Hannah Snell. Credit: Royal Marines Museum, artist Daniel Williamson

History

Hannah Snell: A Female Soldier In Disguise

The pioneering woman hid her real identity to fight for her country

Hannah Snell. Credit: Royal Marines Museum, artist Daniel Williamson

Hannah Snell is perhaps one of the most intriguing female figures in military history – not least because she might be considered to be the first woman ever to join the Royal Marines.

Women might be now officially eligible to join the Marines for the first time in its 350-year history but Hannah could have claimed to have broken the mould as far back as the 18th century.

However, in order to do this in an era when the military was entirely a male domain, she had to harbour a secret for a full two years – by posing as a man.

Her exploits have earned her a legendary status as a soldier and later as a Royal Marine but her reputation was not built by her service as Hannah Snell.

Instead, she took on the persona of James Gray – a well-travelled soldier, whose identity would remain intact until the day in 1750 when the young marine shocked his fellow soldiers in a London pub by revealing that ‘he’ was, in fact, a woman in disguise.

Born in April 1723, Hannah Snell was not destined to have an ordinary life.

When she was 20, she married a Dutch seaman who was to leave her when she fell pregnant. After the death of her daughter a year later, Hannah decided to go out in search of her deserting husband.

With help from her sister and brother-in-law, Hannah took up her new guise as a man.

Hannah, now known as James Gray after her brother-in-law, travelled to Coventry where she joined the British Army. As part of Captain Miller’s Company, Hannah marched with them to Carlisle.

Keeping her true identity a secret was no easy feat. At one point, she was ordered to receive 600 lashes following a clash with her sergeant.

However, in a testament to her iron resolve, she took 500 lashes - concealing her identity throughout and managing to keep her female form hidden even as she nursed the wounds to her flesh following the punishment.

Hannah deserted from the army after recognising an old neighbour and worrying that she would be revealed. She made her way to Portsmouth where she enlisted in the Royal Marines and set sail for the East Indies on board HMS Swallow.

While under fire marching on foot to Pondicherry, Hannah was apparently hit in the groin. Reports say she enlisted the help of a local woman to remove the bullet, and therefore once again kept her real identity hidden.

During her time in the Royal Navy she was said to have been given the name “Molly”, because of her appearance and lack of facial hair.

While in Lisbon during one seafaring deployment, Hannah learned that her husband had been executed in Genoa. So, after finishing her tour of duty in 1750, Hannah returned home to her sister in Wapping.

It is believed that it is then that Hannah unveiled her secret in a pub surrounded by fellow soldiers. In the book 'The Female Soldier' by author Robert Walker about Hannah's unusual story, it is claimed she declared:

"Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature.

"In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell." 

Hannah later took her remarkable story to the stage and ran a tavern, named ‘The Widow in Masquerade’. The Royal Chelsea Hospital recognised her service and she was granted a military pension.

Hannah Snell remarried twice and had two sons before she died aged 69, in Bethlam Hospital in 1792.