I always enjoy writing about lesser known female figures in history, so often their tales are incredible and inspiring and at this time of year I often think of Women and The Great War. These days ladies can not only serve in the British Army but fight on the front lines and as pioneering as some might think this to be, the truth is they were all beaten by a lady who was fighting in the army almost 300 years ago and that is just one of the incredible happenings in the life of the Phoebe Hessel.
She was born Phoebe Smith at Limehouse in the East-End of London in 1713 and was baptised at St Dunstan’s Church in Stepney on 13 April 1713.
How Phoebe ended up in the army is open to question with some sources mentioning that her father was a soldier who disguised his young daughter as a boy after the death of her mother and smuggled her into the British army where she became a fife and drum player.
Other accounts say that in 1728 at the age of only 15, Phoebe fell in love with a soldier called William Golding and subsequently enlisted in the Fifth Foot Regiment to remain with him when he was posted to the Carribean and Gibraltar. In 1745 she was wounded in the arm by a bayonet at the Battle of Fontenoy, but when Golding was wounded and invalided home too, Phoebe was said to have revealed her true sex to the commanding officer’s wife after which both she and Golding were honourably discharged. She was given no punishment, but had her salary paid out as any other soldier who was discharged from the army.
However there is also a report that Phoebe was sentenced to be lashed for some breach of discipline with its resultingly overly harsh punishment. Her sex was initially revealed when she was undressed to be whipped, upon which she only commented: “Strike and be damned!”
Either way, Phoebe and William Golding were married for about twenty years and after embarking on their new civilian life they lived in Plymouth where they had nine children. Sadly eight of them died in childhood and even their remaining surviving son died later at sea.
After William Golding’s death Phoebe settled in Brighton and married fisherman Thomas Hessel. He died when she was aged 80. After his death, she was given three guineas from the parish, so Phoebe bought a donkey and hawked fish and other goods in nearby villages to make a living.
After overhearing a conversation in a Shoreham inn one day, she provided key evidence resulting in the conviction and execution at Goldstone Bottom of one Mr James Rooke for robbery. Highwayman Rook and Howell his accomplice stole a horse and robbed the post boy of half a guinea. Horse stealing and robbing the mail were both capital offences, so the two were hanged at Horsham where their execution was watched by 1400 spectators. Their corpses were tarred and placed in a gibbet that hung at Hangleton bottom. Rook’s mother, was said to have waited beneath the gibbet for her son’s bones to drop and then collected them in her apron so she could bury him piece by piece. Nearly 100 years later, Alfred Lord Tennyson found this story so moving, that he wrote the poem ‘Rispah’ to tell the world about it.
In about 1800, when she was eighty-seven years old, Phoebe was selling ginger-bread, oranges and apples at the corner of Old Steine and Marine Parade near the Brighton Pavilion. Clad in a brown serge dress, with a spotless white apron and a hooded black cloak, her only concession to her increasingly great age was a stout oak walking stick. She became very well known in Brighton, due to her great age and unusual experiences but not long after this she was taken into the workhouse.
She discharged herself from the workhouse in August 1806 and in 1808 was granted a pension of a half guinea per week by the Prince of Wales. One wonders if he would have done so if he knew how she was to live to a great age! As the oldest inhabitant in the town she was entitled to sit beside the vicar at a Napoleonic celebration dinner on the 12th August 1814, and, although now blind, she also attended the town’s coronation celebrations on 19th July 1821.
Phoebe Hessel died on 12th December 1821 at the grand age of 108 and a local pawnbroker Hyam Lewis paid for the large gravestone to be placed in her honour.
Research has often revealed conflicting evidence with Phoebe’s story; and it was only later in her life that she recalled all her military exploits. It has been suggested by sceptics that the army tale was merely a good story designed to encourage listeners to open their purses to her and help her stave off poverty
However, the Northumberland Fusiliers, successors to Phoebe’s alleged regiment, certainly believe the story to be true as they restored her grave at the Church of St. Nicholas, Brighton in the 1970s.
Her gravestone reads: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.
If you go to Stepney, not very far from Whitechapel in the East-End of London, Amazon Street and Hessel Street still exist today in Stepney in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and were named in her honour. Phoebe is also immortalised on one of the buses in Brighton which are all named after famous residents.
If you enjoyed this, you might like to read about the The story of the first Black Man in the British Army