Phoebe Hessel (1713 – 1821): A Brighton woman on the Front Line

Yesterday it was announced that women in the British Army could be serving in combat roles by 2016. British women have, of course, already fought as Front Line soldiers. A newsreader quoted the example of Queen Boudicca, but there have been women soldiers more recently. Edith Clayton’s Female Warriors (1879) is a remarkable catalogue, and Brightonians know one of her women soldiers very well in Phoebe Hessel.

Phoebe is buried in St Nicholas’s churchyard, a sort of Elysian Fields of Brighton, high on a hill above the town. It is an illustrious company: Martha Gunn, the Prince of Wales’s bather, is buried there; Anna Maria Crouch the actress; the architect Amon Wilds; Captain Nicholas Tettersell who skippered the boat that took King Charles II to safety after the Battle of Worcester; but Phoebe’s story trumps them all.

Phoebe_Hessel's_Gravestone

Photo (c) wikipedia.

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 the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Fontenoy where she received a Bayonet wound in her Arm. Her long life which commenced in the time of Queen Anne extended to the reign of George IV by whose munificence she received and support in her latter years. Died at Brighton where she had long resided, 12 December, 1821. Aged 108 years.

Phoebe Smith of Stepney is said to have fallen in love with William Golding, a soldier in the 5th Foot, and gone with him when his regiment was posted to the West Indies in 1728. There she enlisted in disguise as a man, and fought alongside him until they were both wounded fighting the French at Fontenoy. Phoebe’s true identity was discovered when she was treated, and the couple were honourably discharged.

Linda Grant de Pauw tells a slightly different story in Battlecries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present (University of Oklahoma 1998). She believes that Phoebe’s service may have extended to the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, and includes the story – on the evidence of a sergeant of the 13th Light Dragoons – that Phoebe was sentenced to the lash for some breach of discipline. Her sex was revealed when she took off her shirt, but she just said, ‘Strike, and be damned!’

Phoebe and William Golding were married in Plymouth by about 1749 and lived there for the next twenty years, so she may not have fought at Bunker Hill. The flogging story may or may not be true. It feels like a stock element of the woman-soldier-in-disguise story that was so popular in Georgian plays and ballads but, as evidence shows, these ballads were based on fact. Phoebe’s contemporary Hannah Snell (1723 – 1795) told a similar story about herself. Hannah also joined the army to follow a man, but in her case it was chasing down a husband who’d deserted her. She enlisted as James Gray, and served against the Jacobites in Scotland with the General Guise’s Regiment. After her flogging she travelled South to Portsmouth where she joined the Marines and sailed with Admiral Boscawen to India, and was wounded against the French at Pondicherry.

NPG D9172; Hannah Snell by John Faber Jr, after  Richard Phelps

Hannah Snell. John Faber engraving after Richard Phelps 1750 (c) National Portrait Gallery

After she was discharged Hannah earned her living performing the story of her time in the Army. It has been suggested that the more sensational details – the 500 lashes recounted in the inscription of Faber’s engraving, and the 12 shot she received, eleven in her legs and one in her groin – might be exaggerations. Perhaps. To be treated for those wounds and still undiscovered would be remarkable. But flogging and wounds were a soldier’s lot and the bones of her extraordinary story must be true. Her pension of £30 from the Duke of Cumberland was genuine, and she was recognised as a veteran by the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. Sadly Hannah suffered from mental illness by the end of her life and died in Bedlam.

Phoebe was more fortunate, though of the nine children that she and William Golding had, eight died in infancy and her only surviving son died at sea. After William died in 1769 she came to Brighton, when it was still a fishing village nestled in the Laines, and married a fisherman Thomas Hessel. When he died in 1780 she bought a donkey and supported herself by selling fish and vegetables around the town. At this time she overhear the highwayman James Rooke admitting his part in a recent mail robbery, and she appeared as star witness for the prosection, leading to the hanging of Rooke and his accomplice Howell, which was watched by 1400 spectators.

By now 87 years old Phoebe was a famous local character, selling gingerbread and oranges on the corner of Old Steine and Marine Parade, and telling stories of her life in the Army. The Prince of Wales had met her and was impressed by her, so when she fell on hard times – she was briefly committed to the workhouse in 1807 before swiftly discharging herself – he gave her a pension of half a guinea a week in 1808. She was invited to the celebrations for King George’s Coronation on July 19th 1821, and as Brighton’s oldest resident, was guest of honour at the Town Banquet. When she died on December 12th that year a local pawnbroker Hyam Lewis paid for the large gravestone, which is still a focal point of the churchyard. The Northumberland Fusiliers, successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot had her grave restored in the 1970s, and most years a poppy is left on her grave on Remembrance Sunday.

807phoebehessel

Phoebe Hessel c.1820, engraving after an unknown artist, image from Women of Brighton.

Phoebe is also immortalised on Brighton’s buses, which are named after famous Brigthonians, and eminent people who have visited the town – from King Charles II, the Prince Regent (who gets another bus as King George IV) and Dr Johnson to Ben Sherman, Anita Roddick and – one of the most recent – Henry Allingham the centenarian First World War veteran. It’s a rather fabulous way to be remembered.

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