Tuesday, 6 October 1807
On the 2d instant a Court Martial was held on board the Salvador del Mundo, in Hamoaze, Plymouth, on charges exhibited by Captain Dilkes, of His Majesty’s ship Hazard, atgainst William Berry, First Lieutenant of the said ship, for a breach of the 2d and 29th articles; the former respecting uncleanness, and the latter the horrid and abominable crime which delicacy forbids me to name.
THOMAS GIBBS, a boy belonging to the ship, proved the offence, as charged to have been committed on the 23d August, 1807. Several other witnesses were called in corroboration, among whom was
ELIZABETH BOWDEN, a little female, who has been on board the Hazard these eight months; curiosity had prompted her to look through the key hole of the cabin door, and it was thus she became possessed of the evidence which she gave. She appeared in Court dressed in a long jacket and blue trowsers.
The evidence being heard in support of the charges, but the prisoner not being prepared to enter upon his defence, begged time, which the Court readily granted,until ten o’clock on Saturday, at which hour the Court assembled again, and having heard what the prisoner had to offer in his defence, and having maturely and deliberately weighed and considered the same, the Court were of opinion, that the charges had been fully proved, and did adjudge the said William Berry to be hanged at the hard-arm of such one of his Majesty’s ships, and at such time, as the Right Hon. the Commissioner of the Admiralty shall direct. – Sir J. T. Duckworth was the President.
The unfortunate prisoner is above six feet high, remarkably well made, and as fine and handsome a man as is in the British navy. He was to have been married on his return to port.
(Morning Chronicle; this cutting is in William Beckford’s scrapbook now in the Beinecke Library.)
[Royal correspondence: In The Later Correspondence of George III (Cambridge, 1968; vol. IV, p. 636), we learn that Lord Mulgrave informed George III of the sentence of the court martial and noted that “the full, clear & most disgusting evidence on which the Court has pronounced the awful sentence of death upon Lieutenant Berry leaves no opening for submitting any grounds for the extension of your Majesty’s mercy …” (Admiralty, 6 October 1807). George III replied that he “cannot hesitate in confirming the sentence of death passed on Lieutenant Berry of the Hazard sloop for a crime which, when fully proved, cannot admit of the interposition of the Crown. Consequently the law must take its course.” (Windsor Castle, 7 October 1807)]
Saturday, 10 October 1807
On Friday a Court Martial, at which Sir J. Duckworth presided, was held on board his Majesty’s ship Salvador del Mundo, in Hamoaze, Plymouth, on charges exhibited by Captain Dilkes, of his Majesty’s ship Hazard, against William Berry, First Lieutenant of the said ship, for a breach of the 2d and 29th articles of war; the former respecting uncleanliness, &c. the latter the commission of an unnatural crime with thomas Gibbs, a boy belonging to the Hazard, on the 23d of august, 1807. The evidence being heard in support of the charges, the prisoner not having prepared his defence, begged time, when the Court readily granted, till Saturday at ten o’clock. At that hour the Court assembled again, and having heard what the prisoner had to offer in his defence, and maturely weighed and considered the same, the Court was of opinion the charges had been fully proved, and accordingly adjudged the prisoner to be hanged at the yard arm of such one of his Majesty’s ships, and at such time as the Commissioners of the Admiralty shall direct. One of the witnesses on this awful land horrible trial was the little female tar, Elizabeth Bowden, who has been on board the Hazard these eight months. She appeared in Court in a long jacket and blue trowsers; that part of her evidence which respected the prisoner, curiosity had prompted her to observe through the key-hole of the cabin door. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Issue 2841)
Monday, 12 October 1807
COURT MARTIAL. – On Friday a Court Martial, at which Sir J. Duckworth presided was held on board his Majesty’s ship Salvador del Mundo, in Hamoaze, Plymouth, on charges exhibited by Capt. Dilkes, of his Majesty’s ship Hazard, against W. Berry, First Lieutenant of the said ship, for a breach of the 2d and 29th articles of war; the former respecting uncleanliness; &c. the latter for the commission of a crime we do not chuse to mention. The Court having heard what the prisoner had to offer in his defence, and having maturely considered the same, was of the opinion that the charges had been fully proved, and adjudged the prisoner to be hanged at the yard-arm of such one of his Majesty’s ships, as the Commissioners of the Admiralty shall direct. One of the witnesses was a little female Tar, Elizabeth Bowden, who has been on board the Hazard these eight months. She appeared in Court in a long jacket and blue trowsers; that part of her evidence which respected the prisoner, curiosity had prompted her to observe through the key-hole of the cabin-door. (Glasgow Herald)
22 October 1807
EXECUTION OF LIEUTENANT BERRY.
