15 OCTOBER 2018

‘William Brown’ was a Black woman who joined the Royal Navy under a man’s name in the early nineteenth century. Actual name is unknown, she is regarded as the first biologically female person to serve in the Royal Navy.

A sailor of HMS Queen Charlotte she was a subject of conflicting reports based on her age and rank.

The muster list of the HMS states that the 21 year old William Brown joined the crew of the ship on 23 May 1815 and was then discharged on the 19 June that year for “being a female”. It rates her as a “landsman”, the lowest grade of adult crew member in the Royal Navy.

This conflicts with alternative reports described in a piece in The Times printed on 2 September 1815. In the report Brown is described as a ‘a female African, who served as a seaman in the Royal Navy for upwards of eleven years’ and ‘She is a smart well formed-figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength and great activity; her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about 26 years of age.’

Since the appearance of Brown on the HMS Queen Charlotte, there has immense speculation over how she came to be in the Royal Navy. The Times report says: ‘She says she is a married woman; and went to sea in consequence of a quarrel with her husband, who, it is said, has entered a caveat against her receiving her prize money.’

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You can also read Fawcett's research on The Gender Pay Gap by Ethnicity to find out more about how the pay gap affects women of colour, and our Invisible Women report exploring how race, faith, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, location and employment status can combine with gender to create distinct and particularly troubling experiences of discrimination and inequality.