From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea

From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea

by Jo Stanley


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This lively yet scholarly book reveals an unsuspected history of women at sea, from women pirates and daring cabin "boys" under sail to today’s rear-admirals and weapons experts on nuclear submarines. Historically, women wanting to sail in their own right faced many challenges. They were rejected as nuisances and outsiders, trespassing into the male maritime tribe. Today they command cruise ships and are becoming commodores. This comprehensive work looks at both the merchant and royal navies, explaining women’s progression from outsider to master"—with male shipmates as obstacles and helping hands. Using interviews and sources never before published, Jo Stanley vividly reveals the incredible journey across time taken by women at sea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752488783
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jo Stanley is a former journalist and adult education teacher and the author of Bold in Her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages.

Read an Excerpt

From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains

250 Years of Women at Sea

By Jo Stanley

The History Press

Copyright © 2016 Jo Stanley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6877-5


Britain's Forgotten Women Seafarers

Challenging huge Japanese whalers, Susi Newborn's brief time life at sea was sometimes as exciting as that of women pirates 250 years earlier. For mobile women, wanting to explore their own selves as well as the world, seafaring can be the ultimate in adventuring and acting with agency. In the 1970s this Greenpeace activist described herself as leaping accurately – glad of her T'ai Chi training – into one of the Rainbow Warrior's tiny fast Zodiacs (rigid inflatable boats) 'as it thrashes and jerks like a rodeo yearling'. Barefoot and braced for bullets, she sailed at her targets in the name of peace and protecting the environment.

Susi loved the challenge, and her daring was rather akin to that of the world's most famous women pirates, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, who swashbuckled in the Spanish Main in the eighteenth century. Their sailing era ended in 1720, thirty years before the period covered by this book, but such female boucaniers whetted the appetite of potential seafaring women and influenced common ideas today of 'lady tars' on all the world's seas. ('Tar' is short for tarpaulin, the bitumen-covered cloth garments that seafarers – so-called 'knights of the tarpaulin' – used to wear to repel water.)

Susi Newborn of Greenpeace, too, was outside the law. And she learned firsthand about opportunistic sea tactics, violent enemy ships, storms, long-haired, hoop-earringed shipmates – and tedium. The reason she, a woman without seafaring skills and without that crucial seafarer's passport, the British Seaman's Discharge Book, could even be on board was that she was effectively one of the owners. As a volunteer on a small ship, she could freewheel between tasks. She even did the dirty work of cleaning bilges; as the smallest person aboard, she could fit into the narrowest spaces.

Susi was unusual, like Anne and Mary. Almost all the thousands of British women working at sea since 1750 were essentially domestic employees. Like my Great-Aunty May going to and fro, to and fro, between Liverpool and West Africa, these stewardesses travelled regular routes, making passengers' beds as routinely as any chambermaid might. Their floating hotels initially seemed more exciting, and were certainly more challenging socially and geographically, than below-stairs life in a hotel or grand house. They had few choices and no stashes of Spanish doubloons.

But many elements of Susi's experience were typical of those early women's sea lives too. They saw the world. They seized opportunities. They defied restrictive views of a woman's place. And they survived months on the Atlantic, Pacific, South China Seas and beyond, with male crewmembers who thought a ship no place for a lady. Unlike Anne or Mary, these women were 'out' as women, meaning they were visibly female (which brought them into contact with the ship's gendered hierarchy). Ironically, they gained their freedom to rove because of the limited and confining contemporary idea that lady passengers must be waited upon by females, oceangoing maids.

Two other categories of women sailed too. There were those who got opportunities because they were relatives of the master (as captains are called). An accommodating husband who wanted a travelling wife, and had the authority to take her with him, was a ticket to ride. US wives in the nineteenth century seemed to travel far more readily their British counterparts.

