The strange story book/Young Amazon Snell
YOUNG AMAZON SNELL
When George I. was king, there lived in Worcester a man named Snell, who carried on business as a hosier and dyer. He worked hard, as indeed he had much need to do—having three sons and six daughters to provide for. The boys were sent to some kind of school, but in those days tradesmen did not trouble themselves about educating their girls, and Snell thought it quite enough for them to be able to read and to count upon their fingers. If they wanted more learning they must pick it up for themselves.
Now although Snell himself was a peaceable, stay-at-home man, his father had been a soldier, and had earned fame and a commission as captain-lieutenant, by shooting the Governor of Dunkirk in the reign of King William. Many tales did the Snell children hear in the winter evenings of their grandfather's brave deeds when he fought at Blenheim with the Welsh Fusiliers, and a thrill of excitement never failed to run through them as they listened to the story of the battle of Malplaquet, where the hero received the wound that killed him.
'Twenty-two battles!' they whispered proudly yet with awe-struck voices; 'did ever any man before fight in so many as that?' and, though the eldest boy said less than any, one morning his bed was empty, and by and bye his mother got a message to tell her that Sam had enlisted, and was to sail for Flanders with the army commanded by the Duke of Cumberland.
Poor Sam's career was not a long one. He was shot through the lungs at the battle of Fontenoy, and died in a few hours.
The old grandfather's love of a fight was in all these young Snells, and one by one the boys followed Sam's example, and the girls married soldiers or sailors. Hannah, the youngest, brought up from her babyhood on talk of wars and rumours of wars, thought of nothing else.
'She would be a soldier too when she was big enough,' she told her father and mother twenty times a day, and her play-fellows were so infected by her zeal, that they allowed themselves to be formed into a company, of which Hannah, needless to say, was the commander-in-chief, and meekly obeyed her orders.
In their free hours, she would drill them as her brothers had drilled her, and now and then when she decided that they knew enough not to disgrace her, she would march them through the streets of Worcester, under the admiring gaze of the shopkeepers standing at their doors.
'Young Amazon Snell's troop are coming this way. See how straight they hold themselves! and look at Hannah at the head of them,' said the women, hurrying out; and though Hannah, like a well-trained soldier, kept her eyes steadily before her, she heard it all and her little back grew stiffer than ever.
So things went on for many years, till at the end of 1740 Mr. and Mrs. Snell both died, and Hannah left Worcester to live with one of her sisters, the wife of James Gray, a carpenter, whose home was at Wapping in the east of London.
Much of Gray's work lay among the ships which drew up alongside the wharf, and sailors were continually in and out of the house in Ship Street. One of these, a Dutchman called Summs, proposed to Hannah, who married him in 1743, when she was not yet twenty.
She was a good-looking, pleasant girl, and no doubt had attracted plenty of attention. But of course she laughed at the idea of her marrying a shopkeeper who had never been outside his own parish. So, like Desdemona and many another girl before and after, she listened entranced to the marvellous stories told her by Summs, and thought herself fortunate indeed to have found such a husband.
She soon changed her opinion. Summs very quickly got tired of her; and after ill-treating her in every kind of way, and even selling her clothes, deserted her, and being ill and miserable and not knowing what to do, she thankfully returned to her sister.
After some months of peace and rest, Hannah grew well and strong, and then she made up her mind to carry out a plan she had formed during her illness, which was to put on man's dress, and go in search of the sailor who had treated her so ill. At least this was what she said to herself, but no doubt the real motive that guided her was the possibility of at last becoming a soldier or sailor, and seeing the world. It is not quite clear if she confided in her sister, but at any rate she took a suit of her brother-in-law's clothes and his name into the bargain, and it was as 'James Gray' that she enlisted in Coventry in 1745, in a regiment commanded by General Guise.
It was lucky for Hannah that, unlike most girls of her day and position, she had not been pent up at home doing needle-work, as after three weeks, she with seventeen other raw recruits was ordered to join her regiment at Carlisle, so as to be ready to act, if necessary, against the Highlanders and Prince Charlie. But these three weeks had taught her much about a soldier's life which her brothers had left untold. She had learnt to talk as the men about her talked, and to drink with them if she was invited, though she always contrived to keep her head clear and her legs steady. As to her husband, of him she could hear nothing at Coventry; perhaps she might be more fortunate in the north.
In spite of a burn on her foot, which she had received after enlisting, Hannah found no difficulty in marching to Carlisle with the other recruits, and when they reached the city at the end of twenty-two days, she was as fresh as any of them. How delighted she was to find that the dream of her childhood was at last realised, and that she could make as good a soldier as the rest. But her spirits were soon dashed by the wickedness of the sergeant, who on Hannah's refusal to help him to carry out an infamous scheme on which he had set his heart, reported her to the commanding officer for neglect of duty. No inquiry as to the truth of this accusation appears to have been made, and the sentence pronounced was extraordinarily heavy, even though it was thought to have been passed on a man. The prisoner was to have her hands tied to the castle gates and to receive six hundred lashes. She actually did receive five hundred, at least, so it was said, and then some officers who were present interfered, and bade them set her free.
