She kissed the gunner’s daughter


Julliet Mills et al in Carry On Jack

Seen recently on UK TV was the comedy Carry On Jack. If you are not familiar with the 20 or so Carry On films, then suffice to say they are unlikely bawdy tales that are invariably set in historic situations. The line from Carry On Cleo, a spoof on the Anthony and Cleopatra legend, ‘infamy, infamy they have all got it in for me’ as spoken by the late Kenneth Williams in the role of Julius Caesar, gives a flavour of the level of humour.

Carry On Jack is about a woman who steals our hero’s identity and pretends to be a midshipman on the good ship HMS Venus in order to pursue her lover who has run way to sea.

Juliet Mills, our heroine, has to endure a series of humiliating misadventures to preserve her identity and gender. This unlikely tale may have some basis in truth and might even have been based upon the adventures of Mary Wells who did exactly as Ms Mills did in the farce.

During the 18th and 19th century women were commonplace aboard British ships including Royal Navy vessels. Although it was officially against the rules and frowned upon, women both married and brought up their children aboard ship. Some of them even openly served as powder monkeys (a job usually given to boys) and medical orderlies. There were even some instances of women serving as junior officers, such as midshipmen by pretending to be men.

The great British hero, Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson’s friend and second-in-command, once discovered that women had been brought onboard his flagship and ordered them removed.

He is quoted as saying: “The mischief they never fail to create wherever they are. I never knew a woman brought to sea in a ship that some mischief did not befall the vessel.”

Not withstanding this many women served upon HMS Victory, Nelson’s flag ship at the battle of Trafalgar.

Women disguised as men are known to have entered the Royal Navy, usually posing as boys, since males as young as 12 might hold the rank of midshipman. If this seems unlikely then remember Hanna Snell who joined the army in 1745, and later served in the marines aboard ship. By 1750 she had become a celebrity and starred on the stage. Angelique Brulon fought for Napoleon disguised as a man. She was later promoted to Lieutenant even after she had been exposed as a woman.

So with the very real presence of women aboard ship, this presented the navy with something of dilemma when it came to issues of discipline.

One ship’s captain complained to one his officers: “If there are no women on board my ship, then how am I to punish them when they get drunk and get to fighting? Surely the cat is too harsh even for such shrews.”

The answer it seems, came from a coffee house conversation, attributed by some to an acquaintance of the Navy Secretary Samuel Pepys.

It was suggested that: “If they insist on going to sea then they should be prepared to kiss the gunners daughter. If they want to dress up as boys for their mischief, then they should be punished as boys.”

In short, it was suggested that miscreants should be made to bend over the barrel of cannon or practice gun, or laid lengthways and having the birch or cane applied to the ‘bare stern’.

Although the harsher cat o’nine tails was abolished in 1862, the gunner’s daughter tradition for boy sailors was not discontinued until 1956 and after at training facilities. Notably after 1939, until its abolition, it was also extended to women sailors of all ages including young officers, who could expect up to 30 strokes of the cane on the bare bottom.

Getting back to Mary Wells. She is said to have endured a taste of the cane over the gun, although one would have thought that the man who thrashed her might have realised at this point that he had a woman under his cane.

Perhaps he did. Mary Wells hinted that she ‘might have yielded to her masters as a boy might’ after sufficient corporal inducement.

Mary Wells was discovered after being wounded in action. She spent over a year aboard ship after being discovered and by her own account was treated ‘firmly but fairly as I should have been’ for ‘putting the captain to such mischief.’

She was in fact again wounded in action while serving as a surgeon’s mate and put ashore.

She was finally reunited with her lover whom she later married.

There is a short fictionalised account of her adventures that may appear here sometime.

6 Responses to “She kissed the gunner’s daughter”

  1. 1 Tom

    Is this the same Juliet Mills who played the Nanny on TV and was the daughter of John Mills?

    Being from the Netherlands Ihave not heard of this film is there any actual spanking or whipping in it?

    Also I would like to see the story you mentioned.


  2. 2 DJ

    Hi Tom

    I believe so.

    I don’t recall any spanking of JM, but Bernard Cribbins, the ‘hero’ gets a comedy whipping at some point. Stictly M/M and off topic.

    I might publish the story sometime if I ever finish it. I was hoping to find more info on Mary Wells as a historical figure, if indeed she existed, but no luck so far.

    Apparently there are some bogus urban legends about women under arms, she actually might be one of those.

    The others mentioned in this article are apparently real though.


  3. 3 doug nicholson

    a beautiful photograph of a woman after she has obviously received a sound birching ! what is the origin of this picture?.can it or other such photos be shown or obtained ?
    very few people believe that british female naval staff received corporal punishment in the early days of ww2 but i have heard from former naval personnel that they were indeed caned or birched in the various training centers.the wrens as they called were not popular with the naval establishment and therefor were often treated quite harshly.

  4. 4 DJ

    Hi Doug

    I can’t remember where I got the pic. I am not sure that it is an authentic naval birching.

    there is more on this here

    and this fictional account is based on a real events as far as I know:

    There were real news reports about WRENs caned up to 1956 when it was abolished in the Telegraph as you can see.

    especially in WW2 – thansk for your feedback


  5. Those women sailors who have to visit the so called ‘Gunner’s Daughter’s’ should receive 25 strokes of a leather whip upon their naked rear ends.

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