The One Who Wears The Trousers

Everyone loves a cross dressing lady sailor.

On a chilly January day in the year 1744, a motley group of guests met at a church in Fleet, to watch the wedding between a shiftless Dutch sailor and the strapping daughter of a Worcester hosier.

An unremarkable event, you might say. Especially as the Dutch sailor lived up to his disreputable name and deserted her, just two months before her first child was due to be born.

A tale like ten thousand others. Like ten thousand thousand.

When the baby died at the age of five months, its mother responded with derring-do. Hannah Snell, from a soldiering family, dressed as a sailor herself and became James Gray.

She joined the marines, the elite seaborne fighting force set to battle the French under Admiral Edward Boscawen.

Three weeks in, when a storm hit, her skill at battling the effects of the tempest impressed many on board mightily. And in 1748, as the marines mounted an assault on the French stronghold atΒ Devakottai, her bravery was deemed exceptional. She took twelve shots, eleven to the legs.

And one to the groin.

She spent two months in hospital. Incredibly, no-one suspected a thing.

It does beg the question: how much rum was there on those old sailing ships?

She sailed for home, gaining promotions on the way, going on blokey drinking binges ashore at Lisbon, and using language so ribald her husband, were he still around, might have swooned.

On her arrival back in England she gathered her comrades in a pub and told them. They wouldn’t believe her. She had to drag her brother and his wife in to vouch for her in the end.

She wrote a book, of course, and married the publisher and later, other men besides, and lived to a fair old age.

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where all others are listed under their claim to fame, she is billed “sexual impostor.”

Which brings me to a remarkable photograph of Virginia Woolf.

It is not alluring or provocative, or confrontational. Woolf stands at the far left of an extraordinary gaggle of people.

In these days of movie special effects their make up is primitive. But as we gaze at the photograph it is clear this group is not entirely serious.

Enter, William Horace de Vere Cole, a Cork man, whose sister married Neville Chamberlain.

It seems Cole felt life was too short to spend it seriously. At every opportunity he loved a prank. But the zenith of his career was this bogus diplomatic visit which conned the staff of one of the mightiest battleships of the time, the HMS Dreadnought.

Virginia Woolf, her brother Adrian, and a handful of celebrities of the time were outfitted as Abyssinian princes, and Cole styled himself Herbert Cholmondeley, Β the Man From The Foreign Office.

Cholmondeley appeared officiously at Paddington station demanding the chartered train which had been arranged, and succeeded in blagging a special carriage to Weymouth.

A telegram alerted the Dreadnought to the impending visit and with military efficiency, the ship was covered with brightly coloured flags by the time the group arrived.

Piped aboard by sailors in cocked hats and full dress, the Royal Marine Band played a national anthem (albeit Zanzibar’s by mistake).The group refused all food. The make up would have run. But they carried it off, gloriously.

There she stands in the photograph: Virginia Woolf, a slight impish figure in a lavish beard and turban.

As convincing, in her own way, as Gray had been, centuries before.

Though it was one-upmanship to cross-dress, not as a sailor, but as an Abyssinian prince.


With thanks to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography for their entry on Hannah Snell; and Reader’s Digest’s 1976 Strnge Stories, Amazing Facts for their lowdown on Virginia Woolf.


44 thoughts on “The One Who Wears The Trousers

  1. Medical treatment on board must have been rough and ready. When th e groin injury was treated the doctor must have supposed that, in seafaring terms, the rest of the tackle must have been blown away and not bothered with closer inspection:)

  2. Never heard of this story, but I lived in Fleet for a short while recently and can believe it, the world needs a few more robust characters to make things happen rather than the grey / baize people that the politically correct would have us be ………….

    1. Hi Pat – thanks for coming along to read and comment! It is so refreshing, isn’t it, to learn of women like these who will push the boat out a bit in the name of adventure…

  3. Dear Kate, these tidbits of social history you share with us both delight and amaze me. Truly there are “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamed of in my” life experience!!!! Peace.

    1. It is! The temptation to dress as a man must have been tempting indeed when mens rights were so far above womens, Karen! Thanks for those fabulous links!

  4. How were these stories not gobbled up by Hollywood! I’m just fascinated! The Virginia Woolf account isn’t quite as shocking, but is altogether fun and fascinating! But Hannah Snel has my admiration! After such sad accounts of marriage and the loss of her child, she took her life into her own hands with her own terms! How can you not admire that!! Debra

    1. I was thinking of your Rose all the time I was writing this, Cameron- I almost referenced her. I have a feeling she is much prettier than Hannah would have been, though…

  5. I thought you were going to say that the wife was going to find her husband! But no, she was just an adventurous lass…

    Did you see the movie Albert Nobbs? I had noticed it on the list of Oscar nominations. Since Glenn Close was in it, I made a point of watching it. This post reminded me of it – and Glenn Close didn’t disappoint.

  6. What a way you have of weaving one tale into the next and the next, Kate. You always amaze me. I have heard this story, or was it another, of a female pirate? Wouldn’t it be a great college course to study these interesting women and their adventures? Or, I can just come here to the Kate Shrewsday School of Amazement and Wonder. Thank you.

    1. πŸ™‚ Penny, thank you, you quite cheered up my day. As an aside I have been finding myself another job and I spent yesterday in the new school. It is hard to leave behind all your friends and go somewhere entirely unfamiliar. Still, if Hannah can do it with such style travelling across the world, I am sure I can make the swap to a mildly different place.

  7. And how much rum was there in that hospital?! My word, the doctor who treated her couldn’t have had all his/her faculties. I’m not normally a fan of practical jokes but the one played by Cole and friends is a delight, as is this post, Kate

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