A further category includes women like Anne Jane Thornton, who disguised themselves as men and did men's jobs. They belonged to the world of the vessel, the technical machine, rather than the neat bedroom. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that it was possible to really combine being an out woman (meaning not pretending to be a man) and sailing before the mast, as a deck officer or engineer undisguised.

As of the 2010s, the UK's 3,000 Merchant Navy women were 13 per cent of the total 22,830 UK seagoing workforce. Worldwide, women made up a smaller proportion, about 2 per cent of the total maritime labour force. Seawomen in the early twenty-first century are mainly on cruise ships, in hotel-type jobs. In the UK's case, about two thirds of all its women seafarers are on such ships, not cargo vessels. Women are still mainly found doing these lowly paid 'chambermaiding' jobs on ships.


These women seafarers were working far from home, in a field marked 'men only', or even 'ruggedly masculine men only'. Yet they managed to break through into operating the vessel and taking the decisions at the very top, rising from the lowly domestic servicing of the ship's hotel operations. It is a complex story, but the first women who went to sea for a living did so in the following three ways.

Sea Wives

First were the women who were 'out' as women: the seagoing wives of officers. The 'plucky' wife of Martinique-bound Warrant Officer William Richardson was one. William went to say goodbye to her one summer in the 1780s but 'found that she had fixed her mind to go with me, as it was reported the voyage would be short and the ship would return ... [However] in parting from her parents [she] almost fainted ... but was still determined to go with me.' In the King's (Royal) Navy wives sailed the oceans, including into battle. They did support work in crises from Africa to China, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, from the East Indies to Central America. Invaluable auxiliaries and undervalued support workers, they were a bit like the sutlers and vivandières (sometimes called 'camp followers') who looked after armies on the battlefields of France and in the US Civil War by selling services and goods including hot food and nurture such as laundering. The Navy expected husbands to share food with wives; it didn't victual or pay them (except for some rare pensions). Naval men sometimes struggled to control this group, which wasn't organised under the same naval disciplinary codes. Horatio Nelson, England's inspirational naval leader, said that women on ship 'always will do as they please. Orders are not for them – at least I never yet knew one who obeyed.'

Whaling wife Eliza Underwood was one of at most a thousand British wives on merchant ships, in the period from 1750 to roughly 1900, whose ships were sometimes called 'hen frigates' (interestingly, implying that the rest were cocks; today all-male RN ships are called stag ships). US and Antipodean wives avidly sailed. It's their accounts, popularised by New Zealand historian Joan Druett, that today help us imagine the far less recorded situation of British wives. We certainly know wives had borrowed status, and they often took their offspring with them: 'The captain and his wife and children were members of the royal family of a tiny but very wealthy, kingdom,' explains historian Linda Grant De Pauw. Some spouses wanted each other's company regularly, despite the privations. Cosying up in the best space on ship was cheaper than maintaining an additional home on land. Historians of whaling wives argue that when these women sailed they were not necessarily choosing a 'feminist' or 'boyish' adventure. Rather it was often a case of 'whither thou goest I will go', dutifully and no matter what the hardship.

On very small ships wives got their chance to sail because they were useful. As auxiliary cooks and mates they supported the family business, when and how they could, particularly with informal nursing, laundering and bookkeeping. Unwaged and undervalued, their situation was similar to that of wives in family-owned corner shops who were incorporated into 'his work' for 'our survival'. Often they were seen only as assistants, or utilisable in crises, but in fact some were consistently doing non-peripheral tasks and sustained the entire family's economy.

Situations varied, especially by the late nineteenth century. But certainly on larger merchant ships of the mid-nineteenth century captains' wives offered emotional support to their stressed and socially isolated husbands. They negotiated a tricky path vis-à-vis agency (meaning their ability to act, to engage with the ship's social structure). Orcadian Elizabeth Young (later Linklater), sailing with her mother, Sarah, on the family's windjammer in the 1880s, observed:

Women on board a merchant vessel, other than passengers, were there on sufferance. They had no part in the working of the ship, and as far as he [Father] was concerned they were non-existent. It behoved them to keep their thoughts to themselves, and conceal their feelings, and show what interest they could assume in the welfare of Her Majesty the Ship.

Wives on these merchant 'her majesties' were far lesser queens. Only carefully and sometimes did they exert the limited authority which was conferred by their connection with the master. (On naval vessels wives' majesty was even less.) Sailing on merchant ships, the lonely 'aristocrats' in their antimacassar-and-harmonium-furnished floating parlours were usually only allowed to speak to higher-level crew. They were not integrated members of the hierarchical ship's company. Indeed, crew could resent master's wives who 'missioneered', although lonely boys sometimes quietly appreciated a bit of maternal coddling.

From the 1950s big shipping companies started allowing other wives to sail, as a way to retain skilled male workers such as engineers. By the early twenty-first century husbands of women officers, and same-sex partners too, could accompany them. Seagoing wives' stories appear only briefly in this book, which focuses on waged workers at sea, but their few accounts do illustrate what life was like for women on board.

The 'Boys' Aloft

If you weren't a master's wife then the best way to secure a job at sea was to crop your hair, don your brother's breeks, learn to chew baccy and sweet-talk the land girls. Women in the second category of seafarers, those pretending to be men or boys, were usually much more 'hands-on' than wives, not least because the usual position – cabin boy – was a role for minors who were expected to be Jacks of all (lowly) trades. Disguising yourself as a male was essential when ships were men-only; it got you the job and you were relatively safe from heterosexual attention. There were probably several hundred more cross-dressed women seafarers than the forty-nine listed in Appendix 3, but they remain unknown because they were never found out or because their stories didn't reach the newspapers and law courts.

Disguised as boys and men, these mould-breaking 'cabin boys' or 'lady sailors' are significant because they prove that manual seafaring tasks were not necessarily beyond women. The cabin boy's role was something of a cross between today's steward and a general-purpose rating (GPR). They did 'masculine' work on deck, including handling the sails and the hated task of cleaning out ship's pig sties as well as some relatively unskilled domestic work such as serving food. Their status varied. It's thought that some officers and older crew abused them pitiably as runts while others 'mothered' and protected them. Rowlandson's famous 1799 aquatint is the classic image of a cabin boy, clearly not a macho and empowered figure. Derring-do accounts of women-'boys' don't mention the distasteful tasks nor that some 'boys', like real boys, were targets of sexual bullying.

Female 'boys' began sailing well before 1750. And some women were still getting away with it in the late nineteenth century. Subterfuge like this was easier to pull off in the Merchant Service than in the more strictly controlled Royal Navy. Generally the popular reports about them are upbeat. Admiration for their daring was easy because they were exceptional, not a thorough challenge to a segregated career. Cabin 'boys' adapted a rolling gait; learned to swear, spit, sozzle and be lion-hearted stalwarts. In other words, they manned up, yet retained prized 'feminine' characteristics such as cleanliness and obedience.

Cunard steward Thomas (alias Mary Anne) Walker's 1860s story provides a bridge between the second category of seagoing women (those passing as 'boys') and the third category of openly female 'maids'; I'll call her 'Thomas' and 'he' because that became her own preferred identity.

Thomas could be seen as someone taking gap year after gap year. Like many such 'boys', he lived an uprooted life estranged from his family. For me, Thomas is the most real of the 'boys': he cleaned engines at London's King's Cross, a station that I use. He sang his autobiography to a tune still played on the radio, 'Champagne Charlie'. I walk past the Hackney building in which he sought rehab, the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for women prisoners seeking reformation; Thomas's successors seeking a post-jail haven now go to the Elizabeth Fry Probation Hostel in Reading.

