Women at sea

For hundreds of years, the British Navy, and its ships were home as well as employment for thousands of men.
Amongst them, sometimes secretly, were many women and girls.

It was a man’s life most of the time, but women were part of it too – even among the swashbucklers.

It’s a myth that women were not allowed on merchant ships, or that the men considered women bad luck. Official Navy regulations stated that women were not allowed to be taken to sea, although they could visit while the ships were in port.

But in fact lots of women sailed with their husbands or fathers: captains’ and first officers’, even admirals’ wives and sometimes children accompanied them on their long voyages, instead of waiting at home for months or years. Gunners’ wives might double as cooks and help with the sick and wounded.

In the Swashbuckler books, you’ll read that Lily’s mother, Frances, was brought up onboard ship, sailing with her father and mother.

On many coastal routes or regular merchant runs, the captain’s family accompanied him as a matter of course.

In the days when ships were the only form of transport between continents, and the fastest way of getting from port to port along the coast or up rivers, women passengers were a common sight, even when seas were rough.

Powder monkeys and marines
But there were also some women who sneaked on board, dressed as boys or men, seeking adventure, fleeing hardship, or just in need of somewhere to live and a meal.

In 1692, an anonymous “gentlewoman” asked the queen for a pension, on the grounds that she had “served in men’s clothes on board the St Andrew, which was engaged in the fight with the French”.

A century later, a press gang in Plymouth picked up a marine who had served in the Navy for five years. She turned out to be a woman.

Frenchwoman Jean Baré accidentally became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in 1765, when she disguised herself as a valet on the ship Boudesse.

In 1807, an old woman called Tom Bowling appeared in court. She told the judge she had served on a man-of-war for over 20 years, and had always dressed in men’s clothes. A few years later, sixteen-year-old Ann Jane Thornton appeared before the Lord Mayor in an attempt to reclaim pay owed to her for her work on board the Sarah – it had been her third ship, after she’d run away to sea at 13.

Perhaps the most famous was Hannah Snell. For over two years Hannah served as a man in the Royal Marines. She had sailed to India and fought at the siege of Pondicherry. She became famous when she requested a pension from the Duke of Cumberland in 1750. The London press detailed her adventures, and Hannah sold her story to publisher Robert Walker. The public loved her, and she appeared on stage in uniform.

In November 1750, the Royal Chelsea Hospital officially recognised Hannah Snell’s military service and granted her a lifetime pension. She lived for another forty years, marrying twice and raising two sons.

You can read about these women in books such as:

She Captains, by Joan Druett
Amazons and Military Maids, by Julie Wheelwright
Bold in Her Breeches, by Jo Stanley
Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, by David Cordingly


  1. And to think people are still questioning the place of women in the military!

  2. thanks kelly it would be hard to pretend to be a man and not yourself a girl when girls were found out what happened to them. so lily in ocean without end book series she was kidnapped from santa lucia so she pretended to be a boy for a couple of mintes then they looked at her and saw she was a girl

  3. lilly swann from the ocean without end books proved that girls can sail and be a pirate not just men she shows a whole different and pireate side after being herself as a normal girl she turns to being a tomboy i just love her and she also proves that girls can read a chart unlike boys and sew and cook ahe is so amazing and Inspiring I just love her so much.

    • Hi Kathleen and thanks so much for your comment about Lily. She’s based on some of the many girls and women who ran away and joined the navy or who sailed on fishing boats and pirate ships at different times (although she is invented). Lots of them pretended to be boys for years and some were never found out. Imagine how hard that would be! You might also like ‘Bloody Jack’ by L.A. Meyer.

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