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Mary Anne Talbot masqueraded as the cabin boy John Taylor

Posted in Historical articles, History, Oddities, Ships on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about the British army originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

Press gang, picture, image, illustration

Press gangs were often successful, as Roderick Random discovered in Smollett’s popular novel, by Barrie Linklater

“There’s a likely looking lad,” shouted the leader of the press gang as he bounded down the street in pursuit of the fleeing boy. John Taylor fled for his life; but he was not fast enough and soon he was caught and bundled into a ship anchored in the harbour. There was now only one course of action open to him – he had to reveal the secret that he had kept for the past five years. A secret so amazing that there was only one man on board, the ship’s surgeon, to whom he could offer irrefutable proof that his story was true.

John confessed to the surgeon that his real name was Mary Anne Talbot – he was really a girl! In 1791, when she was only thirteen, her mother had died and her father, Baron Talbot, put her in the care of Amos Shuker, who lived in Newport, Monmouthshire. Shuker led Mary a hard and miserable life being only interested in the fortune that she was to inherit. He reasoned that the easiest way to get at the money would be to rid himself of the girl and to do this he enlisted the aid of Captain Essex Bowen of the Prince of Wales Volunteers.

The handsome young captain soon won the heart of the young girl with kind words and flattery, and when she was asked if she would like to journey to London with him she readily agreed without asking any questions. The chance of getting away from the horrible Shuker was, after all, a heaven-sent opportunity, and she did not even stop to think that it might have been part of a carefully conceived plan to get her away from England. As soon as he realised that he had gained the girl’s confidence. Bowen put his plan into action. “Mary, my dear, I fear we must part,” he said and, as a mist of sorrow clouded Mary’s eyes, he added “I have been recalled to my regiment in St. Domingo. We sail tomorrow.” Mary pleaded with him to take her also for she had no wish to return to Amos Shuker.

Reluctantly, or so it appeared to the tear-stricken girl, Bowen agreed that she could accompany him to the West Indies but that she would have to dress as a boy in order to be accepted by the rest of the men. On the following day Bowen sent a man to Shuker with the message: “Our plan has succeeded. Mary Anne leaves England this afternoon.”

Bowen had hoped to abandon the girl in the West Indies but no sooner had they arrived than his regiment was ordered back to Europe. There was no alternative, the masquerade had to continue, so Mary, as John Taylor, became the regiment’s drummer boy. In this task she carried out her duties like a man. At the siege of Valenciennes in July 1793, after which the Austrians captured the town, the whole regiment was impressed by the steadfast way that their drummer beat out the commands whilst men lay wounded and dying all around. Twice she herself was seriously wounded but in order to keep her secret she tended to her wounds herself and then rejoined the soldiers even though she was in constant pain.

Captain Bowen, the only man who knew the drummer’s secret, died during the battle and so Mary resolved to return to England. Donning female attire she once again became Mary Talbot and joined a band of refugees in order to get clear of the camp. When she eventually reached the River Rhine she became John Taylor once more and joined what she thought was a merchant ship. Unfortunately it proved to be a French warship and after a fierce battle at sea she became a prisoner of the English. When her nationality, but not her sex, was discovered, she was transferred to the Brunswick to serve as cabin boy. During a subsequent battle she was severely wounded and she spent the next four months in a hospital in Spithead where, surprisingly, the fact that she was a girl was never discovered.

After relating her remarkable story to the ship’s surgeon she was allowed to go free. For the rest of her days she remained as Mary Anne Talbot but the strain of her secret existence had been too great and she died when only thirty years of age.

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