On Friday 4th January 1771 a press gang was busily impressing men at Newington Butts (now a borough in Southwark).
The men who had been impressed had no recourse, and one woman was distraught to see her husband being taken away from her and their children. She followed the sailors with loud lamentations and protestations which roused many other women to sally forth from their houses to add their voices to that of the wife’s. One of these women was the famous Hannah Snell who was at that time the landlady of the Three Tuns public house.
Years earlier Hannah had disguised herself as a man, taken the name of her brother-in-law James Gray, and joined the British army in search of her errant husband, a Dutchman named James Summs whom she said she had married in 1744 in the Fleet (he had left her with a young daughter who had died as an infant).[i] Successfully hiding the fact that she was a woman, even though she was reputedly twice given the lash and suffered many wounds, she served both on land with the army and at sea with the marines until she returned to London and came clean. She petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for a stipend, and then trod the boards on the London stage for a time.
By the time she chased the press gang, Hannah had found out her first husband had died (she was told a fanciful tale that he had been executed for murder in Genoa by being put into a barrel and thrown into the sea) and had remarried (and probably again been widowed) to a Berkshire carpenter named Richard Eyles with whom she had two children.[ii]
The newspapers reported that Hannah accosted the Lieutenant in charge of the sailors, and demanded the captive be released; he refused and ‘bad words’ ensuing, she grabbed hold of him and shook him. Two sailors stepped forward to rescue the officer, but Hannah quickly saw them off, and then challenged the rest of the gang to a fight with fists, sticks or quarter-staffs. Her only proviso was that she be permitted to pull off her stays, gown and petticoats and to put on a pair of breeches. Loudly she declared that she had sailed more Leagues than any of them, and if they were Seamen, they ought to be on board, and not sneaking about as Kidnappers, saying:
. . . but if you are afraid of the Sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulders, and march through Germany as I have done: Ye Dogs, I have more Wounds about me than you have Fingers. This is no false Attack; I will have my Man.
And with that the sailors backed down and allowed her to take the poor man from their ranks: Hannah restored him to his hearth and home, and his grateful wife.
Shortly after her successful sally on the press gang she married for a third time, to a man named Richard Habgood.
On the 12th November 1772 the couple applied for marriage bond in the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Salisbury, covering Wiltshire and Berkshire. The bond gave the information that Richard Habgood was of Welford and Hannah Eyles was of Speen, both in Berkshire. The bondsman was James Owen of Welford. They then married on the 16th November 1772 at St Gregory’s, the parish church covering the villages of Welford and Wickham, by banns.
The celebrated Hannah Snell died in Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital in 1792.
Hannah’s life as a ‘female soldier’ was told in print in 1750, ‘The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell’.
[i] They had a daughter, Susannah, baptised on the 3rd October 1746 at St George in the East and Hannah’s address in the baptism register was given as Silver Street.
[ii] Her son George Spence Eyles was baptised on the 17th January 1765 at St Luke’s in Chelsea.
Newcastle Courant, 10th November 1759
Northampton Mercury, 7th January 1771
Chester Chronicle, 6th December 1776