It does not seem as if Hannah suffered much from her stripes, but very soon a fresh accident upset all her plans. The arrival of a new recruit was reported, and the youth turned out to be a young carpenter from Wapping, who had spent several days in her brother-in-law's house while she was living there. Hannah made sure that he would recognise her at once, though as a matter of fact he did nothing of the kind, and to prevent the shame of discovery, she determined to desert the regiment, and try her fortune elsewhere.
To go as far as possible from Carlisle was her one idea, and what town could be better than Portsmouth for the purpose?
But in order to travel such a long way, money was needed, and Hannah had spent all her own and did not know how to get more. She consulted a young woman whom she had helped when in great trouble, and in gratitude, the girl instantly offered enough to enable her friend to get a lift on the road when she was too tired to walk any longer.
'If you get rich, you can pay me back,' she said; 'if not, the debt is still on my side. But, oh, Master Gray, beware, I pray you! for if they catch you, they will shoot you, to a certainty.'
'No fear,' answered Hannah laughing, and very early one morning she stole out.
Taking the road south she crept along under the shade of the hedge, till about a mile from the town she noticed a heap of clothes lying on the ground, flung there by some labourers who were working at the other end of the field.
'It will be many hours yet before they will look for them,' thought she, ' and fair exchange is no robbery,' so stooping low in the ditch she slipped off her regimentals, and hiding them at the very bottom of the pile, put on an old coat and trousers belonging to one of the men. Then full of hope, she started afresh.
Perhaps the commander in Carlisle never heard of the desertion of one of the garrison, or perhaps search for James Gray was made in the wrong direction. However that may be, nobody troubled the fugitive, who weary and footsore, in a month's time entered Portsmouth.
At this point a new chapter begins in Hannah Snell's history. The old desire to see the world was still strong upon her, and, after resting for a little in the house of some kind people, she enlisted afresh in a regiment of marines. A few weeks later, she was ordered to join the 'Swallow,' and to sail with Admiral Boscawen's fleet for the East Indies.
It was Hannah's first sea-voyage, but, in spite of the roughness of the life on board ship in those days, she was happy enough. England was behind her; that was the chief thing, and who could tell what wonderful adventures lay in front? So her spirits rose, and she was so good-natured and obliging as well as so clever, that the crew one and all declared they had found a treasure. There was nothing 'James Gray' could not and would not do—wash their shirts, cook their food, mend their holes, laugh at their stories. And, as she looked a great deal younger in her men's clothes than she had done in her woman's dress, no one took her for anything but a boy, and all willingly helped to teach her the duties which would fall to her, both now and in case of war.
She kept watch for four hours in turn with the rest, and soon began to see in the dark with all the keenness of a sailor. Next she was taught how to load and unload a pistol, which pleased her very much, and was given her place on the quarter-deck, where she was at once to take up her station during an engagement. Most likely she was forced from time to time to attend drill, but this we are not told.
The 'Swallow' was not half through the Bay of Biscay when a great storm arose which blew the fleet apart, and did great damage to the vessel. Both her topmasts were lost, and it is a wonder that, in this crippled condition, the ship was able to make her way to Lisbon, where the crew remained on shore till the ship was refitted, and she could join the rest of the fleet, which then set sail down the Atlantic towards the coast of India.
Except for more bad weather and a scarcity of provisions on board the 'Swallow,' nothing worthy of note occurred, till they had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and passed Madagascar.
Some fruitless attacks on a group of islands belonging to the French gave Hannah her first experience of war, and her comrades were anxious as to how 'the boy' would behave under fire. But they speedily saw that there was no danger that any cowardice of his would bring discredit on the regiment, and that 'James Gray' was as good a fighter as he was a cook. Perhaps 'James Gray,' if the truth be told, was rather relieved himself when the bugle sounded a retreat, for no one knows what may happen to him in the excitement of a first battle; or whether in the strangeness and newness of it all, he may not lose his head and run away, and be covered with shame for ever.
None of this, however, befell Hannah, and when six weeks after, they were on Indian soil, and sat down to besiege the French settlement of Pondicherry, the Worcestershire girl was given more than one chance of distinguishing herself.
Pondicherry was a very strong place and the walls which were not washed by the sea were thoroughly fortified and defended by guns, while the magazines contained ample supplies both of food and powder. Further, it was guarded by the fort of Areacopong commanding a river, and with a battery of twelve guns ready to pour forth fire on the British army. Hannah was speedily told off with some others to bring up certain stores, which had been landed by the fleet, and, after some heavy skirmishing, they succeeded in their object. Her company was then ordered to cross the river so as to be able to march, when necessary, upon Pondicherry itself, and this they did under the fire of the guns of Areacopong, with the water rising to their breasts.
At length the fort was captured and great was the rejoicing in the British lines, for the surrender of Areacopong meant the removal of the chief barrier towards taking the capital of French India.
