Women on Trial: British Soldiers’ Wives Tried by Court Martial

"Deserter taking leave of his wife," George Morland, 1791. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

Wives of British soldiers were allowed to accompany their husbands overseas, much like spouses of military personnel often do today. Unlike modern militaries, however, wives of soldiers often lived in the barracks and encampments, and accompanied their husbands on campaigns. Although not under the contractual obligations of an enlistment, wives were fed by the army and subject to some of the same regulations as the soldiers. They could be put on trial for violations of military law, and a number of British army wives were tried by general court martial in America for an assortment of crimes.

In the National Archives of Great Britain are the proceedings of hundreds of general court martial trials, including several at which army wives were prosecuted. Five examples appear below, revealing a few vignettes in the lives of women whose lives would otherwise be almost completely unknown.

Isabella McMahan, 43rd Regiment of Foot

When a knock came on the door in the middle of the night, Thomas McMahon did not want to answer it. The soldier in the 43rd Regiment lived in a house in Boston with his wife Isabella, an indulgence allowed by the army to married couples who were trustworthy and who could afford their own lodgings. It was December of 1775, and the city had been under siege for eight months. At the McMahan’s door were three soldiers of the 59th Regiment, married men who had been to their house before to drink. Thomas McMahan finally opened the door, and seeing that the visitors had bundles asked where they had gotten them. One soldier said they had clothing and fabric that they’d found in a house abandoned by a man who had gone to the West Indies, and then asked if they could store them for a while at the house?

There were enough abandoned buildings in Boston, and enough animosity among British soldiers toward the Yankees who had started a war, that McMahon allowed the men to store the goods in the cellar in return for a share of them. Over the next day or so, Thomas and Isabella McMahon helped them parcel out the goods; Thomas retained some cloth for a coat, Isabella kept six pairs of stockings and some calamanco for a petticoat. They sold some of the goods and divided the proceeds with the soldiers who’d brought them. Then the provost martial came to search the house.

The provost martial was the senior military law enforcement officer; he and his men were searching for goods stolen from a store, and they knew where to look. The store was some distance away, but one of the soldiers of the 59th Regiment had confessed to the theft and agreed to testify against the others.

On December 13, 1775, two soldiers of the 59th Regiment were tried by a general court martial and convicted for theft. Thomas and Isabella McMahon were tried for “receiving Sundry stolen goods knowing them to be such” (it was not unusual to have two or more defendants on trial at the same time if they faced charges for the same crime). They were found guilty; he was sentenced to receive one thousand lashes, a fairly typical punishment for this type of crime. She was sentenced “to receive one hundred lashes on her bare back at the Cart’s tail in different portions in the most conspicuous parts of the town, & to be imprisoned for three months.” The number of lashes was low compared to sentences for soldiers, and the mode of giving them was quite different. Whereas soldiers were usually lashed in front of their regiments to set an example, Isabella McMahan was to be tied to the back of a cart and lashed in front of townspeople, which would both humiliate her and show that the army would not tolerate crimes against the civilian population.[1]

As of yet, there is no record of whether the punishments were carried out or forgiven.

Mary Jeffries, Brigade of Guards

The British army included three regiments of Foot Guards charged with protecting the royal family and government institutions. After war broke out in America, a composite brigade consisting of about 1000 men was formed of volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments to serve in the war. The Brigade of Guards arrived in America in 1776 and participated in major campaigns throughout the war, including New York, Philadelphia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. One soldier in the brigade was John Jeffries, a private from the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. While the brigade was wintering in Philadelphia in late 1777 and early 1778, Jeffries met a local woman, Mary Staiger. He dutifully applied to his colonel for permission to marry her but was disappointed when his request was not granted.

They married anyway in Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei Church on April 9, 1778.[2] When the army left the city in early June, Mary accompanied her new husband. Not all women were officially allowed on the march and she may have been among those excluded, for John and Mary stayed at the rear of the company while the army was on the move. Each time the army halted, they “made their Hut” some distance away from the rest of the company. This behavior, uncharacteristic of the soldier who had in the past always kept up with his comrades, aroused the suspicion of Jeffries’ sergeant, James Wilson. Rather than take any direct action such as ordering Jeffries to keep up and to bivouac with his company, Sergeant Wilson reported to the colonel his suspicion that the couple intended to desert. The officer directed Wilson “particularly to observe Jeffries.”

