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the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

'Personification of Hope', Maerten de Vos (1532-1603)

'Personification of Hope' by Maerten de Vos (1532-1603)

Image courtesy of Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinskich, Wroclaw, Poland

articles > Waiting and hoping...

Waiting and hoping: the experience of women whose loved ones went to sea

Margarette Lincoln, National Maritime Museum

At the National Maritime Museum we have Mrs Cook's Chinese teapot. I remember looking at it one day and wondering what her life would have been like, waiting at home for her husband to return from his Pacific explorations, bringing up their sons, pouring tea for acquaintances who called. Would the company have dared to discuss Tahiti?

There has been interesting research on the minority of women who went to sea, but the wives and mothers of seamen who stayed at home is a relatively unexplored topic. (1) And because such women left little written evidence, the material culture surviving in museums is a vital supplement to help illuminate their lives.

The National Maritime Museum has many items of jewellery and commemorative ware decorated with the figure of Hope. This female representation had long been associated with waiting for the return of seamen. Items as varied as lockets, pendants, rings and earthenware jugs were all decorated with the graceful figure of Hope in classical dress, with a departing warship in the background, or else pointing out to sea with an anchor in the background. In one sense, then, such items of public display defined the condition of such women and depicted an approved mode of deportment. Women were also encouraged to demonstrate their patriotism by wearing a range of goods produced to commemorate heroes and battles. (2) As consumers, women exerted influence on the production of commemorative fans, teapots, even expensive printed furnishing fabrics for curtains or upholstery.

But as the poems of contemporary women writers and the popular ballads of the time show, war had a dislocating effect on society and on domestic life, causing grief and economic hardship for women left at home. By 1803 over one in five British males capable of bearing arms were engaged in military service. (3) By 1805 around 120,000 men were serving in the Royal Navy alone and philanthropic societies such as Lloyds List or the Society of Shipowners provided only erratic support to families who often had recourse to poor relief and, in some cases, to crime.

My current work explores the experience of women whose husbands served in the Navy during 1750–1815, a period of unprecedented naval activity for the British when men were at sea for long periods. There is much to be discovered about the domestic roles of these women and their social position within the context of Britain's growing imperial power. The project will also throw light on the education of women and on the nature of contemporary marital relationships while revealing the importance of women's work in enabling the Admiralty to keep men at sea.

Surviving letters reveal much about the experience of separation – though letters from husbands to wives were kept more frequently than those by wives to husbands. Typical correspondence might be that of Edward Codrington, Captain of the Blake, and William Wilkinson, master on the Minotaur, under Captain Mansfield, who both wrote regularly to their wives. (4) Their letters permit an interesting comparison between couples of different social classes. Codrington (1770–1851) came from an old Gloucestershire family and was the grandson of a baronet. He distinguished himself at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794 and fought at Trafalgar. In 1809 he took part in the ill-fated Walcheren expedition, and many of his letters date from this period when he wrote from the Scheldt to his wife, Jane, in Berkeley Square. Wilkinson was at Copenhagen Roads during the bombardment of the city and capture of the Danish navy by Lord Gambier in 1807. He wrote to his wife Sally at their lodgings in Church Street, Kensington. Codrington went on to become an Admiral; Wilkinson retired from the Navy in 1810 due to persistent ill health, and was appointed Master-Attendant of the Royal Victualling Yard in Deptford. He died aged 80.

Jane Codrington, the daughter of Jasper Hall of Kingston, Jamaica, married into the Navy in 1802. By 1809 she had two young sons, and was pregnant again. She was clearly a sensible, competent woman who had the full trust of her husband. In his letters he treats his wife to confidences, clearly noting when he does not wish them to fall into 'ungenerous hands'. She rarely irritated him except by failing to number her letters consistently (so that he was never sure that he had received them all), and by failing to acknowledge receipt of his each time (so that he was afraid he would repeat stories he had told her already).

Sally Wilkinson was less well educated. Her only surviving letter is poorly punctuated and written in a blotchy script. At the time of writing, she had a young baby girl – also called Sally – and later there was a son called Billy, already keenly anticipated by his parents. When they married, Wilkinson had already gone to sea, or, as he writes in his letters, he would have taken any employment ashore to be with his wife. Since he lived to a ripe old age, his persistent ill health at sea was probably a symptom of his unhappiness at their separation. Details in his letters indicate that he was deferential and anxious to get on in the world. He was continually urging his wife to improve her skills and particularly to practise writing in a small regular hand – though this may have been related to the cost of postage since the more words she could cram onto a single sheet, the better the value for money. He imagined that when he returned, they would go regularly to church and he clearly envisaged a shared lifestyle of hard work, restraint and respectability. His letters illuminate aspects of the self-identification of the 'middling sort' of the time while demonstrating how fragile a process that might be. (5)

Socially and economically, the two women were situated very differently but as their husbands were both at sea, they shared a number of concerns. A key issue was how they might actually manage to see their husbands if their ships put into port. On 27 December 1808 – their wedding anniversary – Codrington saw his ship into port and sent Jane a mock order to put herself and the children into a carriage and set out for Sheerness. He takes advantage of the date to remind her of her promise to obey, explaining that he had arranged for a yacht to meet her at an inn in Chatham.

Sally Wilkinson's travel arrangements were more economical. In November 1807 she wrote, 'I was thinking as you cannot come to see us, our dear little babe and myself must come to see you, should it be likely you stay at St Helens any time, in less than three weeks I should be able if you think you could afford it [sic]'. In June 1808, Wilkinson (now serving with the Channel Fleet on HMS King Christian VII, a captured Danish ship) wrote to her from Portsmouth explaining how she should travel from London to meet him. The morning coach from Fetter Lane would pick her up at Kensington; he would be at the India Arms in Portsmouth to meet her. She had to book a place for the baby when she booked one for herself, and if not all her things were ready they could be sent on afterwards. He added that as she was not fond of writing, she need not reply. Meanwhile, he would go on shore to take lodgings for her and to hire a girl who would help look after the baby, and he hoped that they would live 'tolerable cheap and comfortable'.

Most sailors' wives stayed at home, enduring years of absence and uncertainty, bringing up small children, managing domestic affairs and earning their living as best they might while their men were at sea. In the process, investigation shows that they took on far more responsibility than other women whose husbands lived with them, often crossing apparent boundaries of conventional female activity. Women at the lower levels of society have left scant testimony to the impact of naval warfare and separation on their lives, but this brief discussion indicates the pervasiveness of that impact, and the historical importance of understanding women's strategies for dealing with it and the support networks available to them.


1. David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors' Women: An Untold Maritime History (2001) and Suzanne J. Stark, Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail (Annapolis, Md., 1996).

2. See M. Lincoln, Representing the Royal Navy. British Sea Power, 1750–1815 (Aldershot, Hants, 2002), pp. 140ff [please click on the title for a review of this book]. The National Maritime Museum's collections can be accessed at www.nmm.ac.uk/collections/.

3. J. E. Cookson, The British Armed Nation 1793–1815 (Oxford, 1997), p. 99.

4. Both series of letters are at the National Maritime Museum, COD 21/1a, WIL/1 and WIL/2.

5. Cf. Gender in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus, (London and New York, 1997), pp. 19ff.

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