One of the most remarkable graves in Brighton’s historic St Nicholas Churchyard is that of Phoebe Hessel. The stone, its letters now almost rubbed away with age, tells her exciting life story: ‘Here lies Phoebe Hessel, born in Stepney in the year 1713. She served for many Years as a private Soldier in the 5th Regt. 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…’
There are many jaw dropping elements to this story, the fact that she appears to have lived to the age of 108 is just one, but particularly intriguing are the words: ‘soldier’, ‘served for many years’, and ‘fought’. A woman born in 1716, like Phoebe, would have had no place in the army, let alone bearing the name ‘Soldier’. It’s only since 2016, in David Cameron’s government, that women have been able to serve in combat roles equal to male colleagues. This gives Phoebe, who served enough in ground combat roles to sustain a bayonet wound, and was understood to have embarked upon her military career aged 15, a full 288 year start!
Dressed as a man Phoebe was able to pull the wool over her brothers in arms’ eyes for a full 17 years, until that unfortunate bayonet wound meant she was forced to reveal a little more of her body than usual, probably giving the army surgeon a shock as he realised this brave warrior was of the ‘weaker sex’. Despite Phoebe having played a full fighting role in the various battles and skirmishes around Gibraltar and the Caribbean, there was no option, once the truth was out, but to discharge her. The fact that she was dismissed unpunished on full pay sounds as if they were reluctant to see her go.
Stories abound as to why Phoebe made the choice, aged 15, to pull on a pair of breeches and commit herself to the dangerous and brutal life of a soldier. Some sources say she fell in love with a soldier, Samuel Golding, and wanted to accompany him when he was called away to his regiment. A less romantic explanation has her being taken along by her soldier-father when her mother died and there was no one to look after her. Possibly, poverty played a role. After all, the options available to a woman born in 1713 without wealth weren’t appealing. With neither education, career, nor a decent marriage on the table, how long could many women hold out before having to choose between begging bowl or brothel?
Phoebe’s connection with Brighton starts much later in her life. After having been widowed twice, the second time from a Brighton fishermen named Hessel, and losing every one of her nine children, her 80s found her scraping a living selling fish and trinkets around town. Somehow, George, Prince of Wales (the later Prince Regent and George IV) in Brighton often to visit his Marine – and later ‘Royal’ – Pavilion, got to know the story of the old woman pedlar who told tales of fooling the army and living the rough and tumble of military life. Always happy to be distracted with a good story, the Prince decided to pay the formidable Phoebe a pension of half a guinea a week from 1808, thus saving her from penury.
In fact, Phoebe has a second reason for going down in Brighton folklore. One evening, the story goes, she was drinking in the Old Red Lion (a pub that still exists) in nearby Shoreham-by-Sea and overheard a conversation that revealed one of the participants to be none other than James Rooke, a notorious highwayman who’d been terrorising the roads around Brighton for many years. Phoebe’s testimony lead to the capturing of Rooke and his accomplice and their subsequent hanging in Hangleton Bottom. A grisly end to Rooke but a relief to the people of Brighton, and another reason for the town to hold Phoebe to their hearts. No wonder, she was invited to attend the town’s celebrations of the coronation of King George IV in 1820 at the grand old age of 107.
Phoebe’s story is so fantastic that these days we could be forgiven for wondering exactly how much of it’s true. Were her tales of derring-do just the fabrications of a good saleswoman who wanted to lure more customers? Did she really live to be 108? Did no one really notice she wasn’t a man for 17 years? The Northumberland Fusiliers, successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot, obviously saw enough truth in her story to restore her grave here in the 1970s. As did London Borough of Tower Hamlets, who commemorated their famous daughter with not one but two streets in her honour, Hessel Street and Amazon Street.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett