Women on sailing ships

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (written in 1797 – 1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge relates the unfortunate tale of a mariner who shot an albatross that had guided his ship out of dangerous icy waters in the Antarctic. Spirits then led the ship northwards until it became becalmed near the Equator in uncharted waters. In their thirst, the sailors turned on the mariner and tied the dead albatross around his neck. All the sailors except the mariner then died, and after some horrific encounters and the ship rotting and sinking, he found himself left to wander the earth for evermore, telling his story, still with the stinking albatross around his neck, as a lesson for others.

Coleridge wasn’t himself a sailor, yet with this poem he tapped into and depicted the very superstitious life of seamen, in which the normal phenomena of the sea (winds, storms, phosphorescence and water spouts) were bestowed with malevolent magical powers and often blamed on women, as witches. Little wonder, then – as Dorothy Volo discovered in the course of her extensive research – that females were not popular on board. Despite this, there was a tradition of women at sea in the Royal Navy through the 18th and 19th centuries, though it was against regulations, on ships that were dubbed ‘hen frigates’. Moreover, in battle the women would fight alongside the men as best they could, or assist the surgeon with treating the wounded.

Prostitutes also went on board ships, though they seldom went to sea due to the fact that at the start of a voyage the sailors had probably already spent all their money, a scenario that gave rise to the Dead Horse ceremony described by Maud in such detail in the 1880 diary and by Roslyn Russell, who shows a charming contemporary painting of ‘Throwing the Dead Horse Overboard’.

The majority of women allowed on board were warrant officers’ wives, and sometimes the coopers, cooks and sailmakers were also allowed to have their wives aboard: women were ‘an unavoidable nuisance’. It says something that often women’s names were omitted from ship’s passenger lists, and their deaths were frequently not recorded.

The conditions for the seamen’s women and children on board were even worse than those of the men: they had to share hammocks in the crew’s quarters, and rely on their men to give them some of their food since they were not provided with their own rations. Their days were often spent in darkness below decks because they were supposed to keep out of the way until the evening, when they were finally allowed on deck to take part in any entertainment or dancing. Women gave birth in the dark below decks with little or no privacy or assistance, even in times of battle.

This lack of consideration for women carried through to land life, especially if the men were to die. Few benefits were available to sea widows, and often the regulations prevented them from accessing even the benefits that they were due, although some charities assisted them. Moreover, if a seaman died from his own actions, his wife was ineligible for any compensation whatsoever.

The warrant officers’ wives fared better than those of the seamen: they could share their husbands’ cabins, perhaps had a little more money and could spend their time ‘working’ – doing needlework and knitting. In addition, they may have been allocated 11 – 12-year-old cabin boys to do their odd jobs, such as polishing shoes or assisting with cooking.

Finally, women whose husbands were of higher rank – ladies of quality such as Maud, the captain’s wife – had a more comfortable cabin, a much better diet, and luxuries such as wine.

Despite the relative comfort of her quarters and conditions, life for the wives of the higher-ranking men was generally lonely. On board, Maud would have been socially isolated by the conventions of the time that would frowned on her fraternising with the crew, excepting the steward and cook, or with men other than her husband. To pass the time, Maud undertook simple tasks such as copying out the log for Henry, as she mentions, and walking on deck with him when he was free.

Nor was life on a sailing ship fashionable. One photo of Maud on board the Walmer Castle shows her as a young woman wearing the formal crinoline of the time, possibly made from silk, but this obviously would have been impractical at sea, particularly when climbing up and down ladders, as she did from time to time. Indeed, in a diary entry made when leaving San Francisco she mentions that her formal clothes are put away and she resorts to something like a black woollen wrapper or work dress, shown in a later photo. She must have had some serviceable shoes too.

9781472954237.jpgGiven these privations, one cannot but wonder why Maud accompanied Henry to sea so often. The answer perhaps lies in the simple fact that they didn’t want to be apart, a view that is reinforced by the following quotation from Hen Frigates in which Joan Druett cites one of her diarists, Mary Rowland, who wrote in 1873 of another Henry: ‘As Henry says, we have only one life to live, and he cannot be at home, and it is very hard for us to be separated so much, and a very unpleasant way of spending our lives when one is thousands of miles away.’

Extracted from The Epic Voyages of Maud Berridge: The seafaring diaries of a Victorian lady, available from www.adlardcoles.com