Something a bit left field for Ada Lovelace Day this year as the woman I’ve chosen to write about was born 75 years before Ada herself, and I’m perhaps stretching the definition of “technology” a bit. Allow me to introduce Mary Lacy, the female shipwright, whose contemporary autobiography written in 1773 has recently been republished by the National Maritime Museum. Lacy is an astonishing woman by any standards. In her introduction to the autobiography Margaret Lincoln of the NMM writes:
“In an age when women did not serve in the armed forces or train to become qualified shipwrights or set themselves up as speculative house builders, Lacy did all three.”
And what is even more remarkable is that she did it all independently while disguised as a man.
Lacy was born into a poor working class family in Kent in 1740. She grew up as a self confessed wayward child and was put into service by her parents in an attempt to curb her unruly behavior. At the age of nineteen, following an unhappy affair with a young man, she appropriated a suit of her father’s clothes, assumed the name William Chandler and ran away from home. On arriving penniless and hungry at Chatham Dockyard she joined the crew of the newly built HMS Sandwich, a 90 gun second-rate ship of the line. Lacy knew nothing of ships, and much to the amusement of the other men mistook the open gun ports for a large number of windows. Chandler was taken on as apprentice and servant to the ship’s carpenter, a volatile man who beat her and appropriated her wages. Lacy however didn’t hesitate to stand up for herself and when challenged took on one of the Admiral’s boys in a fight. She records that she came off with “flying colours” and that she and the boy “reconciled to each other as if we had been brothers”.
Lacy served aboard the Sandwich and later the Royal Sovereign from 1759 to around 1764, enduring the extraordinary hardships of life as a rating during the Seven Years War. During this time the Sandwich was stationed on blockade with Admiral Hawke’s fleet off Brest. The ship was returning from blockade duty when the French fleet broke from Brest resulting in the Battle of Quiberon Bay. Lacy writes of the engagement but adds that “…our ship had no share in the battle for we were at the time in Plymouth.”
Following the Quiberon engagement the Sandwich was ordered to the Bay of Biscay where Lacy notes:
“I must here observe, that a person who is a stranger to these great and boisterous seas, must think it impossible for a large ship to ride in them, but I slept many months on the ocean, where I have been tossed up and down at an amazing rate.”
Lacy experienced even more boisterous seas during a terrible two day hurricane which struck the English Channel in 1760. The Sandwich survived with seven men downed and sprung main and foremasts. However their sister ship Ramillies foundered with the loss of 675 men and only 25 survivors.
Life at sea soon took its toll on Lacy and by her early twenties the continual cold and wet brought on inflammatory rheumatism, a recurring condition that hospitalised Lacy several times.
In 1764 Lacy finally secured an apprenticeship as a shipwright at Portsmouth dockyard. Her trials were not over however. She appears to have been apprenticed to a series of irresponsible masters who once again appropriated her wages and neglected to provide her with the bare necessities.
“It may with very great truth be said that Mr A____’s house entertained a very bad set of people. I had not been long with him before he turned me over to another man to pay his debts; and when I worked that out, was again turned over to a third: so that shifted from one to the another I had neither clothes on my back nor shoes or stockings to my feet; notwithstanding which, I was frequently (even in the dead of winter) obliged to go the the dock-yard bare-footed.”
Lacy’s life was not without entertainment however. She had a veritable string of sweethearts of whom she writes candidly and unashamedly. She even notes with some pride that:
“As I was frequently walking out with some of them, the men of the yard concluded that I was a very amorous spark when in the company of young women.”
And indeed she was!
Lacy achieved her certificate as shipwright after seven years apprenticeship in 1770 enabling her to earn an independent wage. In 1771 however Portsmouth dockyard was ravaged by a terrible fire, as a result of which the shipwrights had to work “double tides”. The long hours and hard labour aggravated Lacy’s rheumatism to the point she could no longer work and was forced to seek retirement as a Superannuated Shipwright.
It seems inconceivable now that a woman could serve undetected in the close confines of a man-of-war for such a long period, however the Royal Navy was desperate for able bodied men at the time, whether willing to serve or no, so few questions would have been asked. In a chapter on Lacy, Suzanne Stark author of Female Tars also notes that, living in such close confines, ratings were accustomed to turn a blind eye on all kinds of goings on. When Lacy’s sex was eventually revealed by a female “false friend” her male colleagues are unperturbed and continue to treat her as the shipwright they know. It is also notable that when rheumatism finally made it impossible for Lacy to continue working at the dockyard she applied to the Admiralty for a pension under her own name. The application was granted and Lacy was paid a substantial pension of £20 per annum.
Lacy’s biography concludes with her marriage to one “Mr Slade” however historians have cast doubt on this event. Stark suggests that the marriage is a fiction to make Lacy appear more respectable to contemporary readers. Lincoln has found no record of Lacy’s alleged marriage however she has traced
“Mary Slade of King Street, Deptford, who we can take to have been Mary Lacy, moved into a new double fronted house in Deptford with Elizabeth Slade in 1777. This house was at the centre of a terrace which she built herself….The terrace survives in part at Nos 104 -108 and 116-118 Deptford High Street…It seems likely that she used her pension of £20 p.a. as security for a mortgage…She lived for another twenty years…after her death “Mary Slade” was described as a “spinster and shopkeeper”….it seems probable that Lacy took Elizabeth Slade’s surname to pass as her sister.”
A remarkable end for a remarkable woman.
Lacy wrote and published her biography at the age of 33 and her account of her life is inspirational, candid and refreshing. While she shows contrition for her youthful waywardness and acknowledges that she would have spared herself a life of hardship had she listened to her parents, she is unapologetic about the life she lived and path she chose. I believe Mary Lacy is easily worthy of commemoration on Ada Lovelace Day and who knows, perhaps Ada even read her biography herself!
Lacy, M., (2009), The Female Shipwright, National Maritime Museum.
Stark, S. J., (1996), Female Tars: women aboard ship in the age of sail, Constable.
And a podcast by Margaret Lincoln of the National Maritime Museum celebrating the republication of Lacy’s biography: The Story of Mary Lacy.