Thumbing through back numbers of the Gentleman’s Magazine as one does, (preferably online via the Hathi Trust Digital Library here ) I came across the ever-readable section for 1821 entitled “Obituaries, with Anecdotes of Remarkable Persons”. Actually I was looking for the entry relating to the amazing business-woman Eleanor Coade, artificial stone manufacturer, who will be featuring in my next book, to be called ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ Anyway, my curious eyes alighted on this entry:
Dec 12 At Brighton, aged 108, Phoebe Hessel. Through the goodness of His Majesty, and the occasional assistance of many liberal persons in the place, Phoebe’s latter days were rendered very comfortable. When His Majesty, then Prince Regent, was informed of her extreme age, and of her necessities, with his usual generosity, he requested some one to ascertain of what sum she required to render her comfortable. “Half a guinea a week” replied old Phoebe “will make me as happy as a princess.” This, by His Majesty’s command, was regularly paid to her. She was a woman of good information, and very communicative, and retained her faculties till within a few hours of her death.
The following epitaph, about to be placed in Brighton church-yard, details her singular story:- “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 Regiment 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 the arm. Her long life, which commenced in the reign of Queen Anne, extended to George the Fourth, by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter years. She died at Brighton, where she had long resided, December 12, 1821, aged 108 years and lies buried here”
Sure enough, a quick look at Wikipedia shows the gravestone, recently restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers as successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot. There seem to be various different versions about how she came to be serving in the British Army. One story has it that her mother died when she was a youngster, and the only way that her father, a serving soldier, could look after her was by teaching her to play fife and drums, and enlist with him. Another story says that she fell in love with a soldier by the name of Mr Golding and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. So in 1728 she joined him on active service in the West Indies, dressed as a man, and ended up visiting various battlefields in Europe. After serving for at least seventeen years she was injured at the battle of Fontenoy.
One can only assume that her fellow soldiers were none too observant, and that having a relaxing hot shower after a sweaty hour or two on the battlefield was not a common practice. Even so, there are one or two bodily functions which might have given the game away, but apparently not, and one story has it that her impersonation was only detected when she committed an offence which merited being stripped to the waist and being whipped. Imagine the surprise on the face of the Officer in charge of the punishment detail…. “what are you doing with those two, Hessel?!” Or words to that effect.
Anyway, she and her boyfriend were discharged (honourably) from the army, with full pay, and they married and settled in Plymouth where she bred little Goldings, all nine of them. Sadly eight of them died in infancy, and the ninth was later drowned at sea. Mr Golding also died and his widow made her way along the coast to the sleepy village of Brighthelmstone (aka Brighton). There she married a local fisherman called Thomas Hessel. He too died, in 1780, by which time good old Phoebe was in her late sixties. She did what every woman of her age should do: she bought herself a donkey. She then became a well-known if eccentric character roaming around the streets of Brighton on her donkey flogging fish and vegetables to anyone who would have them.
By the turn of the century she was 87 years old, still to be found selling gingerbread and oranges, near where the Royal Pavilion was being built on the corner of Old Steine and Marine Parade. She apparently loved telling stories about her life in the Army, no doubt embellishing the tales with each telling. The Prince Regent got to hear of her and when she fell on hard times and was sent to the Work House he made sure she got paid a pension of 10/6 a week – enough to keep her away from the debtors prison. The pension ran from 1806 until her death at the age of 108 in 1821.
She lived just long enough to be involved in George IV’s coronation celebrations held in Brighton on 19 July 1821. As Brighton’s oldest resident, she was guest of honour at the Town Banquet.
Apparently she had been born in Stepney – in the Tower Hamlets area of London – and had been given the nick-name of ‘The Stepney Amazon’. The memory of this remarkable lady lives on in the names of two Stepney streets, Amazon Street and Hessel Street.
Phoebe: I have not the faintest idea where truth ends and fiction begins. Plays and books in the eighteenth century were full of tales about lovelorn young girls enlisting in foreign wars in order not to be separated from the object of their love. Maybe you were one of the inspirations for those stories. Maybe you did go undetected as a female throughout your twenties and thirties, despite wearing an army uniform alongside hundreds of fellow soldiers. For all I know every one of the tales of derring-do with which you regaled the Prince of Wales, and anyone else who would listen and give you a bob or two, were gospel truth. But no, I am not going to include you as a ‘petticoat pioneer’ in my new book, due out next year with Pen & Sword, because I cannot see you as a ‘pioneer’ when you resorted to deception. Your story is however a good reminder of how hard it was for a woman to succeed in a man’s world, and small wonder there were cases of women pretending to be men – in order to marry a wealthy (but unobservant!) heiress, or like Margaret Ann Bulkley (a.k.a. Dr James Barry) in order to pursue a career in medicine. Whatever, good on yer Phoebe!
* I am grateful to Janet Beal for pointing out that this may well not be a portrait of Phoebe – but is more likely to represent Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. See Wikipedia here.