Women at Sea (Show a Leg)

The story of women on board Royal Navy Ships at the time of Trafalgar



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Shipwrecks added since November 2014

SS Newholm
SS Ambassador
SS Mendi
SS Skaala
Privateer Dragon 1757
MV Napoli
MV Lucy
HMT Caroline
German Submarine U-260
SS Basil
Glenart Castle
SMS Margraf












There were women on board RN ships before and during the battle of Trafalgar. They ranged from the wives of Captains and Officers. One or two Captains were reprimanded for taking women on board but many were not.

The only ones technically allowed were the wives of the specialist warrant officers, such as the Carpenter, Gunner and Blacksmith. These men were not usually paid off at the end of the voyage but stayed with the ship, including times when in port.

Their rank was certified by an Admiralty warrant, and they stayed with a ship for its lifetime, even when it was not in service and so were allowed to have their wives and families with them on board the RN ship. They were given an area of eight square feet on the gun deck, which they were allowed to screen off with a canvas screen to call their home and to bring up their children. Their space, being on the gun deck, also included one of the cannons.

As women gave birth to children in this space, there is a sad but touching story of the wife of a gunner who had been killed in action, and unfortunately she died giving birth to a little girl. The crew looked after the child, mashing their food up to feed her. Also, the Captain had a goat on board so he could have milk to drink, which he gave up to nourish the little girl. It was some months before the ship got back to an English port were they handed her in to an orphanage. They sewed coins into her clothes, which the crew had given for her upkeep, and put a label on her dress with her name “Sally Trunnion”, as they had not got a surname for her. I think they used the surname “Trunnion” as it was the fact that when a woman gave birth to a child on a ship, she lay between the guns gripping the trunnions. Hence, this is where the term ‘’Son of a gun” comes from.

When a ship went into action, many of the women and children worked as powder monkeys carrying gun powder from the magazine to the gun deck, with other women working with the surgeon and comforting the wounded. Also there were other women illegally on board, to which most of the Captains turned a blind eye to. We also have accounts of women dressing as men or boys and going completely undetected by the Captain or crew.

One of the ways women on board could make some money was washing clothes for the crew but washing them in salt water was difficult and they would use water from the scuttle-butt [drinking water cask], to the annoyance of the Captains.

Admiral Jervis issued a memorandum on HMS Victory on 14July 1796 while at sea, to his Captains to apprehend any woman using drinking water for washing clothes on board RN ships and they would be shipped back to England on the first available ship.

The saying “Show a Leg’’ refers to the women who were sleeping in hammocks. When the men were woken for duty, the women would just show a leg so not to be turned out of the hammock.         



To be continued.















Neville Oldham

Also see Maritime Heritage Project Here