December 12, 1821 — One fact is undisputed about the life of Phoebe Hessel – it ended on this day when she was 108 years old. As for the rest, well, the events of her remarkable life, though substantially accepted, are still open to differing accounts.
She was born in East London in 1713 and first entered official records in 1728 when she enlisted in the army to serve with the Fifth Foot Regiment. Women could not serve as soldiers, of course, and there are two versions of how and why this came about.
The first has it that Phoebe was young when her mother died and her father struggled to look after her. This turned into a crisis when he was called up for active service. Desperate times call for desperate measures and he decided to disguise Phoebe as a boy so that he could take her with him.
A completely different account says that Phoebe was in love with a soldier named Samuel Golding and joined the army at 15 to be with him.
Whichever tale is true, it is a fact that Phoebe served with the regiment for 17 years, her fellow soldiers – except, presumably, Samuel Golding – apparently blissfully unaware that she was a woman.
Her military career took her across Europe and to the Caribbean, culminating in the Battle of Fontenoy where the total casualty rate of 17,000 was the highest in Western Europe for half a century.
Phoebe was wounded in the arm by a bayonet during the battle but it was only when Golding was also wounded and invalided home that she decided it was time to quit. Allegedly, she went to the commanding officer’s wife and revealed her secret, after which she was discharged.
Or so the story goes. Another claims that her sex was revealed when her tunic was removed for a whipping after she had committed an unknown offence. “Strike and be damned!” she is said to have shouted, though no punishment was administered by an astonished whip-wielding soldier assigned to the task.
Phoebe married Golding and lived with him in Plymouth for about 20 years. They had nine children, though all but one died in infancy. After Golding’s death, Phoebe moved to Brighton on the South Coast of England, where she met and married a fisherman named Thomas Hessel.
She outlived him, too, and in her eighties became a local celebrity selling gingerbread, fruit and toys from a donkey as she told tales of her military service.
They came to the notice of Prince George (later Prince Regent and King George IV), who spent much time enjoying himself in Brighton. When he heard that Phoebe, in her nineties, had been forced into the workhouse, he granted her a pension of half a guinea a week – a sizeable sum in those days.
The royal patronage went further: in 1820 the newly crowned king invited Phoebe to his coronation parade in Brighton.
Blind by the time of her death, Phoebe is still remembered in Brighton where her gravestone was restored in the 1970s by the Northumberland Fusiliers, the successors to her regiment.
Published: July 21, 2017