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Curators Choice: Rear Admiral Edward Ellicott’s Biography

I am a little bit obsessed with gender history, especially men and women in the past who crossed gender expectations and boundaries to do things that would shock their contemporaries. One of my favourite objects is Rear-Admiral Edward Ellicott’s biography. Even though it is written as though Ellicott is telling the stories, it was actually penned by his daughter after his death. I was reading through his tales of fascinating 43-year long career (1781-1846) as a Captain, and came across several stories of women on board ships: including manning the pump and loading the guns, giving birth on ship and being captured by the enemy.



Women on Board Ship
Though in the 18th century only men could join the Navy, women were on the ships too! There would often be a handful of wives living on board, usually married to warrant officers such as the gunner or carpenter. Wives were never recorded on ships’ lists; we learn of them by chance in other accounts such as Ellicott’s biography. Wives spent most of their time washing and sewing, but they also played an active role in battle, tending to injured men, and carrying out the dangerous job of running between the decks and the powder stores, bringing cartridges to the guns. It was a hard life and women could be away from home for years. They received no pay, and shared their husband’s hammock and food. Their mission was not adventure, but to be dutiful wives. There are accounts of women giving birth on ships between the guns, even during battle.


Captain Ellicott’s Ladies

In Ellicott’s biography women showed that they could fight just as well as the men. One event described was when his ship HMS Hebe was in an engagement with the enemy:
“one of the men at the guns was struck dead on the spot, his wife took his place and by the side of her dead husband, continued for a length of time, during the rest of the battle to load and fire her husband’s gun, as regularly as the other gunners…she refused to give up her post, and pointing to her dead husband with the effect of a tragedy queen, said ‘he would have done his duty well, had he been spared, and tho’ you have lost him, you shall not lose a gunner by his death, till I am destined to follow his fate’, she unflinchingly continued her cannonade, and was unhurt, tho’ many were killed and wounded around her.”
Captain Ellicott was so impressed that he bought her a farm in Orkney and “several cows” and she sent him milk and cheese for the next five years as a thank you.

The author also describes when Ellicott’s ship HMS Explosion was caught in a storm, and a “remarkably short, thick set” woman on board named Peggy came to the rescue: “many of the men soon became disheartened, as in spite of their utmost endeavours the water increased in the hold.” Peggy, perceiving how things were going, turned away a man from his post and “applied herself to the pump and for fourteen hours worked incessantly at it, up to her middle in water, in an intensely cold night in January. She invited the men to further exertions by showing them what she could and did do, and to her determination and perseverance  was to be owed the keeping the Vessel from sinking from an over quantity of water.”

Captain Ellicott was so impressed that back in Portsmouth he declared “that he believed she was to be ascribed the credit of saving the ship, as none of the men half worked until she set them the example” and set about organising a medal for Peggy, and a pension for life. Peggy was so overjoyed by this that “she danced about in the most extravagant manner, and to evince her gratitude for his reporting her conduct; for years after supplied him with garters of her own knitting.”


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