Phoebe Hessel was born in Stepney in 1713. A colourful character in and around Brighton in her later life, she enthralled passers by with her tales of being a soldier in her youth. Phoebe disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the British army to be with her lover Samuel Golding according to the stories told about her. It is believed that she served as a soldier in the West Indies and Gibralter. She and her lover both fought and were wounded in the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. Eventually, she admitted to the Colonel's wife that she was indeed a woman, which led to their being discharged in order for them to marry. They moved to Plymouth where they had nine children, none of whom survived Phoebe.
After Golding died, she moved to Brighton to marry Thomas Hessel, a fisherman. After he died, leaving her a widow at 80, she made a living by selling fish. Later Phoebe became something of a celebrity in Brighton amusing people with her tales as she sold oranges, toys and gingerbread on the corner of the Steyne and Marine Parade. In 1808 the Prince Regent granted her a pension of half a guinea a week. Phoebe was the grand age of 108 when she died and is buried in St. Nicholas churchyard in Brighton.
The inscription on Phoebe Hessel’s gravestone reads:
In Memeory of PHOEBE HESSEL who was born at Stepney in the Year 1713. She served for many Years as a private soldier in the 5th Reg. of foot in different parts of Europe and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the DUKE of CUMBERLAND at the Battle of Fontenoy where she received a Bayonet wound in her Arm. Her long life which commenced in the time of QUEEN ANNE extended to the reign of GEORGE IV by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter Years. She died at Brighton where she had long resided December 12th 1821 Aged 108 Years
This gravestone was paid for by the local pawnbroker, Hyam Lewis, shortly after her burial, and was later restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers, who considered Phoebe a member of their regiment.