I received your letter dated the 24th on the day we left Portsmouth. We set sail amidst a great crowd of people who had come to the docks to witness the event. Whether they wished us well or ill, everyone was well behaved and seemed to enjoy themselves as if at a carnival. After all, we are the first ship in Her Majesty’s Navy to sail with a female crew. The senior officers and senior positions are held by men, but all of the rest of the berths are filled by women.
The only person who didn’t seem to enjoy our send off was our captain, Captain Geoffrey Hunt. I think he would have preferred to set sail in the dark of night. It is one thing to sail with an inexperienced female crew as part of an experiment, but to have the ship commissioned as the Pinafore was a blow to his pride. To most of us, it is delightful to have the ship named after Messrs Sullivan and Gilbert’s opera, but I’m sure there are many in the admiralty who do not share the sense of humor.
You were correct, father, the Pinafore is built on the hull of the old New Hope. She’s a wonderful sloop with a single screw. She’s not very fast when under steam, but when the sails are set, oh Papa, she flies! The first part of our journey is all about learning to function as a crew. Our average naval officer spends upwards to eight years learning his trade. We have had only one year of training and only three of us have any prior experience sailing a vessel on the ocean. While all of the officers, whether commissioned or warrant, are enthusiastic volunteers, the same is not true of our enlisted ranks. I daresay that the bulk of our enlisted ranks were destitute girls living on the streets. Some were convicted of crimes such as petty theft or solicitation and were given the option of serving a prison term or enlisting in our grand experiment.
Despite their checkered pasts, they are transforming into a good crew. Perhaps they share the same thrill of adventure and pride in doing what no other women have done. To borrow a line from the opera, “a British Tar is a soaring soul” best describes the spirit of the crew. As an example, at first they were hesitant to climb into the rigging. Now, it is hard to get them to come down. I think it is that sensation of flying and total freedom one feels when aloft.
Our ship’s compliment is 120. As I said before, all of the senior officers are men, but also the warrants are men as well. To break down the crew along gender, there are thirty men and ninety women. The most senior woman officer is Lieutenant Jane Powell. You may recognize her name from the papers, she sailed her own ship around the world and came within a few days of beating the record held by the Americans. We’ve been at sea for nearly two weeks and not a single female officer has been invited to the wardroom. Captain Hunt appears to be a dour man devoid of any humor. I wonder if he views his assignment to the Pinafore as some sort of punishment?
I’ve been working closely with our Master-at-Arms, Mr. MacMillan. I’ve been assigned to teach small arms drill and marksmanship to the crew. Lieutenant Powell has told me that I’ll be in command of most shore parties and to train the crew well. Along the lines of marksmanship, I’ve asked our ship’s Carpenter, Mr. Teixeira, to manufacture a few targets to tow behind the ship. He’s a curious man with an odd accent. I think he must be Portuguese. With that said, I must put pen and paper aside to spend time studying the rifle drill manual. I’ll post this letter when we reach Gibraltar at the conclusion of the “shake down” portion of our journey.
I really want to thank you, father, and your friends in Parliament for making my commission possible. I only hope that mother will someday forgive me for shunning a life of marriage for the company of women.
Your loving daughter,
Lieutenant Caroline Matthews