The History of the Female Shipwright
In 1773 Mary Lacy, a married woman in Deptford published her autobiography, The History of the Female Shipwright. It was an instant success, but soon forgotten. Of its author there is no more trace and no image survives. Of all the women who served in the Navy such as Hannah Snell and Mary Anne Talbot, it is Lacy’s account which is the most plausible and in many ways the most appealing, showing how many small lies ended up as one great big one, and depicting life at sea during the eighteenth century.
Mary had been born and grown up in Kent. She was a bright child who liked to be constantly outdoors ‘at liberty’. At the age of nineteen Mary was in love with an old friend who didn’t feel the same way. She went into the room of her employer‘s brother and took an old coat, a pair of breeches and some old shoes and stockings. She stole a hat from her father. Then, ‘On the first day of May, 1759, about six o’clock in the morning, I set off, and when I had got out of town into the fields, I pulled off my clothes and put on the men’s, leaving my own in a hedge, some in one place and some in another’. The choice of donning male dress is crucial to the story. Mary was small, at about five feet high, and flat-chested. Dressing as a man gave her some protection on the road as she was unlikely to be able to fend off any would-be rapist. She arrived in Chatham later that night and had nowhere to sleep, and ended up lodging with some pigs. The following morning Mary headed down to the dockyard, where some men on a coal-boat took pity on her and shared their breakfast with her.
As she was eating it, a hawk-eyed recruiter came up to Mary, and ‘asked me if I would go to sea, “for,” said he, “it is fine weather now at sea, and if you will go, I will get you a good master on board the Sandwich’’. Mary replied, ‘Yes, sir’. At that moment changed her life forever. The Sandwich was a ninety-gun shop of the line, waiting at Chatham for a crew. The navy was short of men as it was fighting the Seven Years‘ War, as well as being active in North America, the Caribbean, Africa, India and the Channel. The crew welcomed Mary on board, but despite them being short-handed, there was not a whiff of her being pressed to join them. In fact, they asked her repeatedly if she wanted first to come aboard, and then to stay. When asked for her name, Mary used her father’s Christian name and her mother’s maiden name, becoming William Chandler. She became the servant to the ship’s carpenter, Baker, who was a kindly man but a violent drunkard.
Although she does not reveal any regret over her decision to come on board, she does reveal how difficult it is to deal with such a man in close confines, both psychologically, when he drunkenly rants over her shortcomings for she couldn’t bear ‘to have my faults told me’, and physically, thinking ‘it very hard to be struck by a man’. For the first part of her autobiography Mary identifies herself as a woman taking on the role of a man, but soon her no-nonsense language makes it clear that her identity was smudging. It begins with a fight.
William Severy was a young nobleman serving the Admiral who picked quarrels with Mary as she went about her duties for Baker. On one occasion she was cooking her master a steak in the galley when Severy gave her a ‘slap in the face that made me reel’. The ship’s cook, who had seen the altercation told Mary that she should call Severy out and that he would mind the steak. ‘Upon which I went aft to the main hatchway and pulled off my jacket, but they wanted me to pull off my shirts, which I would not suffer for fear of it being discovered that I was a woman…Hereupon we instantly engaged and fought a great while…almost enough to dash my brains out, but I never gave out, for I knew that if I did I should have one or other of them continually upon me.’
Mary went back to the steak and took it down to Baker, who said, ‘you have been a long while about the steak, I hope it is well done now’, followed by looking her up and down and concluding, ‘I suppose you have been fighting?’ Mary told him yes, it was that or ‘be drubbed’. Baker’s response was ‘I hope you have not been beat’. It is then that Mary begins her curious fade into what became her male persona. She wrote to her parents in July, ending with ‘Shall be glad to hear from you as soon as you can. So no more at present from, Your undutiful daughter, Mary Lacy. P.S. Please direct thus: For William Chandler on board the Sandwich at Brest’. Mary underwent many hardships onboard ship including a serious attack of rheumatic fever. Worst of all, Baker had fallen into drink and stopped paying her, if he had ever paid her at all. In the autumn of 1760 her rheumatic complaint was so bad that she ended up in hospital at Portsmouth, and was then assigned to the Royal Sovereign. There she met again with William Severy, and formed a friendship with a young woman, living aboard as the companion of one of the sailors. She also met the sailor Robert Dawkins, who became her mentor in her later years in the Navy, and went to a sort of school onboard, where she learned book-keeping. In 1763, she was released from the Navy with the end of the Seven Years’ War. Mary remember that, ‘On this occasion, my joy was so great that I ran up and down scarcely knowing how to contain myself’. But she did not go home. Instead Dawkins helped her get an apprenticeship as a shipwright at Chatham dockyard, and a place living on board the ship the Royal William.
Mary it seems, was now committed to her life as a man. Sadly for Mary her new master was another drunk, and again she had to made shift to earn money for herself by running errands. Once she went for beer in the botswain’s canoe and her master said that if she could beat three men in a four-oared boat he would give her a sixpence. She won, of course. ‘I fell a-laughing at them and called out, “Where’s my money, where’s my money!”’ Her master, of course, did not give her the money, but it shows how competent and confident Lacy had become in her role as both man and sailor.
She was by this stage sharing a bed with John Lyons, a fellow dockyard worker, but he found the work hard and so was always asleep by the time Mary came to bed, and still asleep when she got up. Her best friend at the time was Edward Turner, and with him she went to parties where she met women ‘of the town’, although when she realised this, she stopped going to the parties. There was, after all, no point throwing away her disguise just for an ineffectual engagement with a prostitute. It was at about this time that Mary met a ‘girlfriend’, Betsy. Mary liked her very much but Dawkins discouraged her from continuing the relationship. Instead Mary took up with a servant named Sarah Chase.
Their relationship is a model of eighteenth century tentative, rational courtship: ‘I had not yet served quite three years of my time; nevertheless it was agreed that neither of us should walk out with any other person without the mutual consent of each other. Notwithstanding this agreement, if she saw me talking to any young woman, she was immediately fired with jealousy and could scarce command her temper. This is did sometimes to try her. However, we were very intimate together.’ What intimate means in this case isn’t quite clear, and not necessarily indicative of physical intimacy. But it might well be, as they were living together under the same roof. Furthermore, it seems that Mary was something of a Jack-the-Lad, and couldn’t help flirting with other women. On returning from work one day and asking Sarah for something to eat, Mary could see that Sarah was annoyed. ‘Whereupon I asked what was the matter with her. She told me to go to the squint-eyed girl and inquire the matter there. “Very well,” said I, “so I can”’.
In 1767 Mary visited her parents in Kent after an absence of almost eight years. She went to them in male dress and maintained her male persona throughout the visit. Her family played along. The visit, whilst good for the family, was bad for Mary: a neighbour who knew of the situation then moved to Portsmouth and ‘outed’ Mary. Some of her fellow workers got wind of the situation and came to speak to Mary about it. She held her nerve, and although they searched her things, she was clever enough to have not made a habit of keeping things visible which might betray her.
In 1770, Mary Lacy was made free as a shipwright. Then, she was again struck down by rheumatism. By this time both her parents had died and she had no one to turn to for help until a family friend, a Mr Richardson in Kensington who was apparently aware of her situation invited her to stay with him and his wife, where he helped her apply for a Navy pension. He applied under her real name, and the Admiralty minutes are worth reproducing at length. ‘A Petition was read from Mary Lacy setting forth that in the Year 1759 she disguised herself in Men’s Cloaths and enter’d on board His Maj. Fleet, where having served til the end of the War, she bound herself apprentice to the Carpenter of the Royal William and having served Seven Years, then enter’d as a Shipwright in Portsmouth Yard where she had continued ever since; but that finding her health and constitution impaired by so laborious an employment, she is obliged to give it up for the future, and therefore, praying some Allowance for her Support during the remainder of her life: Resolved, in consideration of the particular Circumstances attending this Woman’s case, the truth of which has been attested by the Commissioner of the Yard at Portsmouth, that she be allowed a Pension equal to that granted to Superannuated Shipwrights.’
Mary was granted a pension without delay. She collected her money in Deptford and there met a sailor named Slade whom she had known in Portsmouth. She married him soon afterwards, moving to King Street in Deptford. What happened to her after that is a mystery.