Mary Anne Arnold, Female Sailor, 1840

Posted By on August 10, 2011

“A Female Sailor,” from the Sydney Morning Herald, July 10 1840.

Extract of a letter from an officer of the Robert Small, dated in that ship off the Cape of Good Hope, the 20th of October 1839. The Robert Small sailed from London last August.

“A very singular case has been discovered on board our ship; we have detected a young lady in the person of a sailor, who has come out with our crew from the time we left the Thames until it was found that she belonged to the fair sex. Her name is Mary Anne Arnold. She is the daughter of the late Lieutenant Arnold, of the royal navy, who served in that capacity on board the Ganges and Prince Regent men-of-war. Being a man of dissolute habits, he lost his commission in consequence, after which he resided with his wife at Sheerness, where, by continuing his habits of dissipation, he and his family were reduced to great distress. By the intercession of some friends, Mr. Arnold was admitted a pensioner in Greenwich Hospital, in which asylum he died recently. During the latter interval, and after her husband’s death Mrs. Arnold lived at Sheerness, supporting herself and her children by manual labor until the summer of 1835, when, after great exertion in the harvest field, she was attacked by bilious fever and died, leaving her children totally unprovided for. Mrs. Arnold’s furniture was sold to pay the expenses of her funeral, and some charitable neighbours took the orphans into their houses and supported them for a time.

Mary Anne, the subject of the present statement, was ten years old when her mother died. Partly by laboring in the fields, and partly by going on errands, she at first supported herself, and contributed to the sustenance of her little sister, who was only eighteen months old when her mother died. Mary Anne next obtained permanent employment in a rope-factory at Sheerness, where she earned 2s. 6d. a week. Going frequently in boats and amongst the shipping, she found that boys of her age who went to sea earned more money, were better fed, were ‘thought more of,’ and in every way in a superior condition to hers. Upon this Mary Anne determined to renounce the petticoats and become a sailor. Borrowing an old jacket, trousers, and shirt from a boy of her acquaintance, to whom she said she was going to have a lark in them, she took leave of the rope fields and the owner of the clothes, without the ceremony of a farewell, and succeeded, to her great joy, in getting employment in the Williams, a Sunderland collier, then lying at Sheerness. Mary Anne was kindly treated, and she continued to do the miscellaneous hard work of a collier’s cabinboy below and aloft for two years and two months, to the satisfaction of no less than six captains, who successively commanded the Williams during that period. A seventh captain came, and this time man and boy did not like each other, so Mary Anne forever abandoned the coal-marine and its blackamoor service and on the 22nd of October, 1838, entered as cabin-boy at Shields on board the brig Annie, bound for London and Quebec. Unfortunately the Annie was wrecked off Blakeney in the last equinoxial gales; but the captain and crew had the luck to escape after enduring great hardships. Returning to Shields, Miss Arnold entered again as a cabin boy in the Choice, bound for London, with stores for the Robert Small East Indiaman, in which ship she next succeeded in getting an engagement as a sailor-boy the day before she sailed for London.

She has well done her work as a strong active boy in this ship. I have seen Miss Arnold amongst the first aloft to reef the mizzen-top-gallant-sail, during a heavy gale in the Bay of Biscay. When we crossed the equator, she underwent the ceremony of tarring and shaving in its roughest form. On the 20th of September last, some of the crew expressed suspicions to Captain Scott that the boy Arnold was a girl.

The captain upon this ordered the surgeon to examine the youngster. The surgeon did so, and declared that he was a girl. Miss Arnold then gave the foregoing account of herself. The captain and all the passengers and crew praised and pitied her. She was at once prevailed upon to abdicate the sailor’s jacket and trousers, and resume the clothes proper to her sex. Miss Arnold is now a pretty girl 15 years of age. She now lives in a cabin. The lady passengers have given her lots of presents. Her hair is already getting long, and I suppose she will soon think of ringlets. Captain Scott behaves in the kindest manner to her, and has promised that she shall receive her pay just the same as if she were to continue to do a young mariner’s duty during the whole passage out and home. Miss Arnold is, though rather bashful considering the short time she has had to learn ladies’ ways, like other heroes and heroines, capable of being drawn out. I frequently see her, surrounded by applauding listeners while she pitches a long yarn about the dangers of the sea.

Our heroine has two brothers older than herself. One is boatswain of the Royal Adelaide – the other is carpenter on board the Britannia, stationed at Portsmouth. The latter, she says, knew that she had turned sailor, and he approved of the metamorphosis when he saw her in the trust and occupation of cabin boy on board the Williams.”

About the author

I'm a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th - 19th centuries. I've held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.

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