The army arrived at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, and there waited to board ships for the final part of their journey to Staten Island. On the morning of July 3, in spite of his sergeant’s close observation, John Jeffries was absent from the ten o’clock roll call. Following the usual protocol when a man was absent, a search was made for his spare shirts, stockings and shoes; when it was discovered that they were missing, a typical sign of desertion, search parties were sent out. They found Mary in a house a quarter mile behind the encampment at about two o’clock that afternoon with her own clothing packed up but none of her husband’s. She said that she knew nothing of his whereabouts or intentions, but she was nonetheless confined on suspicion of having “advised and persuaded” him to desert. She sailed with the army to New York and awaited her trial.

She was brought before a general court martial in Brooklyn three weeks later. The court called her Mary Jeffries and a “follower of the army,” but she used the terms “husband” or “wife” (in many other trials, wives are explicitly referred to as, for example, “Mrs. Lindon of the 22nd Regiment”). Sergeant Wilson, the sole witness, related the circumstances above and claimed that she spoke of returning to Philadelphia where her father lived. In her defense, Mary repeated that she knew nothing of her husband’s desertion. She said not only that she had gone to the house in the rear of the encampment to wash her clothing, but that she had informed Sergeant Wilson of her intentions before doing so. While the sergeant claimed to have found her at the house with her clothing packed up, she said that another soldier had found her there while her clothes were hanging out to dry, and that she then packed them up and went herself to the sergeant. Responding to the claim that she would return to Philadelphia, Mary Jeffries explained that many soldiers’ wives had heard they might not be allowed on the transports, and some decided that they would return to Philadelphia if they were so refused; she herself had planned to see her husband on board the ship before returning.

The court acquitted her, probably because Sergeant Wilson was the only witness against her and her explanations were reasonable enough. Although the sergeant testified that he had “heard since Jeffries’s Desertion that he has been seen” in Philadelphia, we have no information on his actual fate, nor the life pursued by Mary Jeffries after the trial.[3]

Eleanor Webb, Brigade of Guards

Another soldier from the Brigade of Guards who married an American woman was Edward Webb. The twenty-five-year-old soldier from Sedgley, Staffordshire, married Eleanor Deley on May 14, 1778, in Philadelphia’s Gloria Dei Church.[4] Although the six-year army veteran had never learned to write, he had learned the trade of a nail maker before enlisting. An inch under six feet tall, with dark brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion, he was a good specimen for a soldier. He took his new bride back to New York with the army. In October of 1779 they were living with their brigade in huts of boards or logs with thatched roofs, which were often built into the sides of hills. A dozen or so men and their wives might live in these one-room huts; they were cramped but cozy quarters for the cold season.

One night in late October, three soldiers of the Guards arrived at the door of the hut that Eleanor Webb shared with her husband and others. They asked for something to drink, and she obliged. Then they asked if they might leave a bundle there for a while, which she also allowed. They returned the next day to open the bundle and divvy up the contents, one soldier saying he’d found the bundle, containing an assortment of cloth and three pairs of women’s stays, in the street. They gave Eleanor Webb a pair of stays, two pieces of calico cloth, and one piece of plain cloth. She hesitated to take them, saying she was afraid they were stolen, but the soldiers assured her they had been found. Some of the goods remained in the hut, and one of the soldiers took the remainder.

The next day more people arrived at the huta shopkeeper, a constable, and some men assisting them. They searched the hut and found some of the things from the bundle, which had indeed been stolen from the shopkeeper’s shop. She had received a tip that they’d be found in the Webbs’ hut. Other things had been found in the camp of a Hessian regiment, where soldiers and wives had bought them from a British soldier. A few days later the constable and his men returned, and this time they dug into the ground under Edward Webb’s bed. They found more stolen goods. Edward and Eleanor Webb, and four other soldiers of the Brigade of Guards, were put under arrest.

