Margarette Lincoln tells the story of Mary Lacy

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Margarette Lincoln tells the story of Mary Lacy

To celebrate the republication of Mary Lacy’s autobiography, The Female Shipwright, Margarette Lincoln tells us more about this amazing woman who ran away to sea at just 15 years old.

Lucinda:
Hi, I’m Lucinda Donnachie. Welcome to the first of a new series of podcasts on women at sea. Today I’m meeting with Margarette Lincoln to talk about Mary Lacy and the book The Female Shipwright, which is an autobiography of her life.

Hi Margarette.

Margarette:
Hello.

Lucinda:
So who was Mary Lacy and why do we have a book about her life?

Margarette:
Mary Lacy was born in 1740 to poor labourers in Kent. She tells us that her father and mother were forced to work very hard for their bread. It’s very unusual to have a book about a poor working-class woman in the 18th century.

Her autobiography found a ready market because contemporaries recognised that she was a remarkable woman. She served in the Royal Navy dressed as a man. She was apprenticed to be a shipwright in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, still disguised as a man. And later she became a property developer, very unusual for a woman of the time.

Lucinda:
Why has the National Maritime Museum reprinted this book now?

Margarette:
Well, it’s an important book. It gives us an insight into 18th-century working-class life from a female perspective, which is very rare. And what’s even more fascinating is that it’s possible for readers to relate to Mary Lacy’s story even today.

She was a difficult teenager, addicted she says to all manner of mischief: riding other people’s horses in the fields, I guess the 18th-century equivalent of joy-riding, stealing bread, taking sickies to avoid work, dancing most evenings. These days she probably would have ended up with an ASBO.

When things got too hot for her she stole her father’s clothes and left town dressed as a man. Perhaps to avoid detection, perhaps just to travel more safely.

Lucinda:
So why does Mary Lacy go to sea then?

Margarette:
By chance she ended up in Chatham, and the Navy at the time was desperate for men and asked very few questions. And soon she was recruited to be a carpenter’s servant on a 90-gun warship. She had no money, needed the work, and perhaps the sea life appealed to her sense of adventure.

She’d been taught to read and write in a charity school and tells a very good story. Her descriptions of the terrible storms at sea really bring home to us the dangers of a sailor’s life. More prosaically she caught rheumatism from wearing wet clothes and living in damp quarters. At times her legs swelled so badly she could hardly walk.

Lucinda:
But how did they not discover that she was a woman?

Margarette:
Well, it does seem remarkable, but sailors didn’t undress or wash frequently and clothes were loose fitting. You might wonder how she coped with periods and things, but many sailors had venereal disease and so stained clothes were not uncommon. And, of course the ever-present possibility of detection adds piquancy to her story for the reader.

Lucinda:
How did she become a shipwright then?

Margaret:
After a few years at sea under very cruel captains she began to find the life too hard. And when she was on shore one day she simply applied to be taken on as a shipwright’s apprentice at Portsmouth Dockyard.

Lucinda:
Was this an important job?

Margarette:
Well absolutely, shipwrights had high status because they built the wooden war ships that defended Britain, extended the empire, and protected trade. Lacy was finally on a good career path, if you like.

But this was a full seven years’ apprenticeship and still hard labour. She was obviously a strong and determined woman. She still suffered from rheumatism and was often in pain.

Then there was a terrible fire in the dockyard in 1770 and afterwards shipwrights had to work 17 hours a day to make up the lost time. This nearly crippled her and by 1771 she couldn’t do the job any longer and applied for a government pension.

It’s important to understand that because shipwrights had such high status, super-annulated shipwrights were due a pension even in those days.

Lucinda:
And she was still disguised as a man all this time?

Margarette:
Well, it seems that someone eventually betrayed her sex. When she gave up the job she had to explain that she was a woman. And we know this because when she applied for her pension she put ‘Mary Lacy’ on the forms.

And incredibly, in what was a very unequal society, the government behaved fairly. Though she was a woman, Lacy was a qualified shipwright and she got the pension due to her, 22 pounds a year.

Lucinda:
And is that the end of her story?

Margarette:
Well almost. She collected her money at the Deptford Dockyard, the nearest dockyard to London. And she claims she met an old acquaintance at the yard, whom she later married. She writes: ‘I at length gave my consent, in consequence of which we were married and now enjoy the utmost happiness the state affords.’

But this really isn’t true. You’ll have to read the book to get the real story. And also to find out the amazing link with Deptford, where you can still see the buildings connected with Mary Lacy today.

Lucinda:
Thank you Margarette.

If you would like to know more about Mary Lacey then The Female Shipwright is available from the National Maritime Museum Shop.

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