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 at 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, 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.