Hannah Snell, the Female Soldier: A Tale of Two Voices

28 April 2020

Relatively little is known about Hannah Snell; the only reason we know anything at all about her is down to the stories she told about her time as a soldier – most notably to Robert Walker, a London publisher, who published her account, The Female Soldier – or, to use its full title:

The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell, Born in the City of Worcester, Who took upon herself the Name of James Gray; and, being deserted by her Husband, put on Mens Apparel, and travelled to Coventry in quest of him, where she enlisted in Col. Guise’s Regiment of Foot, and marched with that Regiment to Carlisle, in the Time of the Rebellion in Scotland; shewing what happened to her in that City, and her Desertion from that Regiment.

A Full and True Account of her enlisting afterwards into Fraser’s Regiment of Marines, then at Portsmouth; and her being draughted out of that Regiment, and sent on board the Swallow Sloop of War, on of Admiral Boscawen’s Squadron, then bound for the East-Indies. With the many Vicissitudes of Fortune she met with during that Expedition, particularly at the Siege of Pondicherry, where she received Twelve Wounds. Likewise, the surprising Accident by which she came to hear of the Death of her faithless Husband, whom she went in quest of.

The Whole Containing
The most surprising Incidents that have happened in any preceeding Age; wherein is laid open all her Adventures, in Mens Cloaths, for near five Years, without her Sex being ever discovered.

We know that Snell was born in 1723. In 1744, four years after she moved to London, she married James Summs, a Dutch seaman. She soon became pregnant, and Summs abandoned her. Susannah, their daughter, died a year after she was born.

Snell borrowed a suit from her brother-in-law, James Gray, and signed up as a soldier, using his name, so that she could search for her husband. She joined John Guise’s regiment in the army of the Duke of Cumberland. She came under the Sergeant’s lash, and deserted, moving to Portsmouth. There, she boarded the Swallow and sailed to Lisbon, and on to India.

There, she was sent to capture the French colony of Pondicherry. She fought in various battles, and sustained injury to her legs eleven times. She was also shot in the groin, and to avoid having to reveal her sex, she enlisted the help of a local woman to take out the bullet, rather than going to the regimental surgeon. In 1750, she returned to London.

It is then that she sold her story to the London publisher Robert Walker, who published the tale. Modern editions have attributed the authorship to Walker, but since the original text was printed with the message, ‘AS this Treatise was done in a Hurry from Hannah Snell’s own Mouth, and directly committed to the Press, occasioned by the Impatience of the Town to have it published, it is not doubted but that such Part of it as appears somewhat incorrect, will be candidly overlook’d, that, being made up in the Veracity and Fulness of her surprising Adventures; the like not to be met with in the Records of Time,’ it seems clear that Walker’s role was more that of a ghost-writer – so it seems safe to assume that the text is a tale of one voice, after all.