Sandi Toksvig on Hannah Snell

Born in 1958 in Copenhagen, Sandi Toksvig is a comedian, TV and radio presenter, and the author of almost 20 books, including the children‘s novel ’Hitler‘s Canary‘ and travel memoir ’Gladys Reunited‘. She will replace Simon Hoggart as chair of Radio 4‘s ’The News Quiz‘ in September.

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    'Hannah Snell: The Secret Life of a Female Marine, 1723-1792' By Matthew Stephens. Published by Ship Street Press

    I’ve been wandering the streets of Wapping looking for a woman. It’s a historic thing to do. That old rogue Samuel Pepys often popped down to London’s oldest riverside tavern, the Prospect of Whitby, to look for a lass himself. Now before you think that I’ve taken on a new and possibly risqué method of finding friends, the woman I seek is long dead, but she did once have a pub of her own in the area. Indeed, it is said that it was in a London pub on June 2 1750 that the extraordinary story of Hannah Snell first came to the public’s attention. A group of soldiers back from the front were having a drink when a lad, known as ‘Hearty Jimmy’, announced that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’.

    Following Hannah Snell’s life around London opens the doors on a splendid little window of the capital’s eighteenth-century history. She was born in Worcester but came to London when she was 21 where she promptly married and fell pregnant to a wrong-un called James Summs. Summs pushed off and the baby died, but Hannah was not to be abandoned. Legend has it that she borrowed a suit from her brother-in-law, James Gray, in order to pursue the reluctant spouse. A victim of her own success, she soon found herself press-ganged into service as a royal marine in General Guise’s Regiment of Foot. Here the story becomes a bit Boy’s Own as she sails to India, braves great storms, is injured in battle and generally has four-and-a-half years of rufty-tufty life.

    It is on her return to London that we begin to be able to follow in her footsteps. Apparently amused by her revelation, her fellow soldiers encouraged her to claim a pension from the then head of the English army, the Duke of Cumberland. She did this, but she didn’t do it quietly. On June 16 1750 the Duke was reviewing troops in St James’s Park when he was confronted by this curious figure making her petition. It didn’t take long for the press to get wind of it, and before many months Hannah was a sensation on the London stage.

    This next incarnation of her life takes us to Rosoman Street in Clerkenwell. It is hard to imagine now that this area in the eighteenth century was a spa. The street takes its name from Thomas Rosoman, the founder of Sadler’s Wells, and a man who brought entertainment to the area. The New Wells Theatre was built here in 1737 and at one time you might have seen Mr Rosoman himself in pantomime, as well as Mr Dominque, who could jump over the heads of 24 men with drawn swords followed by Madame Kerman dancing on stilts on a tightrope.

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