Nancy Perriam- a woman in the Georgian Navy (Guest Post)

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’.



Austerity in the Regency – taxation

What does a nation-state do when faced with years of unavoidable emergency spending leading to an annual government deficit and a massive historic debt to pay off? That’s still a relevant question today!

It’s a question that the British government had to deal with in 1815. The war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France had led to an accumulated debt of £829 million, mostly held in consuls sold by the British government. The rich had bought the debt on interest bearing bonds that had to be paid back. And there was great political pressure to clear the deficit quickly.
What to do? The most important thing that was done was that income tax was abolished . This was not the doing of the government, but the parliament, who refused the Tory request to maintain the tax for a few more years. The government promised to remove it very quickly, but the House of Commons insisted that it happened immediately.
Income tax (called the Property Tax) had been  an emergency measure, introduced as a war tax in 1799. It was only introduced on the understanding that it would end when the war did. Sir William Curtis, an eccentric Tory MP made the point in the House of Commons when his simple argument was “where is the war now”? Sir William had an ideological opposition to income tax; it involved government officials enquiring into their income, property and lifestyle; it eroded the idea about the sanctity of property. It was “Unnecessary, Unconstitutional and Inquisitorial”.


Sir William Curtis MP                                            Billy Biscuit


It was about protecting  private income, in a way, but it was more complicated than that. Sir William was a prime example. He had gained his knighthood by voting as he was told by William Pitt, and had made his fortune by making hard tack food for the British Navy. He was known, behind his back, as “Billy Biscuit” or sometimes, more politely, “Sir W Biscuit”. He personally would have been better off if government expenditure on feeding the Navy continued, but he was having not of it. He was happy to see income tax abolished and two-thirds of the Navy (90,000 people) demolished to reduce his tax burden. He claimed that he would then be in a position to spend more money on charity for those made unemployed by the reduction of government spending.This position made perfect sense to him. Income tax was compulsory, the spending of the money was outside of his control, and nobody was grovelling grateful. Charity was the opposite.

There was no sense during the Regency that the rich should pay a higher proportion of their income to provide funds for services used by the poor. Another example of this  was the last speaker in the Property tax debate. He accepted that the poor would suffer much more than the rich; he demanded savage cuts in expenditure immediately. His name was William Wilberforce, famous for his liberality towards Negro slaves, but not to the British lower orders.
Where was the money to come from? There was the National Lottery, which is mentioned here;

The main difference between the UK state lottery today and the Regency version was that the only good cause the proceeds were used for was paying interest on government debt, which was held mostly by the rich.
Taxes on property were replaced by taxes on consumption, which hurt the poor more. Bread was taxed, in the sense that the Corn Law stopped cheap imports entering the country. Coal attracted duty, as did salt, leather, soap, candles, tea, spirits, windows, houses, carts, toll road.
Lord Byron was angry about austerity. It was clear that this belt- tightening was around some people’s waist, but others had it around their neck. From his poem Don Juan

“ To Wellington
…and I shall be delighted to learn who
Save your and yours , have gained from Waterloo?



For more, new material, try my new book on Georgian Britain

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Regency attitudes to the Irish

The Regency newspapers were overflowing with police reports, and the difference ( to our eyes) between the paltry nature of the crime and the severity of the sentence never loses its power to shock. What is not much in evidence is levity- making a joke of the situation. Not even in the case of serious assault and murder, even when a general level of shock or outrage is expressed, there are no particular comments about the character of the person, and certainly no jokes!

The rules change when dealing with the Irish- the “Hibernian”, the “simple Hibernian”, or, if they have been fighting, the “stout Hibernian”. This is typical, from the Public Ledger of February 2nd, 1814, under the usually solemn “Police Section”


The key to the joke is that a woman is accusing her husband of killing her. All the stereotypes are there -“the flowery eloquence of her country” – a comment which should kill the joke, as she is acknowledged to be exaggerating for effect. She is immodest- offering to show hidden evidence of her injuries. Violence of this type is to be expected from this type of person. Although domestic violence was not treated particularly seriously by the police courts, you had to be a Hibernian to enjoy this amount of levity.

In January 1810, the Kentish Weekly Post Reported on the grey haired “but not very venerable” Hibernian named O’ Cane(or O’ Keane). It brimmed with anti-Irish prejudice.

Papers on the mainland seemed to rejoice in Irish  rivalries. One sentence that stands out from the jollity in this report  was “ Whether he was Caravat or Shenavest did not appear”. These were rival groups whose feuding caused considerable violence, particularly in Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Limerick, and Cork, during 1806–11, and were making news in the papers regularly. The key point here is was *not* mentioned in the court but was inserted by the writer of the article, who is not only reporting the attitude of the court but making up some new ones himself.

When O’Cane was asked “what ship he had came in on”, he denied that he had done so, saying that he had arrived on a sloop, not a ship. These kind of conversations were not usually in the brief court reports for non-Irish defendants; he seems to be being defined not just as an outsider, but a stupid and argumentative one. He was found guilty of smashing a pane of glass with his knife when a grocer would not serve him any more beer; but not before he recounted the story of how he had walked from London to Chester to see his friend who worked in a brewery. The fact that he had walked from Chester was not commented on.
Even the ship/ sloop joke in this report  is doubtful. Four years earlier, in 1810, the Hereford Journal reported this court case “a few days since”


Jokes and police reports-even genuine ones- only go together if the defendant is Irish.

