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


Riddle of the Waves: A Watery Solution

Steven Price Brown served in the Grenadier Guards for an arduous tour in Afghanistan in 2012. His platoon suffered appalling losses and as advance team medic he was at the centre of the most horrific incidents. After leaving the forces he retreated to Africa but became increasingly ill. Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in October 2014 he returned to the UK but ended up homeless, living in a hostel and undergoing therapy. In October 2015, he was introduced to the military sailing charity Turn to Starboard, and discovered a new love of nature and a new purpose in life. This ultimately led to him writing Riddle of the Waves, a unique and inspiring account of the Spirit of Falmouth 2016 voyage around the UK with the Turn to Starboard crew.


“I tapped on the window to the area just outside the recording booth and the occupants sitting inside all looked up. Henry, who was from Bloomsbury and had kindly escorted and guided me through my first radio interview, seemed a little unsure about what I was up to, but you can’t let opportunities like this pass you by. Apart from moral support and a little advice, I think he was there just to make sure my nerves didn’t lead me to throw up into one of the plant pots.

Prince Harry was one of the reactors to my tap tapping.

I mimicked shaking hands through the glass and he nodded with understanding. My first interview had been a bit of a baptism of fire, an early morning chat at BBC Radio 4’s Today Program.

I was here to promote Riddle of The Waves, my debut book about a group of military veterans who had all suffered from the impact of conflicts and had decided to sail around the UK in a 92ft gaff rigged schooner, but that was only a part of it. The crew had shared their stories with me and I had included these poignant and often amazing stories about them. I really want to tell this story, how people can move on, how there is help out there.

I’d got the radio gig because our famous royal warrior was here to visit the BBC, of course having a veteran like me talk about something close to his heart seemed a nice fit. Prince Harry came out and we chatted, getting a couple of photos together – he had wanted to ask me a question whilst I was on air, but sadly time had been short so it never happened.

He asked, “What do you think the media are like with this subject?”

My sycophancy aside, it was a good question. In my opinion, the media are very supportive, I’ve so far only had positive responses, both about the subject matter and storytelling from the media.

The only thing that concerns me is that there is an underlining ‘story’, one that accuses the Forces that they don’t do enough to rehabilitate those who have suffered from military life.

It’s fair enough to think that, as is with the normal way of life, if someone is part of the cause they normally get saddled with being part of the solution. There’s not much doubt that the Forces are heavily involved in the creation of various issues, not because they want to, but because since time began war has always created casualties.

But my recovery came at sea, we, the crew, were first strangers to each other, but we slowly built trust between ourselves, being able to share stories that we generally never share.

Our boat was called Spirit of Falmouth a wonderful pilot boat that had been gifted to the charity Turn To Starboard by Prince Charles, another Royal doing his bit.

The ‘Riddle’ in the book’s title refers to the magic that seemed to happen to us over our trip. Watching people regain strength right in front of me, growing in confidence, losing the shackles of the past and start to return to the person they want to relate to, is somewhat other worldly. It also happened to me.

But then maybe it’s just the opposite, was it nature just repairing us? Being out in the ocean and so close to the elements, at the mercy of raw nature for our trip’s propulsion, we experienced something that was unique and restorative.

Sometimes it’s best not to try hard to work it out, just accept that something good has happened and let others take from it what they can, that’s what the book is about.”

Steven’s account of the 2016 Spirit of Falmouth voyage Riddle of the Waves is available from www.adlardcoles.com