Mary Lacy - London's Crossdressing Shipbuilder

By Londonist Last edited 11 months ago

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Mary Lacy - London's Crossdressing Shipbuilder

Playwright Mark Daniels tells us the inspiration behind a new play about a remarkable Londoner.

Illustrated page of Mary's memoirs

Mary Lacy was born on the outskirts of London in 1741 and, one day, at the age of 19, she decided to run away and start living as a man. Just like that, out of the blue. Her reasons remain unknown.

She used a new name, William Chandler, and went to work on ships from Chatham to Gosport to Brest. For at least 13 years, she laboured on dockyards and shared lodgings with her male colleagues, without her identity being discovered. She's believed to be the first woman to ever qualify as a shipwright.

A fascinating collection of her memoirs, The Female Shipwright, tells sordid tales of romantic liaisons with women, ship-deck punch-ups with men — and gives insights into how she felt about gender. When her identity was discovered by a doctor during a medical examination for her pension, word spread. Mary Lacy was quite the scandal at the time, but for some reason — perhaps due to little being known about her life after her early retirement to Deptford, or to the main source about her being a single, hard-to-come-by book — her story has been largely lost to time.

Mark Daniels has written a play that's part historical drama, part heartwarming fairy tale.

When the King's Head Theatre in Angel announced they were running a season of work about untold stories, I knew it was the perfect place for my play, Mary Lacy Woz Queer. Me and a cast of three wonderful actors will bring Mary's little-known yet remarkable story to life, in a way that makes it relevant to today. It's initially set in 2023, where non-binary history student, Krissy — themselves on a gender identity journey — discovers Mary's story. They become so obsessed, that the chimneys of the building Mary reportedly lived in start talking to them. Yes… the play features talking chimneys.

Part historical drama, part heartwarming fairy tale, Mary Lacy Woz Queer uncovers the truth about Mary, and fills in the gaps with imagination. We'll make audiences think about history's importance, the ownership of its stories — and introduce them to one incredible Londoner.

Mary Lacy Woz Queer, King’s Head Theatre, 28 March-1 April

Last Updated 24 March 2023

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