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
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
To be continued.