For seven nights Hannah had to be on picket duty, and was later sent to the trenches, where she constantly was obliged to dig with the water up to her waist, for the autumn rains had now begun.
But her heart and soul were bound up in the profession she had chosen, and everything else was forgotten, even her desire to revenge herself on her husband. Not a soldier in the army fought better than she, and in one of the battles under the walls of Pondicherry, she is said to have received eleven shots in her legs alone! She was carried into hospital, and when the doctors had time to attend to her, she showed them the bullet wounds down her shins, but made no mention of a ball which had entered her side, for she was resolved not to submit to any examination. This wound gave her more pain than all the rest put together, and after two days she made up her mind that in order to avoid being discovered for a woman she must extract it herself, with the help of a native who was acting as nurse.
Setting her teeth to prevent herself shrieking with the agony the slightest touch caused her, Hannah felt about till she found the exact spot where the ball was lodged, and then pressed the place until the bullet was near enough to the surface for her to pull it out with her finger and thumb. The pain of it all was such that she sank back almost fainting, but with a violent effort she roused herself, and stretching out her hand for the lint and the ointment placed within her reach by the nurse, she dressed the wound. Three months later she was as well as ever, and able to do the work of a sailor on board a ship which, at that time, was anchored in the harbour.
As soon as the fleet returned from Madras, Hannah was ordered to the 'Eltham,' but at Bombay she fell into disgrace with the first lieutenant, was put into irons for five days, spent four hours at the foretop-masthead, and received twelve lashes. She was likewise accused of stealing a shirt, but, as this was proved to be false, the charge only roused the anger of the crew, and they took the first opportunity to revenge themselves on the lieutenant who had sentenced er.
It was in November 1749 that the fleet sailed for home, and the 'Eltham' was directed to steer a straight course for Lisbon, having to take on board a large sum of money, destined for some London merchants. One day when she was ashore with her mates, they turned into a public-house to have dinner. Here they happened to meet an English sailor, with whom many of the party were well acquainted. Learning that he had been lately engaged on a Dutch vessel, Hannah inquired carelessly whether he had ever come across one Jemmy Summs.
'Summs?' answered the man. 'I should think I had. I heard of him only the other day at Genoa, in prison for killing an Italian gentleman. I asked to be allowed to see him, and as he was condemned to death, they gave me leave to do so. He told me the story of his life, and how, while he was in London, he married a young woman called Hannah Snell, and then deserted her. More than six years have passed since that time, and he does not know what became of her. But he begged me, if ever I was near Wapping again, to seek her out and entreat her to forgive him. As soon as he had finished, the gaoler entered and bade us say farewell.
'That was the last we saw of him, but before I left I heard that he had been sewn up in a bag filled with stones, and thrown into the sea, which is their way of hanging.'
Hannah had listened in silence, and would gladly have quitted the place, to think over the sailor's story quietly. But she never forgot the part she was playing, and roused herself to tell the sailor that when she returned to England she would make it her business to search for the widow, and to help her if she seemed in need. Then she got up and called for the bill, and followed by her companions, rowed back to the ship.
It was on June 1, 1750, that Hannah Snell landed in Portsmouth, and in the course of a few days made her way to Wapping. The rough life she had led, and even her uniform, had changed her so little that her sister recognised her at once, and flung her arms round the stranger's neck, much to the surprise of the neighbours. But Hannah, in spite of her sister's
THE SAILORS DRINK THE HEALTH OF AMAZON SNELL
entreaties, refused to put on the dress of a woman till she had received £15 of pay due to her, and two suits; and when this was done, she invited those of the ship's crew who were then in London to drink with her at a public-house, and there revealed to them her secret.
It was, however, to no purpose that she talked. These men, by whose side she had fought and drunk for so long, would believe nothing, and thought it was just 'one of Jemmy's stories.' At length she was forced to send for her sister and brother-in-law, who swore that her tale was true, and then the sailors broke out into a chorus of praise of her courage, her cleverness, and her kindness, all the time that they had known her. One, indeed, made her an offer on the spot; but Hannah had had enough of matrimony, and was not minded to tie herself to another husband.
It was not long before the wondrous story of Hannah Snell reached the ears of the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II., and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. A petition was drawn up, setting forth her military career, and requesting the grant of a pension in consideration of her services. This petition an accident enabled her to deliver in person to the Duke as he was leaving his house in Pall Mall, and by the advice of his equerry, Colonel Napier, the pension of a shilling a day for life—£18 5s.—was bestowed on her.
It does not sound much to us, but money went a great deal further in those times.
But her fame as a female soldier was worth much more to Hannah than the scars she had won in His Majesty's service. The manager of the theatre at the New Wells, Goodman's Fields, saw clearly that the opportunity was too good to be lost, and that advertisement of 'the celebrated Mrs. Hannah Snell, who had gained twelve wounds fighting the French in India,' would earn a large fortune for him, and a small fortune for her.
So here we bid her good-bye, and listen to her for the last time—her petticoats discarded for ever—singing to the fashionable audience of Goodman's Fields the songs with which she had delighted for many months the crew of the 'Eltham.'