All at sea 🌊⛵️⚓️
Women who made waves.
Today we’re hopping aboard the history boat to tell the tales of some incredible dames who made their living – and risked their lives – on the water.
Row, row, row your boat
Stockholm’s rower-women, or roddarmadammer, ran their own water taxi service from the 15th century onwards, transporting passengers around the capital’s islands and Lake Malären. By 1638, they had joined the Swedish ferrymen’s guild, and these self-employed women were often the breadwinners of their families.
In the 19th century, the rower-women fought to rule the waters despite the unwanted arrival of private companies with faster, better boats. They demanded the right to raise their rates and petitioned the Chamber of Commerce when rivals threatened their livelihood.
Wearing weather hoods that looked a bit like something out of The Handsmaid’s Tale to protect them from the elements, these formidable women turned the air blue with their lively language, and cared not a jot for ladylike manners – a special code of conduct was even written up in 1759 that called for the rower-women to be sober and courteous at all times, though there’s no proof it had any effect whatsoever.
Boats were often passed down from mother to daughter, and this all-woman profession carried on right up until World War I, albeit with dwindling numbers. Roddarmadammer are now remembered as an important, vibrant and inspirational part of Stockholm’s heritage.
When RMS Olympic collided with a warship in 1911, she somehow escaped a maritime catastrophe. The crew and passengers were unscathed, and the ocean liner managed to return to port without sinking, despite two great big holes in her hull. Stewardess Violet Jessop probably thought that would be the one and only Big Sea Drama she’d get caught up in during her career, but she was wrong.
The following year, she moved to the Olympic’s sister ship, RMS Titanic, and set off on her maiden voyage to New York. You don’t need us to tell you how Titanic’s story ends, but Violet survived. She was handed a baby to take with her on the lifeboat, snatched from her arms by (hopefully) the child’s mother when Violet was finally rescued.
This ordeal didn’t put her off heading back to sea during World War I, however. After training as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse on dry land, Violet joined the hospital ship HMHS Britannic, which – you guessed it – sank after hitting a deep-sea mine. Violet badly injured her head, but after the war Miss Unsinkable, as she had become known, was out on the open seas once more.
In her retirement, she received a phone call from woman, who asked if she’d rescued a baby from the stricken Titanic. When Violet told her she had, the woman responded with a laugh. “I was that baby,” she revealed, before hanging up. Even more intriguingly, Violet insisted she had never told anyone about the incident before then…
Londoner Mary Read and Irishwoman Anne Bonny ended up on the same ship in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, and have gone down in history as two of the most notorious pirates of all time (although Chinese pirate leader Ching Shih gives them a run for their pieces of eight).
After falling for pirate John Rackham, better known as Calico Jack, while living in the Bahamas, Anne ran away with him when Rackham rather boldly – and, it turns out, misguidedly – offered her husband money to divorce her.
Instead, she joined his crew, disguised as a bloke. On board, she met Mary, who also dressed as a man. She had been brought up to pretend she was her dead half-brother so that payments from his grandmother didn’t dry up, and coincidentally, Anne had also grown up wearing boys’ clothes for reasons of parental subterfuge.
Mary had been a sailor, but became a buccaneer when the ship she was on was captured by pirates. Some speculate that Mary and Anne may have become lovers aboard Rackham’s ship, though the facts are hazy. What’s certain is that they were fierce and fearless, no more so than during their final battle with pirate hunters. When most of the men were too drunk to help, Mary and Anne fought to the bitter end. Sentenced to death, they got a stay of execution because they were both pregnant, though Mary later died in prison. No one knows what fate befell Anne, though it’s believed she was eventually set free after giving birth.
Sail of the century
Hélène de Pourtalès was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she took part in the 1900 Games in Paris. American-born but with dual citizenship that meant she could represent Switzerland, Hélène was among the 22 women who made history that year by being the first to compete in the Olympics.
She took part in the 1 to 2 ton races with her husband and his nephew, sailing her way to gold and then silver aboard Lérina. We rather hope she did it all in this fabulous get-up, but we suspect she opted for something a little less flamboyant.
Long before Hélène’s Olympic victory, another amazing woman was causing ripples in the male-dominated aquatic world, this time as a rower. In 19th century Cornwall, Ann Glanville became a river worker, or waterwoman, so that she could support her many children after her husband became seriously ill.
Alongside her job, Ann also formed a women-only rowing team that proved hard to beat at regattas around the country and further afield – some claim that they effortlessly defeated ten of the best male crews at a competition in Le Havre. Ann was dubbed “champion female rower of the world” by the press. Puts our greatest boating achievement – namely, managing not to capsize the pedalo on holiday – to shame.
This week, Sian and Laura have been hanging out for the first time since 2019 – and we’ve been to see Alanis Morissette! Like what we do? Buy us a cuppa.