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James Gray: Marine hero who kept a secret from his shipmates. He was a WOMAN.

Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY Staff Reporter

E was the marine hero, wounded 11 times in action, who hid a shocking secret from shipmates.

HBecause he was really a SHE.

James Gray, the world's first crossdresser to go public, was really a woman.

And she managed to keep her gender from seadogs despite being wounded in the groin.

Gray's bizarre story at times beggars belief, and there are strands to it that do not hold up to scrutiny.

But there is enough documented evidence to prove that Gray - born Hannah Snell in Worcester on April 23, 1723 - represents surely the strangest chapter in military history.

After serving her country with honour, Hannah became something of a celebrity. Three noted artists painted her portrait, her story was turned into a best-selling book, The Female Soldier, and she became a music hall darling.

Audiences would watch as Hannah, in full uniform, presented military drills and sang.

Why Hannah, married with a daughter, decided on the drastic sex transition remains unclear, and many theories have been put forward.

The most plausible is that Hannah, whose child died a year after birth in 1747, decided to go undercover in a bid to track down her estranged husband, James Summs. She borrowed a suit from brother-in-law James Gray and adopted his name.

Her search, however, ended in heartbreak: Summs, she discovered, had been executed for murder.

As a marine, Hannah was living out a childhood dream. While her friends played with dolls, she dressed in battle fatigues and indulged in war games.

Her upbringing was hard. Her father, hosier and dyer Samuel Snell, and his second wife Mary Williams both died when she was 17 and she was forced to move to London in search of work.

There, she married Dutch seaman Summs - a volatile individual who upped sticks as soon as Hannah fell pregnant - in 1744.

For whatever reason, she decided to put on a pair of trousers and hunt for the rogue.

There's no doubt that, In later life, Hannah embellished her career story to prevent her star from waning.

She claimed to have joined the 6th Regiment of Foot, part of the Duke of Cumberland's army, in the fight against Bonnie Prince Charlie, travelling to Carlisle when the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 flared. Hannah deserted after being given 50 lashes by her sergeant.

This nugget seems an extremely tall tale. It does not fit the timeline of Hannah's life and there is no evidence to back up the claims. Author Tony Grumley-Grennan pointed out in his book, Tales of English Eccentrics: "This would have been a severe punishment even for those times."

"Not surprisingly, there is some scepticism about some elements of Hannah's story," says another researcher. "In one version she claims she was once given 500 lashes for helping a girl get away who was being threatened with rape by a Sergeant Davis.

"Considering men were usually whipped topless and in full view of everyone, you would think her gender would be exposed there and then. The men would have to have been remarkably dense to not have noticed anything."

It is known that Hannah, the Midlands very own GI Jane, travelled to Portsmouth following the death of her daughter and enlisted with the marines.

She boarded the good ship Swallow, docked in Pompey, on October 23, 1747, and sailed to Lisbon, Portugal. Her job was cook and steward, but she saw plenty of action. Of the 21 marines who sailed on the Swallow, only 13 returned.

The crew was tasked with invading Mauritius, but the operation was called off when the element of surprise was lost and the ship sailed to Fort St Davids on India's Coromandel Coast.

In August, 1748, Hannah was among an elite marine squad tasked with bringing relief to the besieged port of Pondicherry on the Bay of Bengal. It was during furious fighting that she was shot in the groin.

She also took part in the June 1749 Battle of Devicotta, and is known to have served on two other ships before sailing back with the fleet to Europe.

Throughout her seafaring service, Hannah acted with distinction and was shot by musketball 11 times.

Her gender secret seemed sure to be revealed when she was hit in the groin, but a sympathetic Indian doctor pledged to stay silent. Another version of events alleges Hannah treated the wound herself.

Battle-scarred Hannah finally revealed her true gender to stunned shipmates on June 2, 1750, after her unit returned to Blighty on the Eltham.

Mind you, many old seadogs harboured doubts.

Tony Grumley-Grennan revealed: "She seems to have been popular on each of the ships she served and was given the nickname Molly - navy slang for a homosexual - because of her smooth skin."

In The Female Soldier, she recalled that revelation.

Hannah said: "Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell."

That sounds distinctly like a music hall line.

The remarkable story spread like wildfire and Hannah was soon in demand, selling her story to London publisher Robert Walker and turning to showbiz. Her adventures were serialised in The Gentleman's Magazine, Hannah was honourably discharged from the marines and was granted a pension - something of a rarity - in November 1750. She was also allowed to dress like a man and wear a hat with a cockade in it.

Panning the fact from the fiction is difficult. Parson Woodforde made a good point when he asked how a woman could have "laid in a room with 70 other soldiers and not be discovered by any of them".

But one thing is certain. Hannah Snell was a remarkable woman. She was also a remarkable man.

DETAILS of Hannah's later life remain cloudy. She certainly retired to Wapping and kept a pub, which was either called The Female Warrior or The Widow In Masquerade, depending which account you choose.

By 1759, she had moved to Newbury, Berkshire, and married carpenter Richard Eyles, a relationship that spawned two sons.

Hannah married for a third time in 1772 and she and husband Richard Habgood moved back to the Midlands.

Writer and diaryist Parson Woodforde met Hannah in 1778 and she was then travelling the country as a pedlar, "a basket on her back, selling buttons, garters, laces..." By 1785, Hannah was living with her son Geroge Spence Eyles, a clerk, in Stoke Newington.

In 1791, crippled by mental illness, the mixed-up former marine was admitted to Bethlem Hospital, better known by its notorious nickname Bedlam, and died there on February 8, 1792 at the age of 69.

She was buried among old soldiers at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Apr 24, 2016
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