lightly, and it was practically unheard of for it to be given to a woman.  Hannah Snell got it though.  She earned it.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792)

Passing as a Man in a Time of War

How did Hannah Snell do it? There's a lot more to her daily routine than may be immediately obvious.

Throughout history, there have been countless examples of women dressing as men in order to fight.  They do it for a variety of reasons, but the outcome would be the same if discovered.  They would be kicked out.  War was very much seen as a male preserve, and not for the 'weaker sex'.

For female foot soldiers, the going was rough in keeping up the subterfuge, but for those living within the confines of a sea-going vessel, it was harder.

This isn't about fighting nor performing any of their other duties, but the minutiae of every day living.  Hannah Snell would have to disguise the fact that she didn't stand up to pass water.  She had to hide her menstrual cycle, while possessing, wearing and washing the rags she wore to mop up the blood each month.

She had to divert attention away from the fact that she never had a five o'clock shadow, no matter how far from a barber she was.  Even in the heat of battle, with no recourse to a razor, she didn't grow a beard or mustache.

Around her chest, she would have worn tight binds to flatten her breasts.  She wasn't living in private quarters.  There was no hotel room laid on for these soldiers.  They existed all together, in the same claustrophobic quarters below deck.  She managed to both bind her breasts each day, and suffer wearing that without anyone even guessing. 

No stripping to the waist in the blazing heat of India and Portugal, even as the work got harder and the battle went on.

It probably says much about the level of medical treatment available to her that, even with a groin injury, she was able to conceal her genitals from the surgeon.  She was never asked to take off the bloodied uniform that she was wearing.

It appears to have genuinely been the case that none of the crew realized her gender until she confessed it herself.  That was on June 2nd 1750, when all declared themselves duly astonished, and she was given an honorable discharge as soon as the ship docked in Portsmouth.

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The Fame of the Female Warrior

Georgian England loved Hannah Snell! She was exactly the sort of shocking titillation which they gasped at, while wanting to hear more.

Hannah was an instant celebrity upon her return.  The news spread out from the Portsmouth port into the rest of Britain. 

The story was given a boost when the discharge was honorable, and the Duke of Cumberland did not contest her military pension.

Artists flocked to paint her - no less than three portraits appeared within the same year.  Theater agents rushed to book her for their shows.  She was asked to appear on stage in men's clothing, singing sea shanties and recreating military drills. 

When asked why she had finally revealed her secret, she replied that her quest was at an end. Dutch sailors in India had informed her that her husband was dead.  James Summs had been executed for murder while abroad.

Perhaps there was some comfort there in why he hadn't come back.  Perhaps he'd always only been the excuse to lead the life she wanted to live.  Either way, it didn't bring back Susannah.

Nor was Hannah reticent about cashing in on her new-found fame.  She wrote (or dictated) an autobiography; then used the proceeds to open a public house in Wapping.  It was called The Female Warrior.

But the Wapping life suited her no better now than before.  Hannah Snell was soon on the move again.  This time, in context, it was in yet another surprising direction.

The same picture colored by The English School.
Hannah Snell, the Female Soldier

Hannah Snell as Wife and Mother

She finally settled down into the pre-ordained life of a good Georgian lady. Nobody saw that one coming!

The history books are silent on why Hannah Snell moved to Berkshire.  She'd run The Female Warrior for less than half a decade before she was gone.  Maybe she'd made enough money to retire!

She was in Newbury by 1755, living in her own home, doing her own thing.  It was there where she met Richard Eyles, whom she married in 1759. 

The family was quite wealthy, enough to educate their son George Spence Eyles to become a lawyer.  He had a sibling too, but I've been unable to uncover anything about him or her.

Unfortunately, Richard died a decade later.  The widowed Hannah Snell Eyles didn't hang about though.  She married Richard Habgood in 1772.

After spending some time in the Midlands, the family took a house in Stoke Newington.  By 1785, they were living at 171 Church Street, but there's no sign of Mr Habgood.  Hannah was widowed, though her son George still lived with her.  

Nor had her fame fled.  George sold portraits of his mother to any with the coin to buy them.  It provided a steady income in that middle class home!

However, the end was tragic.  Hannah's mental health started to fail in her later years.  On August 20th 1791, she was admitted to the notorious Bedlam - Bethlehem Hospital in London - diagnosed as insane.  She died there just few months later, on February 8th 1792.

It wasn't quite the glorious finale to the story, which so many would have found fitting.  That said, the navy honored her long-held request to be buried amongst the old sailors, in the grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital.  It was done with full military honors.

Warrior, A Play About the Life of Hannah Snell

More Articles about Female Soldiers

Sanctioned by the Tsar, Maria Bochkareva was a female soldier during the First World War. She was later selected to head an all-women battalion on the front line.
Back home in England, the Suffragettes were demanding votes for women. Flora Sandes was already in uniform fighting, as a British woman on the front line of World War One.
When we imagine the heat and blood of Gettysburg, it's the men that we see standing or falling in the blasts. But there were women there too, in the ranks, with their muskets.
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Veronica on 08/20/2015

I love hearing about women such is this one. She was living at a time, as Jo so accurately says where women were not expected to have any life or future. But women like Hannah bucked the trend.

A remarkable woman and a great example.

JoHarrington on 04/26/2013

For some women, it was better than being at home looking after the kids and doing the housework. I don't know about Mary Walker. Perhaps I ought to read the book!

AngelaJohnson on 04/26/2013

I like reading historical accounts of women doing unusual things. My sister, Carla Joinson, wrote a young adult book, "Civil War Doctor: The Story of Mary Walker", She also posed as a man.

JoHarrington on 03/07/2013

Still it set her up for life!

Ragtimelil on 03/07/2013

No doubt....

JoHarrington on 03/07/2013

She grew up in a military family. Her grandfather and father were both military men. Most of her siblings joined the military or married military men. I guess it was what she was raised to respect and want.

No doubt the reality proved somewhat less glorious.

Ragtimelil on 03/07/2013

Yay! I love it. I'm not sure why anyone would WANT to do that, but ya gotta follow your dreams, whatever they may be.

JoHarrington on 03/01/2013

I thought that last was a good touch too. She must have been really good at what she did out there.

Thank you for reading.

LiamBean on 03/01/2013

Great Jo. I love the way you tell a story. I think it is extremely good that the Royal Navy not only pensioned her, but honored her request to be buried with other sailors.

JoHarrington on 03/01/2013

It's horrific to think of it really, isn't it? Especially with how bloodied they must have been.

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