The Amazon of Stepney and Brighton

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Here I am braving the snow in London last weekend on the trail of Brighton heroine Phoebe Hessel.  I was actually meant to be on the trail of the ‘Troxy’ where I was going to see Belle and Sebastian in a few short hours.  But then I stumbled upon Hessel Street in the back streets of Whitechapel, bells rung, and my weekend turned into a women’s history pilgrimage.

Phoebe Hessel’s story is neatly encapsulated on her gravestone standing in Brighton’s St Nicholas Churchyard: ‘In Memory of Phoebe Hessel, who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713.  She served for many Years as a private Soldier in the 5th Regt. of foot in different parts of Europe and in the Year 1745 fought under the command of tbe DUKE of CUMBERLAND at the Battle of Fontenoy where she received a Bayonet wound in the arm

The gravestone goes on to recount that Phoebe’s life, ‘commenced in the time of Queen Anne’, extended to the reign of George IV.  That means she saw the reigns of no less than five British monarchs, and lived to the age of 108.

If living to this age isn’t impressive enough the really flabbergasting words on that gravestone are ‘soldier’, ‘served for many years’, and ‘fought’.

According to the National Army Museum’s helpful ‘Timeline of Women in the Army’  https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/timeline-women-army ‘women have been a formal part of the army for 100 years’.  But it’s only since 2016 that they’ve ‘been able to serve in ground combat roles alongside male colleagues’.  This gives Phoebe, who served enough in ground combat roles to sustain a bayonet wound, and was understood to have embarked upon her military career aged 15, a full 288 year start!   Of course Phoebe knew that, so simply got round the problem by disguising herself as a man – a ruse she was able to pull off for 17 years, until that unfortunate bayonet wound meant she was forced to reveal a little more of her body than usual, probably giving the army surgeon something of a shock.  Another version of her story has her revealing her situation to the colonel’s wife.  Yet another version (because the story of a woman soldier who fought amongst men was so incredible it’s picked up a lot of mythology along the centuries) has her committing an offence and needing to undress to be whipped, whereupon, her body finally bared, she cried ‘strike and be damned!’  However it happened, when it was revealed that, although playing a full combative role alongside the men in the various battles and skirmishes around Gibraltar and the Caribbean, Phoebe was a member of the ‘weaker sex’, there was no option but to discharge her.  The fact that she was dismissed unpunished on full pay, though, sounds as if they were reluctant to see her go.

Stories abound as to why Phoebe made the choice, aged 15, to pull on a pair of breeches and commit herself to the dangerous, brutal and perhaps short life of a soldier.  Some sources say she fell in love with a soldier, Samuel Golding, and wanted to accompany him when he was called away to his regiment.  A less romantic explanation has her being taken along by her soldier-father when her mother died and there was no one to look after her.  Possibly, poverty played a role.  After all, the options available to a woman born in 1713 without wealth weren’t extensive.  With neither education, a career, nor a decent marriage being on the table, how long could many women hold out before having to face the choice between begging bowl or brothel?

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(Above: St Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, where Phoebe was baptised ‘Phoebe Smith’ on 13th April, 1713, almost 305 years ago to the day).

After her discharge from the army Phoebe lived in Plymouth with her husband, one Samuel Golding.  They had nine children, all of whom died.  Moving to Brighton to marry a fisherman by the name of Thomas Hessel, Phoebe was widowed a second time.  Now aged 80, scraping a living selling fish and trinkets around town, the shadow of the workhouse lurking, Phoebe must have looked back wistfully on her days in the army.  The website eastlondonhistory.com has her ‘Clad in a brown serge dress, with a spotless white apron and a hooded black cloak, her only concession to her increasingly great age […] a stout oak walking stick‘.  But after the life Phoebe had lived, the wars she’d – literally – fought, the loss of two husbands and nine children, I don’t imagine her as slipping easily into the role of timid old lady.  Somehow, George, Prince of Wales (the later Prince Regent and George IV) in Brighton often to visit his Marine – and later ‘Royal’ Pavilion, got to know the story of the old woman pedlar who told tales of fooling the army and living the rough and tumble of military life.  Always happy to be distracted with a good story, the Prince decided to pay the formidable Phoebe a pension of half a guinea a week from 1808, thus saving her from penury.   (I wonder if he’d have made this decision if he’d known she was going to live to 108?)

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Above: Pictures of Phoebe are hard to come by.  I found this tiny one in Hove Museum, possibly from a book about old Brighton characters.)

