Sandi Toksvig on Hannah Snell

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  • Hannah followed in this line of showbiz sensations dressed as a marine and singing specially written ballads that Rosoman later sold as souvenirs in the bar: ‘All ye noble British Spirits/That midst danger’s glory sought/Let it lessen not your merit/That a woman bravely fought.’In November 1750 the Royal Chelsea Hospital officially recognised her military service and granted her a lifetime pension. Here the trail becomes a little tricky. We know that Hannah lived on for another 40 years, married twice and had two sons. It also seems to be commonly accepted that she had her own pub in Wapping called The Female Warrior which sported a sign displaying a portrait of her in regimental dress on one side and marine uniform on the other, with the inscription ‘The Widow in Masquerade’.

    Today there are 40 pubs in Wapping and so far I cannot find any trace of this rather unique hostelry.We follow Hannah to Church Street in Stoke Newington, where she went to live with her son George. This seems appropriate, as in the eighteenth century the village was very much the home of the non-conformists. Church Street was once a place of incredibly grand brick houses of which No 171 remains a great example. George became a lawyer but whether they lived in grandeur on Church Street is hard to say. We do know that in 1789 Hannah’s fame continued to rebound because George sold a portrait of her to raise money for his expanding family.

    The end of the story is rather sad. On August 20 1791, when Hannah was 68, George admitted her to Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth – the notorious Bedlam for the mentally disturbed – and on February 8 the following year she passed away. Yet even here Hannah continues to take the modern Londoner on a splendid journey. The main portion of the old hospital now forms the Imperial War Museum, and I think of Hannah and her soldierly exploits as I walk the halls. It is said that her last request was to be buried at the Royal Chelsea Hospital where old military men see out their days. Tradition credits the founding of this glorious Christopher Wren building to Nell Gwynne, a woman not unfamiliar with the stage. I believe Hannah shares the honour of a Chelsea resting-place with just one other woman: Christian ‘Kit’ Cavanagh, or ‘Mother Ross’, who served as a dragoon in the 1690s. But that’s another story…

    Sandi Toksvig’s new novel ‘Melted into Air’ is published by Little, Brown at £17.99.


    The bare facts

    Hannah Snell

    1723 Born in Worcester on April 23.
    1740 Moves to London.
    1744 Marries James Summs.
    1746 Gives birth to daughter, Samantha, who dies a year later.
    1747 Summ deserts her. She borrows male clothes from her brother-in-law and sets off to find him. Joins Royal Marines.
    1748 Her unit is sent to capture the French colony of Pondicherry in India.
    1749 Sustains 11 wounds to legs and one to groin, which she manages to treat without revealing her gender.
    1750 Leaves army, sells story to publisher Robert Walker. ‘The Female Soldier’ appears in two different editions. She appears on London stage singing and conducting military drills.
    1759 Having moved to Newbury, Berkshire, she marries and has two children.
    1772 Marries Richard Habgood.1785 Moves in with her son, George.
    1792 Dies in Bethlem Hospital.

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