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The 18th Century War Hero who was Tortured at Carlisle Castle and Later Became a Drag King in London

Cumbria’s Hidden LGBTQ+ History

Cumbria is a county rich with heritage. From Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in the south to the ports of Whitehaven in the west and Carlisle Castle in the north of the county, Cumbria is an area of the UK that holds a strong heritage.

But little is known about our county's queer roots. This LGBTQ+ history month we invite you to celebrate little-known LGBTQ+ figures in the place we call home and look at what impact they had in Cumbria.

Hannah Snell: The 18th Century War Hero who was Tortured at Carlisle Castle and Later Became a Drag King in London

Hannah Snell. Photo credit: British Tars

Born in Worcester in 1723 and orphaned at 17, Hannah Snell moved to Wapping in London to stay with her Sister Susanah and brother-in-law James Gray in 1740.

In that same year, she married a Dutch sailor, James Summs, and fell pregnant with her first child. Things took a tragic turn when Hannah’s husband left her and their infant daughter who sadly died a few months after birth.

Not long after losing both her daughter and husband Snell borrowed a suit of clothes from her brother-in-law and assumed her new identity under his name.

Snell enlisted with General Guise’s regiment in Coventry under her new alias and marched with them to Carlisle. Snell reports that her sergeant wanted to seduce a local woman and enlisted the help of Snell’s new persona to get the woman for him.

Instead of assisting the sergeant, Snell warned the woman in question about her sergeant’s scheme. Sergeant Davis felt Snell became a close ally to the woman and viewed Snell as his rival.

In a fit of jealous malice, Davis had Snell sentenced to 600 lashes for neglect of duty. Snell reports that she was tied to Carlisle Castle gates and received 500/600 lashings and claimed no one knew she was a woman.

Although these claims are disputed as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography doesn’t mention this episode in Snell’s life this may be perhaps because of the brutal nature of the act.

Carlisle Castle. Photo credit: English Heritage

Shortly after in 1745 Snell made her way to Portsmouth to enlist in the marines as James Gray and although her initial aim was to find her husband who left her it also changed her social status altogether.

Setting sail from Portsmouth to the East Indies Snell worked onboard the ship and managed to preserve her new male identity. Snell became a war hero and saw much military action in India and was wounded by multiple gunshots in combat.

Hannah Snell the female soldier. Photo credit: British Tars

Upon arrival back in England half a decade later in 1750 Snell returned to her sisters. Snell became somewhat of a public figure after her exploits as a man in the marines became public knowledge.

She petitioned the Duke of Cumberland for a pension as she had served in the army which in turn revealed her sex to former marine comrades and even had her account of serving in the army as a man published.

Snell received the public appraisal and performed in London theatres dressed in male drag where she would sing and demonstrate military drills.

Hannah Snell performing as a drag king.

During a time when it was frowned upon for women to break traditional gender roles set out by the patriarchal and heteronormative society, Hannah Snell was a trailblazer of her time. Snell felt comfortable in men’s clothing and held ‘the real Soul of a Man in her Breast’. Snell broke boundaries as the first woman who passed as a male soldier.

Snell became ill with dementia in later life and died in Bethlem Hospital in London in 1792 but her legacy lives on to this day as one of the first women to shatter gender norms of her time.

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