The wives and female guests of commissioned officers often went to sea in the sailing ships of the British Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were other women on board as well, rarely mentioned in print. Suzanne Stark has written the story of the women who lived on the lower decks. She thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes to live with the crews of warships in port. She provides some judicious answers to questions about what led so many women to such an appalling fate and why the Royal Navy unofficially condoned the practice. She also offers some revealing firsthand accounts of the wives of warrant officers and semen who spent years at sea living-and fighting-beside their men without pay or even food rations, and of the women in male disguise who actually served as seamen or marines. These women's stories have long intrigued the public as the popularity of the often richly embellished accounts of their exploits has proved. Stark disentangles fact from myth and offers some well-founded explanations for such perplexing phenomena as the willingness of women to join the navy when most of the men had to be forced on board by press gangs.
Now available in paperback, this lively history draws on primary sources and so gives an authentic view of life on board the ships of Britain's old sailing navy and the social context of the period that served to limit roles open to lower-class women. The final chapter is devoted to the autobiography of one redoubtable seagoing woman: Mary Lacy, who served as a seaman in shipwright in the Royal Navy for twelve years.
Suzanne J. Stark (1926-2015) was an artist, teacher, editor and freelance writer.