Three soldiers were tried in early December for breaking into the shop and stealing an assortment of goods, the key witness being another participant in the crime who agreed to turn “King’s evidence,” that is, to testify on behalf of the prosecution in return for immunity. When that trial concluded, Edward and Eleanor Webb, along with one other soldier, were tried for “receiving and secreting of goods stolen” from the shopkeeper. The prosecution’s testimony was straightforward, relating the events described above. Eleanor Webb testified honestly about her concern that the items had been stolen as well as the reassurance she’d been given that they were not. The court, however, did not accept this as an excuse. Plundering and the distribution of stolen goods had been a rampant problem in the British army in America, and many similar trials were held during the eighteen months that Mrs. Webb had been with the army. Edward and Eleanor Webb were found guilty; he was sentenced to receive five hundred lashes, while she was sentenced to be “drummed out of the lines with a rope around her neck.”[5]

Having an American wife, and having been sentenced to lashes, Edward Webb had every reason to desert. But he didn’t. He remained in the army until 1796, in the Foot Guards and then in a militia regiment, after which he received a pension. Twice he was called up from the pension rolls to serve in garrison corps, taking his final discharge in November of 1807. What became of his wife Eleanor, however, is unknown.[6]

Sophia Sinclair, 76th Regiment of Foot

The 76th Regiment was raised in Scotland in late 1777 and 1778, one of several regiments created for the duration of the American war and disbanded after hostilities ended. The regiment sailed for America in 1779. On board one of the transports, the Kingston, a soldier named Hugh Fraser was walking on the forecastle when Sophia Sinclair approached him and grabbed his collar. They apparently had some sort of joke between them that she was playing upon, but something went wrong. For reasons that remain a mystery, Fraser didn’t take it lightly. He turned on Sophia, put his hands around her throat and shouted, “You will not do that, I am not afraid of you!” She struggled with him, apparently trying to free herself, but his arms were longer than hers. Her husband John sprang to her aid, punching Fraser once on the left side of the head and once in the stomach. Fraser collapsed immediately against the rigging, then fell to the deck without a sound and almost without movement. A crowd gathered; someone swore that Fraser was dead, and Sinclair, still agitated by the apparent assault on his wife, responded, “If he could he would give him more.”

Hugh Fraser was, in fact, dead. The regimental surgeon was summoned from another transport, but by the time he arrived to examine Fraser, the lower part of his stomach had become discolored. It was nightfall, so the surgeon waited until the next morning to examine Fraser’s body. By that time “the Putrefaction had so suddenly taken place, that he was prevented seeking further into it.”

A few months later, in November, after the regiment arrived in New York and settled in, John and Sophia Sinclair were put on trial for murder. They were tried together, each witness testifying once. Although no one had seen exactly what began the scuffle, several people had seen John Sinclair strike Fraser, including one man who had been “looking over a Corporal’s Shoulder who was reading” when the noise on deck caught his attention. Everyone agreed that Fraser had been in good health, that there had been no previous sign of animosity between him and Sophia Sinclair, and to have “seen people engage in a fiercer manner without such a fatal accident happening.”

John Sinclair presented a brief written defense that read simply, “Honorable Gentlemen, The unhappy blow given to the deceased Hugh Fraser, was with no intent of taking his Life, I therefore leave myself to your mercy, and to the Character of the Gentlemen who appear in my behalf.” Sophia testified that she had only taken hold of Fraser’s collar, and that “what she did in the late unhappy affair was with no intention.” Two officers testified to their good character, including one for whom John Sinclair had been a servant for a year before incident occurred; “he behaved himself honestly, and with Sobriety … he should not have parted with him, but for this late unhappy affair,” and she “always behaved herself exceedingly well.”

John and Sophia Sinclair were acquitted of murder. Incomplete surviving muster rolls make it impossible to trace their subsequent lives.[7]

Ann Hennessey, 52nd Regiment of Foot

When Boston was besieged by a nascent American army in 1775, the British garrison, in order to adopt a war footing, allocated a single barracks building for soldiers’ wives rather than the usual mode of allowing them space in the barracks of each regiment.[8] Wives were not required to live in this barracks, however, if they could afford something on their own. Ann Hennessey of the 52nd Regiment rented a ground-floor apartment in an otherwise-vacant house in the city’s north end. The house abutted another vacant house (which suggests something about conditions in the besieged city which many residents had abandoned), and there was a doorway adjoining the garrets of the two buildings.

In December of 1775, a widow named Ann Powers came to Hennessey’s apartment to make a gown for her. She fell ill while there, and stayed for a few days to recover. During her convalescence, she discerned various aspects of Hennessey’s routine, although, being bedridden, she heard more than she saw. Hennessey went upstairs from time to time, only briefly. Her husband John, a soldier in the 52nd Regiment came to the house for meals, an indulgence allowed to responsible married soldiers. Once she heard her tell her husband something about things in the basement. And one morning a man came to buy tobacco from Hennessey; Powers heard them talking about things for sale, and the man saying he’d come back that evening with another man to make some purchases with Hennessey telling him, “don’t fail.”