Some gross examples
An Hibernian who was tried and convicted during the last Western Circuit for burglary, on being asked his age…replied that he was pretty well as old as he’d ever be and declined to give any other answer. He was executed on the Wednesday following (1810)

An Hibernian, being lately found guilty of a misdemeanour at the quarter sessions, was asked by the court if he had any person to speak to his character
“Please you honour”, says Pat,” I don’t know anybody here, but I can find somebody if you let me go out for an hour” (1810)

The Oxford Journal of October 1812 reported the story of a gentlemen who dropped a Bank of England £50 note in the street in Cork and did not notice the loss until he was in London. In the meantime, the note had been found by two “simple, martial Hibernians”. The two men were eventually caught because they did something that caused everybody in the court to erupt into uncontrollable mirth.
Can you guess what they did? Get back to me?

There is a chapter of my book about the treatment of the Irish.

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The Regency View of the Poor. How much has changed?

There was no concern at all in Regency Britain about people being poor; it was considered a natural state. Poverty encouraged social order – it was believed that people could escape the worst of their condition by sobriety, obedience and constant hard work. People could be as poor as they could bear, and they were obliged by God to bear it. It only became a problem when the people became indigent – unable to survive without help.  The key question was, and perhaps is; how do we help the poor, and who gets that help?

The first principle in the Regency  was the simple, brutal, and  universally held belief that the lower orders in their natural state were idle, would not work at all if they could get away with it, and would do something far worse if they had the spare time. William Hutton, a dissenting bookseller from Birmingham and no particular enemy of the poor, put this comment in his diary (1795): If a man can support his family with 3 days of labour, he will not work six … “If the body is unemployed, it becomes a nursery of disease. If the mind is unemployed, a languor commences, and a man becomes a burthen to himself “.
All attempts to alleviate the poor had this idea in the forefront. Idleness was far more dangerous than poverty. That’s why it was though the a cure for poverty was to encourage the poor to save. During the Regency period there was a rush of new saving banks for the poor, usually run by the rich charitable gentry of the town. This may seem to us to be a paradox; one strong definition of poverty is that it involves having no money. So how could they save?
We need a Regency view of the poor to answer this question. The second principle was to avoid giving the poor money; they would waste it. A correspondent to Stamford Mercury in 1816, says no to “ pecuniary aid”


The legal claim of the poor  to support from the parish was an encouragement to bad habits. These bad habits that lead to poverty. Poor habits are further encouraged by the certainty of aid and the poor become unthankful. It is, therefore, the bad habits that are the root of poverty, and the poor continuing to drink, smoke and try to live a life while poor is a moral weakness. The correspondent is correct that the number of people on poor relief had reached a crisis level in 1816, but the real roots of poverty are ignored- high bread prices due to protectionist trade policies, a fall in government spending after the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of income tax for higher earners and the imposition of austerity to pay the £800million  national debt.
So the root causes of poverty were moral weakness; not just gin and beer but the belief that the poor were naturally idle; and only the danger of starvation kept them working.
The role of the savings bank was to encourage “industry, economy and sobriety” and allow the surplus created by good habits  to be banked. In times of good employment, money should be saved for the bad times to come. Most workers, it suggested, could save 2 shillings a week if they behaved better. A Manchester weaver would be earning 10 shillings a week, so even a paragon of virtue would be unlikely to achieve this.
A new Act was passed in 1816 to promote savings banks and therefore keep people away from the Poor Law. All the MPs seem to have an anecdote about a poor person they knew who had the necessary good habits. One MP said this;


Many of the banks set up would include the word “INDUSTRIOUS “ in the title and appeal to young unmarried men; many opened on Saturday night, or the normal day of payment of wages, to stop the money being spent in the public house. Another real advantage of the savings banks is that the proceeds were held in Bank of England notes and other securities, while the poor who had savings were likely to hoard £1 or £2 notes from their local bank. If these went broke, their hard-earned savings became worthless pieces of paper.
Many of the establishment tried to dissuade the poor from joining Friendly Societies, which seem at first glance to do the same as the Savings Banks-but the charitable gentlemen found unsettling differences. Firstly, the Friendly Societies often had some imput from the poor themselves; they would often meet in public houses. Some Friendly Societies members drank too much beer; and the fact that some societies had rules about how many drinks you could have “ proved” that they were irresponsible, although exactly the opposite case could be made.
Friendly societies also had a fixed subscription that could not be altered upward if the poor person was doing well and wanted to save more -the savings bank was a vehicle for individual advancement while the Societies were a collective help organisation, so much so that many the of the ruling class( rightly) thought that they were really Trade Unions. Savings banks were not designed to solve the general problem of poverty; they were designed to solve the problems of the deserving individual.

The Friendly Society would support people who were out of employment, thus, the words of the Stamford Mercury correspondent “the discharged workmen had been enabled in nearly all cases to carry out their unjustifiable demands”.

Some of the comments about the Societies were reasonable; unlike the payment of interest, the payment of benefits for unemployment, illness and death were not predictable and could lead to the bankruptcy of the organisation- but his was due to the precariousness of the life of the poor when faced with economic changes that nobody could influence. This was this cause of poverty that the rich refused to acknowledge.
One form of moral weakness was the “improvident marriage” (literally a marriage that had not been adequately provided for). This moral weakness becomes financial when children  were produced. You were meant to save before marriage; newspaper correspondents suggested that if you save from the age of 10 ( the start of the working life in the Regency) you might be able to marry around 25. The real average of first marriage for a man was a little higher than this (about 28)and was done without the unrealistic level of savings suggested by well healed men writing to newspapers.
Some things have not changed in 200 years. We still seem fixated on solving poverty for the individual “deserving poor”; we blame poverty on morality, not economics; and we do not deal with the causes because we still (mostly) believe that poverty is still a natural state……

More like this in my new book-all different material. but with the same philosophy!



If you live in the UK or Ireland, could you please recommend the book to your library? I am just as interested in lots of people reading it as buying it…..