Until recently, I had no idea that females had dressed as boys or men and enlisted in the Army or, in Mary Anne Talbot’s case, the Navy. It certainly can generate any number of stories, from adventure to romance and mystery and, as I’ve recently learned, there are a large number of books with females as soldiers, sailors, or whatever.
But this isn’t fiction. It’s real. Mary Anne Talbot, 2-2-1778 to 2-4-1808, was an Englishwoman who wore male dress and became a sailor during the Napoleonic wars.
Born in London, she was pone of sixteen illegitimate children of Lord William Talbot, the Baron of Hensol. According to Wikipedia, “Her mother died in childbirth and she spent her childhood in the care of different guardians and boarding schools until she fell in the hands of a man she called Mr. Sucker who was also in charge of her inheritance from her sister.
In 1792 Talbot ended up as a mistress of captain Essex Bowen who enlisted her as his footboy under the name “John Taylor” for a voyage to Santo Domingo. She served as a drummer-boy in the battle for Valenciennes, where captain Bowen was killed. She was also wounded and treated the wound herself. From Bowen’s letters Talbot found out that Sucker had squandered what was left of her inheritance. She decided to go on working as a male sailor.
She deserted and became a cabin boy for a French ship. When the British captured the ship she was transferred to the Brunswick where she served as a powder monkey.”
Powder money, according to Wikipedia: “Powder monkeys were members of a warship’s crews during the Age of Sail. They carried bags of gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the gun crews. Powder monkeys were usually boys or young teens selected for the job for their speed and height — they were short and would be hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, keeping them from being shot by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. In recent times the term has been applied to a variety of workers who deploy explosives. The use of the term ‘powder monkey’ in English dates to the late 17th century.”
She was again wounded, grapeshot almost severing her leg. Though she never regained the full use of her leg, she rejoined her crew, was captured by the French and spent eighteen months in Dunkirk Dungeon, returning to London in 1796.
From the same source, “In 1797 she was seized by a press-gang and was forced to reveal her gender.
She went to the Navy to get the money due to her because of her service and wounds and finally found a sympathetic magistrate. At the same time her leg wound got worse and she continued to wear male clothing. She also visited Mr. Sucker who told her that all her inheritance was lost. Sucker apparently died of heart attack the same day.
Talbot continued to use sailor’s clothes, worked in menial jobs and even tried her luck on stage at Drury Lane but eventually was arrested and taken to debtor’s prison at Newgate. When she was released she became a household servant for publisher Robert S. Kirby who included her tale in his book Wonderful Museum, and (following her death on 4 February 1808) in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Anne Talbot (1809).
Talbot’s tale aroused some sympathy and even a case of imposture when a woman in a Light Horseman’s uniform tried to use a name John Taylor to solicit money in London.”
In my estimation, this was a very brave, if foolish, woman. No doubt her less than auspicious beginning fueled the desire for the kind of life she led. Psychologists and psychiatrists would have a field day analyzing her. Still, in some way, she must have felt at home as a man in what in those times was a man’s world.
As indicated in the beginning of this post, modeling a character after her would make for a wonderful story, no matter what genre was chosen
Next week, I’ll write about a fictional female soldier, Ada Wong.
Joan K. Maze
Writing as J. K. Maze