On Monday the sentence of the court-Martial was put in execution on Lieutenant Berry, late First Lieutenant of the Hazard sloop of war. The prisoner, being removed from the Salvador del Mundo, to the Hazard, lying alongside a hulk in Hamoaze, at nine o’clock uppeared, and mounted the scaffold with the greatest fortitude; he then requested to speak with the Rev. Mr. BIRDWOOD, on the scaffold; he said a few words to him, but in so low a tone of voice that he could not be distinctly heard: and on the blue cap being put over his face, the fatal bow-gun was fired, and he was immediately run up to the starboard fore-yard-arm, with a 32lb. shot tied to his legs. Unfortunately the knot had got round under his chin, which caused great convulsions for a quarter of an hour. After being suspended the usual time, he was lowered into his coffin, which was ready to receive him in a boat immediately under, and conveyed to the Royal Hospital, where his friends mean to apply for his body to inter. He was a native of Lancaster, and only 22 years of age. For the last week he seemed very penitent, and perfectly resigned.
A curious circumstance occurred while the prisoner was in the cabin with the Clergyman, receiving the sacrament. A woman came alongside the Hazard’s hulk, and handed a letter up, signed Elizabeth Roberts, addressed to the Commanding Officer, which stated that Lieutenant William Berry could be yet saved, and that the person who could do it was alongside; – it was by marriage. The woman was ordered on board, and put under the care of a sentinel. When the execution was over, Captain DILKES, with the Clergyman and others, questioned the woman: she said she had dreamed a dream last night, that if she went on board the Hazard this day, and that if Lieutenant Berry would marry her, he would not suffer death. On being asked who advsed her, she replied that she told her dream to some women where she lived in Dock, who recommended her to go, in consequence of her dream. She was admonished, and sent on shore.
(The Times; the “curious circumstance” was also reported in the Aberdeen Journal for 28 October.)
Monday, 26 October 1807
EXECUTION OF LIEUT. BERRY.
PORTSMOUTH, OCT. 19. – This morning, at eight o’clock, the signal for an execution was made on board the Salvador del Mundo, 112, Admiral Young, in Hamaore; and repeated by the Hazard, 18, Capt. Dilkes on board which ship the execution was to take place. About nine a.m. a boat from each ship, manned and armed, attended round the Hazard. Lieut. Berry was then conveyed from the flag-ship, attended by the Provost Martial, in a boat to the Hazard, where he spent some time in prayer, attended by the Chaplain of the flag-ship. He was then conducted along the gangway to a platform erected on the forecastle: the executioner then reeved the rope round his neck, when, declaring he was ready, the fatal bow gun fired, and he was run up to the fore-yard arm. He appeared to struggle for a few moments, by the struggling soon ceased. – After hanging an hour, his remains were lowered into a shell in a boat alongside, and conveyed to the Royal Naval Hospital to be delivered to his friends for interment. – Thus perished, by the hands of the executioner, a young gentleman, in the bloom of life, for a crime not fit to be named among Christians. He was of a respectable family in Lancashire, and his father and uncle are overwhelmed with grief at the unhappy exit from this world of a favourite son and nephew. (Glasgow Herald)
Tuesday, 27 October 1807
[Report of Berry’s execution identical to that of The Times, but with the following addition:]
For the last week he seemed penitent, firmly collected, and prepared to meet his fate. – Thus perished by the hands of the executioner, a young gentleman in the bloom of life, for a crime not fit to be named amongst Christians. – He was of a very respectable family; his father and uncle are overwhelmed with grief at the unhappy end of a favourite son and nephew. (The Hull Packet and Original Weekly Commercial, Literary and Genderal Advertiser, Issue 1085)
The interesting facts about witness Elizabeth Bowden (John Bowden) in the court martial of William Berty, HMS “Hazard”.
