Doubtless more than a few of the Brethren have at least some passing knowledge of the famous 18th century woman known to us as Mary Lacy (or Lacey). Mary went to sea under the name William Chandler and then apprenticed as a ship builder in Portsmouth. Her story – or the parts that can be documented – is a true one and certainly shows that women were not as uncommon at sea as Victorian editing would have us believe.
Mary was born into a poor family in January of 1740. Her mother, Mary Chandler, was the daughter of a roof thatcher and her father, William, may have worked in that trade as well. Mary was the youngest of three and precocious from the get go. She freely admits to her early transgressions against her parents and the village of Ash, Kent, in her autobiography, The History of a Female Shipwright Written by Herself and, though she was relatively well educated not only for someone at her economic level but for a girl, she was put into service at the age of twelve. She continued in this form of employment for seven years.
Her book refers vaguely to an “unrequited” love that occurred when Mary was around eighteen. The small but telling interlude is probably one of the few fictions in the book. Throughout the tale Mary has a decided taste for other ladies and it seems that her publisher, Mr. Lewis, used this opportunity to sanitize later vignettes of lesbian interaction as he would again at the end of the book. In fact, girls like Mary were fair game for their wealthier, more privileged employers and the instances of young servants being exposed to lewd proposals if not out right raped is so extensive in the literature that it need not be delved into here. Mary, who seems to have been charming and witty, may very well have been prey for such predators and chose to extricate herself from the situation the best way she knew how.
Whatever the actual reason, Mary rose early on May 1, 1759 and walked away from Ash forever. When she was far enough afield she changed into a set of men’s clothes, left her women’s attire under a hedge, and marched forward. By May 10th Mary was in Chatham, one of the large Royal Navy dockyards, with no money and an empty belly. Britain was in the middle of the Seven Years War with France and very much in need of men for ships. When Mary approached the gunner aboard the 90 gun man-of-war HMS Sandwich, the man asked few questions, gave her biscuit and cheese and then sent her off to apply to the ship’s carpenter Richard Baker.
Baker took the person he knew as William Chandler on as his servant but he was no gentle master. If Mary did not jump too quickly enough he would kick and beat her with very little remorse. For the next ten days, though, Mary was housed at Baker’s home in Chatham and the carpenter’s wife was kind to her making her a suit of clothes and a red nightcap. By the time Sandwich weighed anchor, Mary writes that she looked like a sailor “every inch of me”.
Sandwich, under the command of Richard Norbury, joined Admiral Hawke’s squadron off Ushant in the Bay of Biscay. This notoriously stormy bay was a school of hard knocks for Mary. Though she was a quick study and well liked by her peers – despite one scrap with Rear Admiral Geary’s “young gentlemen” that she managed to win – Mary’s young body betrayed her early and often. She began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis that at times made walking impossible. As the mother of a daughter with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, I have to wonder if young Mary wasn’t another stoic survivor of that same disease which most often affects the lower extremities of girls and women.
One flair of arthritis was so bad that Mary found herself in the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth. She was there until the autumn of 1760 but when she was finally released Sandwich had gone back to Ushant without her. Though her book does not make comment on this situation, I have to believe that at least a few of Mary’s mates knew she was not William Chandler by this time. Certainly the hospital staff must have had a clue, but no one spoke up it seems. Either that or a woman in men’s clothes aboard a Royal Navy ship was nothing to bat an eye at.
Mary joined the company of HMS Royal Sovereign as a supernumerary. She was aboard her new ship, on guard duty off Spithead, for over a year without shore leave. She was befriended by many of the men and made close contacts with the ladies aboard. Mary was particularly attached to a woman who was on board with a foremast jack named Grant. The fact that these two weren’t married, and that Grant was not even a petty officer, speaks volumes about the number of women to be found on any given ship. Grant became jealous of this relationship and began beating his mistress at every opportunity, although he seems not to have confronted Mary.
Mary suffered a severe head injury due to a fall in late 1762 or early 1763 and she returned to Portsmouth Dockyard, perhaps to spend a bit more time in the hospital. By March of 1763 she had been accepted as apprentice to William McLean, a carpenter, who was working on the refit of HMS Royal William. Mary clearly wanted to become a shipwright for her next seven years were an endless round of toil, servitude, deprivation and the indignity of being passed from one “master” to another as payment for debts. Her wages went to the carpenter to whom she was apprenticed. Her hours were long, sometimes up to twelve a day, and she was expected to run errands, cook and wait at table for the carpenter as well. Given her previous infirmities, only an iron will to succeed could have kept her going.
That, and the help of friends. Mary writes of the women who helped her through and, it seems, loved her. There was Sarah How, with whom she was “very free and intimate”, Sarah Chase, a girl that Mary’s mates imagined “William” would surely marry, and a prostitute named Betsey of those delineated by name. While Mary’s prose does not spell out the relationships she had with these women, and assuming is always a bad idea, one can imagine what “very intimate” meant.
Mary received her shipwright’s certificate in 1770 making her a valid ship’s carpenter who could legally set up shop at any Royal Navy dockyard. Unfortunately the hard work it took to finally achieve success came back to haunt her. She was again hospitalized with arthritis and, though she tried to return to work, she could not. This time she applied to the Admiralty for a pension. It is particularly interesting that Mary makes no pretense as to her gender in this legal document. Neither does the Admiralty in their consideration and reply. Through out, Mary Lacy is referred to by her given name and as “she” and “her”:
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 given 20 pounds per year for life, a tidy sum for someone of her class. Her book ends with her convenient marriage to one Mr. Slade, with whom she settles down in Deptford. In fact, according to historian Margaret Lincoln, “Mr. Slade” was probably Elizabeth Slade with whom Mary cohabitated in a house on King Street as of 1777. According to Lincoln, Mary took her friend’s last name and they lived as sisters, keeping a shop in town until Mary’s death in 1797.
Mary’s autobiography was popular not only in Britain but in the U.S. as well, where it was published in 1807. Her story, even with the obvious attempts to make it more palatable to the audience, is remarkable. But, perhaps, not quite as remarkable as we of the modern era would like to believe.
Header: Portsmouth Point by Thomas Rowlandson c 1811