Friday 8 March 2019

'The Powder Monkey and the Phycologist' by Karen Maitland

Anne Perriam 
There will be many famous women celebrated today, on International Women’s Day, who achieved amazing things in the arts, sciences, sports, medicine and politics, and we owe a great debt to them. But in thinking about these women, what fascinates me is the great diversity of their lives, even between those living in the same time and place. Take two Georgian women, Anne and Amelia, who were born within a year of each other, lived just a few miles apart along the Devon coast, whose lives both became bound up with sea, but who achieved fame in such strikingly different ways.

HMS Orion 1787.
Anne (Nancy) Perriam was born in 1769 and joined her first husband, Edward Hopping, in the Navy, working as a seamstress on board HMS Crescent. But when the couple enlisted on HMS Orion, Anne volunteered to also serve as a ‘powder monkey’ during the sea-battles. Her job was to carry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery guns, either loose in pots or as cartridges, to minimize the risk of fires and explosions. At the height of battle, the powder monkeys had to scuttle through dark, cramped spaces between decks on a ship that was rolling in heavy seas and juddering under the noise and impact of explosions from their own guns, while enemy shot smashed into its hull.

Firing of 18 pound gun, with a 'powder monkey' on left.
Artist: Louis-Phillippe Crepin (1772-1851) 
Anne fought in several sea-battles including Battle of L’Orient in 1795, Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and the Battle of the Nile in 1798 with Nelson’s fleet. Whenever there was a lull in the fighting, instead of resting, Anne assisted the surgeons with operations and amputations.

She gave birth to two daughters. After five years on HMS Orion, the government granted her a small annual pension of £10 in recognition of her services. She was one of only four women serving on the naval ships during the Napoleonic Wars to be given a pension. She returned home to Exmouth. Her first husband drowned in 1802, and she subsequently married a ship's pilot, John Perriam, who died in 1812. For the rest of her life until she was in her 80’s, she sold fish on the streets of Exmouth, only giving up when she became too ill to continue. She sadly died in poverty her late nineties, but by then was so famous that the press of the day dubbed her the ‘warrior woman.’ There is a memorial to her at the Powder Monkey pub, named in her honour, in Exmouth, Devon.

Battle of the Nile.
Artist George Arnald (1763-1841)
National Maritime Museum, UK
Amelia Griffiths (nee Rogers) was to have a very different life from Anne. though she’d been born just a year earlier in 1768 in Pilton, near Barnstable also in Devon. She married Revd. William Griffiths, who died only six years later leaving her to raise five children alone. Amelia eventually settled in Torquay, Devon where she was ideally placed to develop a passion which was to make her famous. She collected and classified seaweeds, in the process helping to popularise the ‘seaside holiday’. She corresponded with the most important phycology experts of her time and she became so well-respected in her field that Carl Agardh, a leading Swedish botanist named a genus of red seaweeds, Griffithsia, after her.

Torquay in 1811
Torre Abbey Museum
Her daughter, Amelia Elizabeth, become an expert in mosses, but Amelia Griffith’s great companion was a former family servant, Mary Wyatt who ran a pressed plant shop in Torquay. Pressed plants were much in demand by ladies who used them to decorate boxes, screens and create ornate friezes on drawing room walls. Together Amelia and Mary produced four volumes of pressed and named seaweeds entitled ‘Algae Danmoniensis’. The first two volumes alone, published in 1833, contained 100 different species. Like ‘powder monkey’ Anne, Amelia lived a long life, passing away just before her 90th birthday.
Griffithsia rhizophora
Photographer: Phillippe Bourjon

In 1854, the author Charles Kingsley visited Torquay and later wrote of Amelia,
‘Mrs Griffiths to whose extraordinary powers of research English marine biology almost owes its existence and who survived to an age, long beyond the natural term of man to see, in her cheerful and honoured old age, that knowledge become popular and general which she pursued for many a year unassisted and alone.’
Anne and Amelia, I salute you both!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It's fascinating to read about women from history who've led such long and interesting lives. Karen thank you for sharing their stories.