Later that same day, Ann Hennessey came home from running errands and found two more men in the house: the owner of the house next door and a soldier employed by the provost martial. They had a search warrant, and proceeded to search the house for clothing, bedding and some other things that had gone missing from the adjoining house. They had to break into two upstairs rooms and a closet, since Hennessey had no keys to them. In the closet they found the missing bedding, so they took both women, Ann Hennessey and Anne Powers, to the jail. Once there, Powers suggested that there might be more things in the basement, and the remainder of the missing goods were in fact recovered from there.

John and Ann Hennessey were put on trial for theft. During the testimony, however, several things became clear: the garret door adjoining the two houses was not locked; neither the back entrance nor the outside basement entrance to the house where Hennessey lived had locks either. Anyone could have gotten in, and Hennessey had to prop the doors shut with chairs because she couldn’t lock them. The homeowner told the court that Hennessey had a key that opened the closet, but the provost martial soldier explained that they had first broken the lock such that any key could have opened it. As to the conversations overheard by Powers, Hennessey explained that she had told her husband that she found things in the basement that hadn’t been there before; that a soldier had come to buy tobacco from her (it was quite common for army wives to earn their living by selling consumables to soldiers), and when she explained that she had none, the soldier said he would return in the evening with a man who had some that she could purchase. Both John and Ann Hennessey denied having any knowledge of the stolen goods, other than Ann having found things in the basement.

Lacking any evidence that the Hennessey’s had stolen the goods, Ann and John were acquitted. One would hope that the homeowner took better care to secure his house.[9]


[1] Trial of Thomas Owen and Henry Johnston, WO 71-82, 203 –206; Trial of Thomas and Isabella McMahon, WO 71-82, 207 – 210, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England (TNA).

[2] Park M’Farland, jr., Marriage Records of Gloria Dei Church (Philadelphia: M’Farland & Son, 1879), 75.

[3] Trial of Mary Jeffries, WO 71/86, 174-176, TNA.

[4] M’Farland, Marriage Records of Gloria Dei Church, 76.

[5] Trial of William Grinsell, Edward Webb and Eleanor Webb, WO 71-91, 47 – 51, TNA.

[6] Discharges of Edward Webb, WO 121/13/11 WO 121/116/36, WO 121/145/497, WO 121/156/113, TNA.

[7] Trial of John and Sophia Sinclair WO 71-91, 22 – 27, TNA.

[8] General Orders, America, WO 36/1, TNA, entry for May 31, 1775.

[9] Trial of John and Ann Hennessey, WO 71/82, 235-240, TNA.

Tags from the story
, ,
More from Don N. Hagist

Top 10 Facts About British Soldiers

1 // They were volunteers The British Army was not allowed to...
Read More


  • Interesting article, thank you for the research.

    The line company of the period typically had 6 NCOs authorized , 3 sergeants and 3 corporals. They also were allowed to maintain 6 laundress / wives on establishment for pay and rations. The opportunity for a private’s wife to find employment was usually a little limited as a result.

    From a modern perspective, it’s difficult to understand the seriousness of the crime of clothing theft in our period of mass production. I’ve read accounts that indicate a carpenter could purchase a saw for a weeks wages, but to purchase shoes and an entire outfit to be fully clothed in better fashion might require more like six moths worth. I’ve seen an estate inventory where two sets of bed linens were valued more than the carved walnut four poster bed they were for. Clothing was labor intensive.
    Adverts for runaway apprentices or slaves invariably described their clothing as they were unlikely to obtain more, and theft of that amount was a serious crime in addition to running away.

    The army was not always so understanding about transport of soldiers families, it was important to have written record of permission. The British army of the Spanish peninsular campaign left many soldier’s Spanish wives to cope for themselves, when they refused transport for them when the troops left.


    • At the beginning of the war, the established strength of a British infantry regiment included 2 sergeants and 3 corporals. This establishement was increased to 3 sergeants and 3 corporals in 1775, the orders for which arrived in Boston in early December.
      As for the women, there was no limit to the number who could draw rations (in the 1775-1783 period); the 6-per-company figure is the number that was allocated shipping when regiments were sent from Great Britain to America. Once in America, the numbers increased because some soldiers married locally, and some wives who weren’t able to get shipping through the army found their own means to make the passage. I’ve written extensively about this here: The Women of the British Army in America

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *