Share



Access Heritage Logo (formerly the Discriminating General)

  

 

 Follow us on: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Why was a British Musket called a "Brown Bess"?

Why was a British Musket called a "Brown Bess"?

MANY A HISTORY BOOK WILL SUGGEST A NUMBER OF THEORIES TO THIS QUESTION. Some historians were fearful of offending their readers or wanted to put the early British soldier in a more noble light.  So a common answer bantered about is that the British soldier was so fond of Queen Elizabeth the First that over a century later, the nicknamed their musket "Bess" after her.  A sentimental theory that has no facts to back it up.

At the beginning of the 18th Century when the nickname immerged, soldiers came from the lower orders of society.  "Bess" was the nickname for a common woman, much like the name "Sheila" has been used in Australia.  For example in 1683 Henry Purcell composed a popular song that came to be known as "Bess of Bedlam, or Mad Bess."  Bedlam was a reference to the insane asylum of London. Below is a reprint on the song in 1725:

 

  1683 Henry Purcell composed a popular song that came to be known as "Bess of Bedlam, or Mad Bess."

So who was "Brown Bess"?  But a poem by Thomas Brown in 1730 starts to unlock the answer:

Poor naked Tom in bed was left.
In this most sharp and strange distress;
'Twas then I thought on trusty Bess;
Who, tho' I knew she was but poor,
I always found a faithful whore.

A few lines from a poem in the The Norfolk poetical miscellany in 1744 solves the mystery:  "Ne'er balk his Amours - let him kiss all he meets - from Fanny the Fair - to brown Bess in the Streets..."

"Brown Bess" was the lowest order of street prostitute, darkened by exposure to the sun while she sold her wears.  Soldiers regularly mingled with and used the services of these women in the 18th century.  The Bailey court records offer numerous cases of soldiers being robbed by "brown Besses" or fights with them.

A common slang expression by 1785 was to "Hug Brown Bess" which meant to join the army. There were variations of this like "married to Brown Bess" meaning you were a soldier. These sayings have a whole new humorous dynamic when you consider the true meaning of the name "Brown Bess". 

 

 A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (1735) illustrating higher class prostitutes at the time
A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth (1735) illustrating higher class prostitutes at the time
the name "Brown Bess" became the nickname for the British musket.

This was the more typical Brown Bess or Common Prostitute -  by William Hogarth 1747.
This was the more typical Brown Bess or Common Prostitute -  by William Hogarth 1747.

Note the British Grenadier smoking his pipe in the image to the right.
The same Prostitute in the previous image betrays the man to the authorities.
Note the British Grenadier smoking his pipe in the image to the right.

Prostitute being drummed out of a British camp in 1780
Prostitute being drummed out of a British camp in 1780 (Royal Collection)
 

(Since writing this short article, I came across a more detailed work on the subject:  Jonathan Ferguson, Trusty Bess’: the Definitive Origins and History of the term 'Brown Bess' (Arms and Armour, 2017).  He quotes some of the same sources used here and it is a good read.)

Black Powder Flintlock Muzzleloaders
Many types of Brown Bess for sale. The musket that is.

 

 

 Author Robert Henderson enjoys unearthing and telling stories of military valour, heritage, and sacrifice from across the globe. Lest we forget.

 

Black Powder Flintlock Muzzleloaders
Brown Besses for sale.  The muskets that is.

 

MORE FREE ARTICLES like this one can be found here:
Military Heritage Internet Magazine Free history articles

 

Access Heritage Logo (formerly the Discriminating General)
 

Copyright 1995-2020: Unless otherwise noted, all information, images, data contained within this website is protected by copyright under international law. Any unauthorized use of material contained here is strictly forbidden. All rights reserved. Access Heritage Inc (formerly The Discriminating General) is in no way to be held accountable for the use of any content on this website. See Conditions of Use.