Written by Christine Hobson, presently working on a project on noteworthy women of the Georgian/ Victorian era
How many women have you ever seen in movies or on television working alongside men during naval battles? The answer if probably “None”, yet many were there! There were lots of women aboard navy ships during before, during and after the Napoleonic Wars. And some, like Nancy Perriam, taking ‘more of a man’s part’, in the action, as she put it later.
Ann Hopping, born Ann Letton and known as Nancy, was a woman from Exmouth, married to second gunner Edward Hopping. She went to sea with her husband in 1795 as a seamstress aboard ‘HMS Crescent’ and later, aboard ‘HMS Orion’, when she heard the drums beating the sailors to their posts for battle she began carrying gunpowder cartridges to the gun deck, working alongside the sailor boy ‘powder monkeys’.
What made her do it? Well, life at home would have been hard for a woman like Ann with 2 small children and a husband away at sea. In the late 18th century a sailor had to wait for the ship to return to its home port before being paid. Voyages could last for months so women faced real financial hardships ashore, aside from the pain of being separated from a cherished husband for long periods. But she could easily have stayed below decks sewing during the battle and instead chose to put her life in danger to help the gunners on deck.
Only certain ranks of sailor were allowed to take a wife on board but there were still many women sailing with the crew and working alongside them. When the ‘Royal George’ sank in dock at Spithead in 1782 there were as many as 300 women aboard, some, but not exclusively, ‘visiting’ prostitutes who took the opportunity to smuggle liquor aboard under their skirts for a party. Sadly most of the 300 women, along with around 60 children, were lost.
Partly because some women, like captains’ wives, were at sea against navy rules, records of women aboard were not usually kept. Only in exceptional circumstances was any note made in the ship’s muster book, for example when 4 women aboard ‘HMS Goliath’ had helped the injured and dressed their wounds. They were awarded extra food rations and given money in gratitude for what must have been heartbreaking and dangerous work done in the midst of their grief.
The expression ‘show a leg’ comes from the time when, being woken for work, it was shouted so if a woman’s leg was shown in the hammock she would be left alone. The coining of this expression appears to confirm there were sufficient women aboard ship for it to be necessary.
Women worked in various roles aboard navy ships including sewing and repairing clothes and tending the sick and injured. There were other women powder monkeys besides Ann Hopping but she was the only woman ever recorded by name who worked on a navy ship during the Napoleonic Wars.
During every battle there were casualties aboard, often requiring surgery to remove limbs. We know that Ann Hopping, once she had finished carrying gunpowder cartridges, made her way to the cockpit on the ship where the surgeon carried out his work. She helped the surgeon and tended the wounded and dying.
Women aboard would often have fallings out and fights aboard. This was exacerbated by often being herded together in the cockpit, below deck, and especially if they had been drinking liquor. It was said that the cockpit on a ship was so named because the women fighting there reminded the men of a cock fight ashore. Women identified as the culprits by their badly scratched faces would be reprimanded or turned off the ship if it was in port.
Ships’ rules had to be obeyed by both sexes and for much of the time women were kept out of the way. Women could make extra money by doing washing and some broke the rules by exceeding their ration of precious drinking water to wash clothes – a serious offence on a long voyage.
Ann worked aboard the ‘Orion’ for 5 years, carrying out the job of powder monkey at several important battles in the Napoleonic Wars.
During these battles some women were wounded and killed and it was quite common for women to give birth during a noisy and stressful battle. One story tells of a Mrs McKenzie aboard ‘HMS Tremedous’ who gave birth to a baby boy in the bread room, naming the child Daniel Tremendous McKenzie.
Another story tells of the wife of an Irish sailor who left off helping the surgeon when she heard her husband had been injured. In the midst of the battle, as she held him in her arms on deck her head was shot off, upon which her husband promptly died. She had given birth only a few weeks before this and the crew kept the orphaned baby alive with milk from the Captain’s goat and donated some of their food. Only a list of men injured or killed in the battle was entered in the Captain’s log, with no mention of the wife or baby girl at all.
After the Battle of the Nile – Edward Hopping was paid off and whilst working on a civilian ship he was shipwrecked and drowned in 1802. Ann remarried 3 years later to John Perriam, a ship’s pilot and it is not known whether or not she went to sea again. Ann’s husband, John Perriam, a ship’s pilot died at sea in 1812.
In 1847 a Naval General Service Medal was issued to all living survivors of sea battles fought between 1793 and 1840. This was given to more than 20,000 men and even included the baby boy born aboard ‘HMS Tremendous’! As for the women who worked during these battles, despite many of them putting in claims and assurances being given they would be awarded the medal they were at last refused it on the grounds that it would set a precedent.
Ann was paid a pension of £10 a year by the navy in recognition of her work, although this was not enough to live on and she was 1 of only 4 women to receive a navy pension at this time. Up to the age of 80 Ann walked the streets of Exmouth selling fish until she was too ill and old to do it. She died in Exmouth aged 96. The newspapers reported that she was a remarkable woman, not only for her age, but for her ‘brilliant continuous services afloat’.