Little is known about Thomas Walker's two years of stewarding on Cunarders. He would have been mainly crossing the Atlantic, taking emigrants to the US. Stewards were notorious chancers involved in opportunistic fleecing of 'bloods' (passengers). They worked ferociously hard and slept in over-intimate proximity in cramped dormitories. A balladier celebrated 'The She-He Barman of Southwark':

She Tom had been a sailor
Two years upon the main ...
Three years she doffed the petticoats
And put the trousers on ...
For years she plough'd the ocean
As steward of a ship,
She used to make the captain's bed,
Drink grog and make his flip.
She could go aloft so manfully,
This female sailor Jack,
But if she slept with a messmate,
Why, of course, she turned her back.

From others' reports it sounds as if Thomas might have, had the term then been in use, described himself as an intersex person, meaning someone then called an hermaphrodite. Certainly when he was in jail (for swindling his boss) all the warders assumed he was a man, not least because his fiancée Rosina visited him. The stories of Thomas give us clues about the other cross-dressed women on ships. They may well have been on every part of the gender spectrum, from heterosexual women who camouflaged simply to get a job usually barred to women, through transvestites loving the part-time masquerade, to people who deeply felt they were actually male and trapped in the wrong body. For all of them, being involved in itinerant and marginalised worlds such as seafaring or bar work was a way to live a less trammelled life and find communities where social norms were less rigorously imposed.

'Maids': 'Out' Women in Aprons

The third and main category of women seafarers are stewardesses, who like Thomas Walker did 'women's work', but were 'out' as women, looking like nurses or maids in their pinafores. Like pirate Mary Read, they were paid workers in their own right. They were the breakthrough women whom shipping lines employed precisely because it was thought seemly that female passengers were looked after by women. Although stewardesses were formally positioned as more subordinate than the captain's wife initially, they too tended to be married to a man on board, the steward. Such women were seen as 'assisting' their steward husbands rather than being the independent employees that they were by the 1830s. The earliest ones were somewhat like the disguised 'boys' in that they might occasionally have heaved the ropes in a gale. Everyone pulled together for the ship's safety.

A hundred years later stewardess Denise Meldrum was one of the many women doing such domestic and emotional labour (that subtle labour described by Arlie Russell Hochschild, where transport workers, particularly airline cabin crew, help to soothe travellers and assist them to manage a range of emotions). When we talked in her later life, Denise definitely did not see herself as being 'in service', like a lowly housemaid. Most of the interwar stewardesses I listened to were proud of their agency in a job as combined hostess, nurse and experienced guide for novice travellers. They frequently summed it up as 'We were there to look after the ladies', whom they saw as needy visitors rather than temporary bosses.

Equal Human Beings

In the 1970s, the fourth category of women seafarer began. These new seafarers achieved a breakthrough: they did deck and engine work even though they were known to be women. Women officers were so unusual that initially crew called them 'Sir' because they didn't know what else to call them (the correct address is 'Ma'am'). At the time such women seemed to herald a non-gendered future. However, for some traditional male seafarers such 'interlopers' on the ship's navigating bridge were an unbearable intrusion, even a disaster and traumatic revolution.


Excerpted from From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains by Jo Stanley. Copyright © 2016 Jo Stanley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Britain's Forgotten Women Seafarers,
2 Different Times, Different Possibilities,
3 From 'Boy' to Captain: Working on Deck,
4 From Sail-Shifter to Chief Engineer: Propelling the Ship,
5 From Steward's Wife to Chief Housekeeper: Doing the Domestic Tasks,
6 From Loblolly Boy to Surgeon: Caring for Health,
7 From Convict Matron to Cruise Director: Supporting the Passengers,
8 From Stenographer to Administration Director: Doing the Ship's Business Afloat,
9 From Candy Girl to Retail Expert: Working in Shops and Hairdressing Salons,
10 Women in Many Roles,
11 Conclusion: Progress and Prognosis,
Appendix 1 A Note on the Thinking Behind this Book,
Appendix 2 Chronology of Selected Landmarks in Women's Seafaring History,
Appendix 3 Women Seafarers Who Dressed as Men,
Appendix 4 Between Navies,
Appendix 5 Ships as 'She',
Further Reading,

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