In fact, Phoebe has a second reason for going down in Brighton folklore.  One evening, the story goes, there she was in the Old Red Lion (a pub that still exists) in nearby Shoreham-by-Sea and overheard a conversation that revealed one of the participants to be none other than Samuel Rooke, a notorious highwayman who’d been terrorising the roads around Brighton for many years.  Phoebe’s testimony lead to the capturing of Rooke and his accomplice and their subsequent hanging in Hangleton Bottom.  A grisly end to Rooke but a relief to the people of Brighton and another reason for the town to hold this amazing woman to their hearts.  No wonder, she was invited to attend the town’s celebrations of the coronation of King George IV in 1820 at the grand old age of 107.

Phoebe’s story is so fantastic that these days we could be forgiven for wondering exactly how much of it’s true.  Were her tales of derring-do just the fabrications of a good saleswoman who wanted to lure more customers?  Did she really live to the age of 108?  How did she manage to have a military career for 17 years without anyone noticing she was a woman?

Well, the Northumberland Fusiliers, successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot, obviously saw enough truth in her story to restore her grave in St Nicholas Churchyard in the 1970s.   As did London Borough of Tower Hamlets, who commemorated their famous daughter with not one but two streets in her honour.

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(Above: Amazon Street at the end of Hessel Street in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, London.  Phoebe Hessel was also known as ‘the Amazon of Stepney’).

Me, I think if only half of Phoebe’s story is true, then it’s incredible enough to make her a true Brighton heroine.

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A great article to read about Phoebe Hessel is here:  http://eastlondonhistory.com/2010/11/18/phoebe-hessel-amazon-of-stepney/

Phoebe was far from being alone in dressing as a man to have a military career.  The lives of Hannah Snell (http://www.hannahsnell.com/) and Dr James Barry,  who made a  double pronged attack on professional bastions excluded to women by qualifying as a doctor as well as being a soldier. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barry_%28surgeon%29)

I will be talking about Phoebe Hessel throughout May on my Notorious Women of Brighton walking tours that start near her grave in St Nicholas Churchyard, Brighton.  See Talks/Walks section for details.

 

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Sisterhood in the Stone Age

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What was life like for our grandmothers one and a half million years ago?  How did they cope with (ahem, cough, cough) ‘women’s things’ in the days before Always With Wings and TV adverts made us believe that menstruating women suddenly turned into  rollerskaters and white jeans wearing disco dancers?  It wasn’t until I was asked at the last minute to prepare a talk on the subject of menstruation in the Stone Age recently that I thought I’d better do some reading around it…   The event, called ‘Women. Period’, held at Hove’s Regency  Town House, promised to reveal how our foremothers dealt with ‘the curse’.   It looked at attitudes towards (and some of the names given to)  Aunty Flo’s Monthly Visitor around the world, as well as showing a fascinating animated instructional film aimed at young women produced by Walt Disney in 1946, ‘The Story of Menstruation’.   Other delights included a look at some…. well, interesting gadgetry our Victorian sisters would have to struggle with during her ‘Lady Time’.   Harnesses?  Rubber straps?   It’s a good job rollerskates hadn’t been invented.  As, just the previous week, I’d seen a young woman in a shop visibly cringe while buying a box of Tampax  and wondered for the millionth time why, in the twenty-first century, while taboos drop like flies around sex and other bodily functions that used to raise a blush, periods should still be such an embarrassment, this fun and interesting event wasn’t before time.    Incidentally, since the event I’ve come across a fascinating article in the Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/menstruation-study-finds-over-5000-slang-terms-for-period-a6905021.html) , looking at some of the amazing euphemisms for the time-of-the-month from around the world.  Tops for me had to be ‘Der Er Kommunister I Lysthuset’ (‘There are communists in the fun house’ – Thank you, Denmark) and, oddly, from France, ‘Les Anglais ont debarqué’ (The English have landed’)

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Then there was me, an absolute Stone Age novice, trying to surmise how things went 2.5 million years ago.  I have to say a big thank you to my colleague at Brighton Museum, Su Hepburn, the original guest for the evening, who handed me her notes on this.  Su found out that the main difference between Stone Age women and us is that they menstruated far less.   Today’s modern, industrialised woman can expect a total of 450 periods in her life compared to perhaps 50 for our Stone Age ancestors.  One of the reasons was that girls started to menstruate much later.  It’s thought that menarche occurred at the average age of 16 rather than 12 today.  Women also gave birth earlier (at 19 rather than today’s early to mid 20s) and had more children (up to about 6 live births per mother).  Also, it’s believed that breastfeeding would continue until the child reached 5 (in comparison, the last NHS Infant Feeding Survey revealed only 1% of babies were being breastfed in this country after 6 months).  Of course, we can’t be completely accurate with facts and figures when we’re talking about people’s lives in 10,000 BCE, and the term ‘Stone Age’ covers over 3 million years during which time people progressed – in this country, at least – from being wholly nomadic to having the opportunity to live in relatively settled and more hierarchically organised communities, enjoying a more varied diet.  It’s generally thought, however, that our ancestors would have had less body fat and could have been deficient in things that keep us healthy today.

