The Mystery of the Sailor in the River

In 1850, this body turned to be that of a girl

Researched and written by Helen Barrell

From the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 1st June 1850

“A young sailor was drowned last week at Wivenhoe. When stripped for burial, after the inquest, the body turned out to be that of a girl. She had shipped at Harwich in sailor’s clothes, the week before.” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 1st June 1850.

I found this curious snippet while searching through the British Newspaper Archive for my relatives living in Wivenhoe, Essex. I’ve always found what we might call historical cross-dressing very interesting, because it gives us an insight into the history of gender. Who was this sailor? Why had they gone to sea as a boy when they were born female? If they had lived today, would they have identified as transgender, or does this story tell us something about the way some women coped with the limited opportunities presented them? It perhaps doesn’t help that at school, one of my favourite songs was “Pretty Polly Oliver” – about a young woman who follows her sweetheart into the army by disguising herself as a man – or that I was intrigued by female pirates like Anne Bonney and Mary Read.

It’s not the first time I’ve found a story about someone who passed as a man, but on their death was found to be female: on 6th March 1759, at St. Michael’s in Kirby-le-Soken, Essex, we have a burial accompanied by the following note in the register: “John ye Taylor who upon death was found to be a woman – she had lived in ye parish above 20 years in a man’s habit and got her livelyhood by the trade of a Taylor.” In that one note, we have an incredible story. John passed for twenty years as a man, working very closely with men, being accepted in the community of Kirby-le-Soken as a man, and no-one knew otherwise. But why? Did John feel happier living as a man because he considered himself to be a man rather than a woman, or was John content to earn more money working as a tailor than would otherwise have been possible working as a dressmaker? Bearing in mind that John had been living as a man since at least the 1730s, before marriage reform, we might even wonder if John took the step of living as a man to hide from an unfortunate choice of husband?

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know more of John’s story than that one note from the burial register. But the story of the sailor, nearly 100 years later, offers us the chance to delve deeper and maybe discover who they were. Using a variety of sources – newspapers, censuses, parish registers and the Merchant Navy Seaman records, I believe I have discovered who the sailor was.

The name assumed by the sailor comes to light in a report on the inquest from the Essex Standard on Friday 17th May, 1850:

“Yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, J. M. Churchill, Esq., Coroner for the borough, held an inquest at the Ship at Launch, Wivenhoe, on the body of a lad named George Henry Bills, whose friends live at Harwich, and who, being found dead in the water, is supposed to have fallen from the deck of the Sovereign schooner, lying at Wivenhoe, on which he had been received the preceding day. – Verdict, “Found Drowned”.”

I looked at the burial register for St. Mary’s in Wivenhoe, and there found, on 20th May 1850, the burial of George Henry Bills of Wivenhoe, aged 16, with a note saying “By order of Coroner”. There don’t appear to be to have been any other inquests in Wivenhoe at that period, so it seems that George Henry Bills is our sailor. This record illustrates something to be mindful of when using parish registers – George’s abode is given as Wivenhoe, even though he was a sailor who was passing through. Also note that the sex of the sailor was assumed to be male at the inquest – this backs up the snippet from the Manchester Courier, that George’s sex was discovered on being prepared for burial, which happened after the inquest.

Victorian newspaper editors helped themselves to stories from other papers all the time, hence how I initially found the story in a title from Manchester. Unsurprisingly, this unusual report was picked up by newspapers across the country. The papers didn’t always say which local paper they had culled the story from, though, but one of the papers which picked up the story said it came from the Essex Herald, which I hoped might confirm the sailor’s birth name. Unfortunately, the Essex Herald isn’t in the British Newspaper Archive and it seems that several years are lost, including 1850.

I found a seaman’s ticket for George Henry Bills, issued at Harwich in 1850. Seamen were issued with a ticket which they kept in their own possession, and very few have survived. What we see is an office copy of the ticket. The date is a little hard to read – it could be 19th March or 19th May. If March, George had possibly been at sea for a couple of months, before joining the Sovereign. If May, it suggests there was a delay of a few days before the office copy being written up. George’s ticket tells us he was born in Harwich on 14th October 1833, but the details on hair and eye colour and complexion are blank. George’s height isn’t given, only that he’s “growing”. And it says “First went to sea as: boy.” There’s an irony in that statement, unknown to the hand that wrote it.

Where next? Could any of the details on the ticket be true? But Harwich appears in the newspaper report, as well as on George’s ticket, so I looked through the 1841 and 1851 censuses for any family called Bills in that area.

In 1841, living on St. Austin’s Lane in Harwich, were: Benjamin Bill, 57, waterman, Martha Bill, 39, neither born in Essex. Sarah Ann Bill 34, Emma Bill 7, Mary Ann Bill 5 and Benjamin William Bill 2, all of whom were born in Essex. Emma and Mary Ann are potential candidates for our sailor, so I checked the 1851 census. On Custom House Lane, we have Ann Bills 42 (presumably Sarah Ann from the 1841 census), a laundress, and her siblings: Mary Ann 15 and William (presumably Benjamin William in 1841) 12, all born in Harwich. My next port of call (so to speak) was the baptism register of St. Nicholas, Harwich, and there I found the 1833 baptism of Emma Bills, daughter of William and Martha Bills of Harwich. William was a mariner. This register gives dates of birth, and Emma’s is 14th October 1833. You’ll recognise that date – it’s the same as the one on George’s ticket.

The only slight muddle is that, while the date of birth is given as 14th October 1833, the date of baptism is 21st September 1833. Clearly there’s something awry there – perhaps like the seaman’s ticket, the baptisms were written in note form elsewhere and in the writing up of the fine copy baptism register, the dates were confused – Emma was probably baptised on 21st October.

Benjamin, Emma’s father, died in 1848, and it’s possible her mother, Martha, had died, remarried, or found work elsewhere between 1841 and 1851, as she’s not with her step-daughter or two surviving children in the 1851 census.

This hints at the reason for Emma’s decision to go to sea – she had lost at least one of her parents, and she had to find work. In 1851 her sister, Mary Ann, is a general servant, and this was one of the few options available to Emma as a working class girl. There was little factory work in Essex compared to further north in the country, but agricultural work would have been an option too. We all know the stories of the drudgery of domestic service and the hard life working the land – considering Emma grew up as a mariner’s daughter (and perhaps she had older brothers who worked at sea, too), maybe that life appealed to her far more than that of a servant or a farm labourer. But what, exactly, it was that tempted Emma – adventure, travel, the chance of a better wage, or perhaps the fact that life as a boy was preferable to that of a girl, we don’t know: that died with George in the River Colne in May 1850.

How long Emma could have lived as George the sailor is debatable – John the tailor from Kirby-le-Soken presumably lived alone and so no-one realised he was female, but in the cramped living conditions on board ship, surely someone would have noticed eventually. Then again, Mrs. Christian Davies passed as a man in the British Army for over ten years, until she was wounded – perhaps our sailor could have done the same.

For the genealogist, the story of George/Emma presents an interesting puzzle – sometimes we lose the papertrail for a relative, and that can be down to the wrong name being given on a death certificate or in a burial register. For instance, my 4 x great-grandfather Joseph Shrimpton was killed by a train, trying to cross the tracks at Kings Langley station, but his name is James Shrimpton on his death certificate. But for relatives of Emma Bills, quite another problem appears – not only was Emma’s name at burial not the one given by her parents, but her gender was different too. This sort of occurrence is presumably quite unusual, but it does raise intriguing questions.

Helen Barrell
October 2017

This page was added on 20/10/2017.

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