Lady Hamilton - the Wirral woman who won the heart of Horatio Nelson

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 February 2014

Painting by George Romney (1734 - 1802:) 
Lady Hamilton as 'Nature', 1782
oil on canvas
29 7/8 in. x 24 3/4 in. (75.88 cm x 62.87 cm)
Henry Clay Frick Bequest.
Accession number: 1904.1.103

Painting by George Romney (1734 - 1802:) Lady Hamilton as 'Nature', 1782 oil on canvas 29 7/8 in. x 24 3/4 in. (75.88 cm x 62.87 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1904.1.103

© The Frick Collection, Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

Valentine’s Day is at hand, so let’s recall one of the great romances of history, between a British war hero and an extraordinary self-made woman from Wirral

Archivist, Will Meredith, at Lady Lever Gallery with Lady Hamilton portraitArchivist, Will Meredith, at Lady Lever Gallery with Lady Hamilton portrait

When a weeping Emma, Lady Hamilton, threw herself upon the conquering hero Horatio Nelson in Naples one September day in 1798, the seeds were sown for a love affair which would scandalise Britain and resound down the ages.

She was the 33-year-old wife of the British envoy to Naples, Sir William Hamilton - twice her age. Lord Nelson was the man who had just delivered a devastating defeat to Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of the Nile.

Victory had not been without cost. He had been shot in the forehead, and was still in pain from the loss of his right arm a year earlier at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

What better medicine for the weary hero than to be clasped to the bosom of the most renowned beauty of the age?

Lord NelsonLord Nelson

Emma nursed Nelson in the Neapolitan palazzo she shared with her husband, and their love affair began, with no apparent objection from Sir William. When Nelson was recalled to Britain, Sir William and Lady Hamilton travelled there too. And Nelson settled down not with his wife Fanny, but in a domestic situation which would be peculiar even by today’s moral standards.

‘Back in England, Emma gave birth to Nelson’s daughter Horatia in 1801,’ says Will Meredith, an archivist with Wirral Archives Service, who has given talks on Emma Hamilton. ‘This was at a period when Nelson lived openly with Emma, Sir William and Emma’s mother in Wimbledon, an arrangement which fascinated and scandalised the public.’

Stranger yet was the route Emma had taken to become this object of such fascination. Here she was, a lady of the aristocracy who could count Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily among her friends. And yet Emma Hamilton began life as the daughter of an illiterate blacksmith in a miserable coalmining village on the Wirral Peninusula.

Her parents Henry Lyon and Mary Kidd married at Neston Parish Church in June 1764, and Emma was christened there - as Emily, Emy or Amy according to contradictory reports - in May 1765. Life in the community surrounding the Denhall coal mine, where Henry worked, was dirty, tough and drab. It was also tenuous; Henry died within weeks of his daughter’s baptism.

Mary took her daughter back to her own parents’ home in Hawarden, Flintshire, where a young Emma reportedly sold handfuls of coal by the roadside.

‘At the age of 12 she was a maid for a doctor in Chester, then her mother went to London and Emma went with her and became a nursemaid in the house of another doctor,’ says Will Meredith.

Emma worked at the Drury Lane Theatre as a maid, and then as a model and dancer for James Graham, who owned a medical establishment called the Temple of Aesculapius.

‘She would pose in this establishment in flimsy garments as Hygieia, goddess of health,’ says Will. ‘There were all kinds of healing things going on. There was a “celestial bed” for couples who wished to get pregnant, and the bed had all kinds of mechanical things I won’t go into at the moment.’

Dr Graham was exploring the supposed healing powers of electricity, and the rich and powerful flocked to his door.

‘Emma started meeting aristocratic men who patronised this establishment,’ says Will. ‘This was an age in which aristocrats having mistresses was accepted. She became the mistress of a succession of aristocratic men, each one more prominent and wealthy than the one before.’

Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh hired a 15-year-old Emma to entertain his guests

at his Sussex estate, which she did, reportedly, by dancing naked on the

dining table. She had a child, ‘little Emma’, by Sir Harry, who promptly dumped her. But Charles Greville, and MP, came to Emma’s aid.

‘Greville kept her in her own home in Edgeware Road,’ says Will. ‘She changed her name to Emma Hart and she went to sit for the painter George Romney, a friend of Greville. Being very beautiful, she was painted many times and it was as a result of the paintings that she became well known in upper class society.’

But Greville sought to marry for money, and decided to offload Emma onto his uncle Sir William Hamilton.

‘It was at this time that Emma collected little Emma, aged two and a half, from her great grandmother’s in Hawarden and went for a seaside holiday at Parkgate, lodging in the house of a lady whose husband was at sea,’ says Will. ‘She spent her days bathing and playing with little Emma and writing to Greville, saying: “Pray, my dearest Greville, write soon and tell me what to do as I will do just what you think proper, and tell me what to do with the child.”’

Greville’s wish was that Emma go on what she thought was a holiday to Naples in 1786. Here, in Sir William’s care, Emma developed her ‘Attitudes’ - wordless performances in which she struck poses evoking Greek and Roman myth.

In 1791, Emma and Sir William married, and she became Lady Hamilton - a genuine rags to riches story. And yet, even as she shared that house in Wimbledon with her diplomat husband and her lover, the national hero, Emma was just a twist of fate away from a return to rags.

In 1803, Sir William died. Nelson returned to the fray in the Napoleonic Wars, dying in 1805 at Trafalgar. Emma was utterly distraught, and about to reap the reward for her unconventional life.

‘Emma fell into debt and the British government ignored Nelson’s explicit instructions to provide for Emma and Horatia in the event of his death,’ says Will. ‘So Emma moved to France to escape her creditors and turned to drink, dying in poverty in Calais in 1815.’

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