What’s certain, though, is that women’s lives were busy and often brutal.  Not only was there the average 6 children to think about, the relentless breastfeeding, and, with a typical life expectancy of 40, not so many grandmother figures around to help with childcare, their lives also consisted, according to Rosalind Miles in the ‘The Women’s History of the World’ (1989), of food gathering, hunting smaller prey, instructing children, making garments, cooking, tool making, possibly weaving grasses and other materials to make containers to store and carry food, erecting and pulling down living quarters as they moved to follow harvests and food sources.  Although the term ‘hunter-gatherer society’ puts the emphasis on the hunting part of the equation as the most important and difficult contribution made by men, the ‘gathering’, far from the passive picking at berries and leaves it connotes, required enormous skill and great knowledge of what was edible and what to do with it.  Ensuring that food was provided for the family every day, not just on the days when animals had been successfully hunted, required climbing trees, digging, grinding, travelling long distances and carrying things back.  And it’s thought that women did their share of hunting too, either in their own right or alongside the men.

So, although it probably didn’t come round on a monthly basis, how did our grandmothers manage all this while they were menstruating?  Grasses, animal skins, moss, leaves?  Practicality-wise, they must have come up with something that allowed them to roam long distances, climb trees, and do everything else necessary for survival.  Anthropologists from more recent times have observed hunter gatherer people easily fashioning slings and bags to transport children and foodstuffs.  Who’s to say our fore mothers didn’t come up with an early type of sanitary belt, of the type women who went to school in the ’70s and ’80s remember being shown in the sex education lessons as an alternative to the new-fangled adhesive pads?   (In my class two girls actually fainted at the sight of the elastic trusses we’d just been told we’d soon be wearing for most of our adult lives.  They saved the concept of tampons for another lesson completely)  For readers born later, this early Kotex advert shows what I’m talking about…

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These women would have had to figure out a way of transporting their babies as they worked, so why not use the same technology?  As Rosalind Miles says ‘it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the women capable of bringing the infant human race forward into the future could also have found the way to deal efficiently with their own bodies’.

A clue to how women may have been seen at this time could come from the many so-called ‘Venus’ statues dating from the period found by archaeologists in Europe.  These figures, as shown in the image at the top of this post, appear to be representations of women.  Around 150 of them have been found, mainly around areas thought to have been occupied by Stone Age settlements, both open-air sites and in caves.  They’re usually small – the most famous one, found in Willendorf, Austria in 1905 (below), and dating from 25,000 BCE, is only four and a half inches tall.  Most are lozenge shaped and have scant facial features, yet large breasts, big bellies, and sometimes prominently displayed genitals.

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Many suggest that they could have been painted red originally.   As obesity wasn’t commonplace at the time, it’s been suggested that the full bellied figures represent pregnancy with the red colour perhaps symbolic of menstrual blood or childbirth.   Their purpose is unknown.  Maybe they were made as an appeal to, or celebration of, fertility.  Maybe they symbolised abundance and hope for longevity, survival, and success.  The statues suggest, however, that the people investing time and resources to their creation understood and had awe and respect for this side of womanhood.  Or could they have been made by women themselves?  In the days before mirrors, the statues could have been a good attempt at self depiction.  Women readers, the next time you’re naked, look down at your body and you’ll recognise the sloping of the breasts and the tummy, as well as the lozenge shape as your body tapers to your feet.  Could they even be some of the first examples of women’s art?

More information about these figurines can be found here: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/venus-of-willendorf.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurines, http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/play/3d-models/venus/

Here in Brighton we have one of Britain’s earliest Stone Age monuments in the Whitehawk Camp, dating from 5,500 years ago (predating Stonehenge by 1000 years).  There’s lots of information on the Brighton and Hove City Council website here:  http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/leisure-and-libraries/parks-and-green-spaces/whitehawk-camp

And here’s a link to the 10 minute film ‘The Story of Menstruation’ produced in 1946 by Walt Disney.  It was commissioned by the International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberley-Clark).  It was part of a 1945 to 1951 series of films that Disney produced for American schools.  Inducted last year into the American National Film Registry due to its cultural importance, it’s believed to be (according to Wikipedia) the first film to mention the word ‘vagina’, and, as part of its advice, urged women not to shower in water that was too cold or too hot and to ‘avoid constipation and depression, and to always keep up a fine outward appearance.’