The story of a girl who disguises herself as a sailor on board ship is an old one, and the subject of many ballads such as 'Short Jacket and White Trousers'. For lonely sailors on long sea journeys, it was a powerful enough story, given the strict and absolute taboo on any sexual activity on-board ship.
A L Lloyd, the folksong expert, was sure that all such stories of male-imporsonation were legends and fantasies. The strange case of Dr Barrie, the military surgeon, who managed to keep up the disguise for most of her life, suggests that there could easily be some truth behind the fantasy. Tom stumbled over the following press-cutting in the Ipswich Journal which actually gives corroborative details which hint at the possibility that it might really have happened after all. Whether it was true or not, it is nice to think that such a well-known story (even celebrated in a 'Ripping Yarns' episode, a 'Carry On' film, and alluded to in 'Blackadder') is based on a real news-story at least. You will notice, however, that the impersonator of the news-story did not do it for love, as in the ballads and broadsheets, but, like Dr Barrie, in order to take on a career that was otherwise barred to her through the prevalent prejudice toward ladies.
May 21st 1748.
Bristol May 14th.
Last Tuesday a remarkable discovery was made about one of his Majesty’s ship’s, The Prince Edward in Kingsroad, a person who went by the name of John Davidson having drank freely became passionately fond of his messmate which occasioned him to suspect something, having informed his officer and on due examination by the ship’s surgeon he was discovered to be of the female sex and confessed to having been three years in the Privateers Service in which she was so successful as to be entitled to £150 prize money.