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Young Amazon Snell

from The Strange Story Book





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 playfellows 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 a 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 needlework, 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 her.

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 entreaties, refused to put on the dress of a woman till she
had received L15 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--L18 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.'





Next: The Good Sir James

Previous: The Return Of The Dead Wife



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