Women At Sea: Witness for the Prosecution
Elizabeth Bowden (or Bowen) seems to have had it rough from the very beginning. Born into obscurity and poverty some time in 1793 in Truro, Cornwall, she seemed destined to a bleak life. Things went from bad to worse when she was orphaned at age twelve or thirteen.
Elizabeth had an older sister who, to the best of the girl’s knowledge, lived in that haven of the Royal Navy: Plymouth. Being nothing if not hardy, Elizabeth walked from Truro to Plymouth with the idea that she would take up residence with her sibling. Unfortunate as usual, Elizabeth could not find her sister. Elizabeth, who in our day and age would be termed a little girl, was penniless, starving and alone. Like so many nameless others of her generation, she turned to the sea.
Dawning a boy’s trousers (and perhaps looking similar to this drawing by Thomas Rowlandson), Elizabeth signed aboard HMS Hazard at Plymouth in the last half of 1806 using the name John Bowden. Deemed fit to serve, she was rated a boy 3rd class and given the usual advance on her pay. Hazard left for sea not long after the new boy was taken aboard. No one seems to have questioned her sex, at least not right away.
Within six weeks something occurred, history is silent as to what, that gave Elizabeth’s gender away. One wonders if her menarche wasn’t the culprit but that is purely speculation. At any rate, rather than being turned ashore at the next port, Captain Charles Dilkes gave Elizabeth a separate sleeping space and made her an assistant to the officers’ stewards. This would have kept her out of the general ship’s population and put her more closely in contact with not only the stewards but the galley crew as well.
With all this, Elizabeth would probably have fallen through the cracks of history as did so many other women at sea. But a well publicized case of sodomy aboard HMS Hazard, and Elizabeth’s insistence that she had witnessed at least one of the incidents in question, brought her briefly into the lime light.
In August of 1807, while the ship was underway, Lieutenant William Berry was accused of regular abuse of a boy named Thomas Gibbs. Berry was twenty-two at the time but Gibbs, a ship’s boy second class, had to have been younger than fourteen as he was not charged at the court-martial. According to the trial records, Gibbs finally got fed up with Berry’s actions and told the gunroom steward, John Hoskins, what was going on. From the young man’s testimony it sounds as if there was physical as well as sexual abuse going on, although Hazard’s surgeon would say that he could “find no marks on the boy” and that Gibbs had only “complained of being sore”.
Hoskins took Gibbs to Captain Dilkes and had him repeat his story. Berry was questioned by the Captain who was evidently inclined to believe the boy. The Lieutenant was arrested and a court-martial was arranged in October, aboard HMS Salvador del Mundo, when Hazard reached Plymouth once again.
I won’t go into the details of the trial, which was presided over by Admiral John Duckworth, as that is not the focus of this post. What is interesting is that Elizabeth Bowden, known to be a girl, felt comfortable enough to step up and offer her story in the case. Even more fascinating is that the Royal Navy court took her testimony, it seems without batting an eye.
Elizabeth claimed to have seen an exchange between Berry and Gibbs by peering through the keyhole of Berry’s cabin. She was asked if she observed Gibbs entering Berry’s cabin frequently and answered yes. When asked “…and what induced you to look through the keyhole?” Elizabeth replied, quite simply, that Gibbs in Berry’s cabin seemed curious, and “…I thought I would see what he was about.” The court recorded this testimony and noted that she was “Elizabeth alias John Bowden (a girl) borne on the Hazard’s books as a Boy of the 3rd class.”
Lieutenant Berry, who called in family and friends to vouch for his good character and even had a girl come along side ship and offer to marry him, was found guilty under the 29th Article of War and hanged from the starboard fore yardarm of Hazard on October 19th.
And that is all we know about fourteen-year-old Elizabeth “John” Bowden. Whether she continued on in navy service, like the intrepid William Brown, found a husband and settled down, or came to what would then have been called a bad end is impossible to say. Her brief story, however, gives us another example of the much debated acceptance of women at sea.
- CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:Rictor Norton (Ed.), “A Navy Court Martial, 1807,” Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 26 November 2006; updated 2 March 2011 http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1807berr.htm
- Sailors In Disguise: http://sailorsindisguise.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/elizabeth-bowden.html
Tim Alderman (2017)