Real “kick-ass” women: II. Mary Lacy (1740 – 1795), female shipwright

11 March, 2009 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

Let’s imagine for a moment I’d leave captains and lieutenants aside and would write a book about strong seafaring women in the 18th century. Considering my dislike for pirates, I’d probably go for the “woman aboard a ship disguised as a man” option.

A young lady in breeches? Aboard a ship? Drama! Just imagine the fear of being found out! How to hide? Whom to bribe? Would there be romance? Imagine the possibilities!

Hands up: who would immediately think of “self-insert” and “Mary-Sue” upon reading that plot summary? Yes, I thought so. No, I won’t write such a book, but I don’t have to, anyway – it’s already been written.. And you know what the best bit about it is?

That story is actually true!

THE FEMALE SHIPWRIGHT
by Mary Lacy



National Maritime Museum
Hardcover
144 pages
ISBN: 9781906367015


Mary Lacy, born in 1740, left skirt and bonnet behind and slipped into breeches and waistcoat at the age of 19, called herself “William Chandler” (Chandler being her mother’s maiden name), became apprentice to a shipwright and went to sea aboard the Sandwich
.

What a great luck and blessing for us that Mary wrote the remarkable story of her life down and shared her experiences with future generations. Not only give her memoirs, brought to paper when she was 33 years old, a fascinating insight into the daily life aboard a ship, but also into the thinking of a woman in those days, her role in society and, through the eyes of a woman, the expectations and trials a young man would have faced. An excellent character study, challenging and inspiring to me both as a writer and a reader.

From our modern point of view, it seems unbelievable that a young woman could have lived among sailors for such a long time without being found out. But at the end of the day, Mary was a sailor, too. She didn’t pretend. When she was finally found out, it was through betrayal by another woman, a “false friend”, and surprisingly enough, the men who were informed about the “lady in disguise” did – nothing. There were no consequences. It was merely noted, and that was it. And when Mary Lacy retired, she was granted an annual pension for “Superannuated Shipwrights” of £ 20 per year by the Admiralty, despite giving her real name in the papers! There are reports of women disguised as men who were punished and had to face harsh consequences for their actions. The fact that this was not true in Mary Lacy’s case is interesting – maybe because her case wasn’t that unique after all…?

Mary mentions many “romances” in her memoirs. From the distance of over 250 years, it’s difficult to tell how much of her flirting was to add credibility to her portrayal as a young man, and how much was romantic interest in her own gender. Margarette Lincoln, Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum who wrote the introduction to the small book, doesn’t rule out that possibility. Judging by the facts at hand, it seem perfectly plausible to me that Mary Lacy was interested in both genders; after all she claimed an unhappy love affair with a young man as one of the reasons why she ran away from home (beside being a real wild child). Later in her life, she called herself “Mary Slade”, claiming that she had married some Mr. Slade – however, no proof of marriage can be found, but she did live for with one Elizabeth Slade until that woman’s death.

Mary Lacy lived a hard life, had to do heaviest manual work, was beaten by her master, went without food at times and without shoes in winter, survived the harshest conditions both ashore and at sea, and all this under the constant pressure and fear that she might be found out.

Maybe we should consider this the next time we feel life’s too harsh with us because Windows doesn’t boot…

Please click here to hear the podcast by Margarette Lincoln, Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum, in which she tells the story of Mary Lacy- highly recommended!

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Entry filed under: 18th century, books, resource, ships. Tags: , , , , , .

Real “kick-ass” women: I. LAURA BASSI (1711 – 1778), Italian scientist Resource/art: Collingwood as a boy – “The Plum Cake Incident” – illustration!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. linda collison  |  26 May, 2011 at 3:16 am

    Well, of course it’s true! Thanks for posting it.

    I’ve studied as many of these stories as I could find in researching my novels. I write the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series (Fireship Press).

    Reply
  • 2. AUSTFoulds  |  17 June, 2012 at 6:04 am

    Mary Lacy married at St Mary Abbots, Kensington, on 25 Oct 1772 to Josias Slade, a shipwright living at Deptford. In 1773, newspapers and periodicals of the time reported the birth of her first child (Margaret Lacey Slade) and included details of Mary’s extraordinary life. Mary Slade nee Lacy died in 1801 and was buried at St Paul, Deptford, on 3 May 1801. The Mary and Elizabeth Slade who lived together in Deptford were actually sisters and that Mary Slade died at Deptford at the age of 94 on 29 Jan 1795 and was buried at St Nicholas, Deptford.

    Reply

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