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:
So who was “Brown Bess”? 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…” Even earlier a satirical hymn in 1718 noted:
At London Town There was a Wedding,
All in this Golden Age,
‘Twixt fine Squire John with his Breeding,
And Bonny brown bess of the Stage.
This requires a little context. The Hymn is based on a 1707 pamphlet by Richard Kingston about a Elizabeth Gray who performs the role of “whore of Babylon” at a Playhouse: hence the “a Bonny brown bess of the Stage.” Later she steals Squire John Lacy away from a “true” lady and gets married.
“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”.
The 18th century “Leaping over the Sword” military marriage tradition captures the crassness of the soldiery. In 1785, it was described as an “ancient ceremony” where the engaged couple would hold hands and jump over a sword laid on the ground. While doing so the sergeant of the company would say:
Leap rogue, and jump whore,
And then you are married for evermore.
After that the couple were considered man and wife in the eyes of the soldier’s comrades. Of course this was not a legal marriage, rather a social celebration. In the same period, the slang expression “Punk” meant both a whore or a soldier’s female companion. While “brown bess” meaning whore disappeared after 1750, its association with the British soldier’s musket has stood the test of time.