Tracing Emma’s Footsteps

Emma and Nelson’s Family

Article by Lily Style for The 1805 Club’s Kedge Anchor Magazine, Spring 2018 © The 1805 Club and Lily Style

Emma’s relationship with Nelson’s wife Fanny should perhaps be discussed first as, through experience, many people cannot abide the briefest mention of Emma without immediately focusing on Nelson’s wife and lamenting, ‘oh, but I feel sorry for poor Fanny!’, whilst being happy not to think of her at all when talking of Nelson – who surely was more responsible for the treatment of his wife than Emma?  

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It is true that Emma, through her presence, was inarguably active in the married couple’s separation, and many people have taken high umbrage at her nicknaming Fanny ‘Tom Tit’, but to my mind this nickname feels fairly unaggressive.  It was also used by William Nelson’s wife Sarah and Nelson’s family, in fact, found Fanny quite difficult.  For example, in writing of her 2nd great-grandfather Rev. Edmund Nelson, Mary Eyre Matcham says:

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“The Rector at once welcomed his daughter-in-law [Fanny] as a correspondent ; though it seems almost prophetic that the poor woman’s first letter reported by him is marked by the note of complaint, which so often jarred on the family nerves throughout their intercourse.  How much of it, with or without reason, her father-in-law had to listen to in future years is sad to think of.”   

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Should Emma therefore be singled out for using this nickname?  Emma – like all of us, including Nelson – was a living, breathing human being capable of bad deeds as well as good.  I personally feel the good she did was great, but that every fraction of an ounce of bad has been magnified out of proportion by nay-sayers.  Who harangues Nelson’s memory for discarding Fanny and declaring Emma the wife of his heart?  However, bearing in mind the Victorian misogynist – women can only be sluts or a saints – policy of making Nelson great by dumping all the negatives onto Emma, if naming Fanny ‘Tom Tit’ is the worst accusation found, then I say she shines forth as exponentially better than most modern day celebrities under similar scrutiny.  So Emma – a married woman in love with someone else – does not come across to me as evil – merely human.

Susannah Bolton in 1813, plate in Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe

On a similarly tarnished vein, Nelson’s two surviving sisters, Susanna and Kitty, along with their husbands Tom Bolton and George Matcham, have recently been defamed in a best selling book as penniless scroungers who leeched soft-hearted Emma dry because:

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“They were always looking for help for their packs of children. Susanna had twin girls in their early twenties, a young son, and two pre-teenage daughters, and Kitty had five children under the age of twelve, and gave birth to another girl in 1801, naming her Horatia as a tribute to Emma's daughter. Kitty was almost constantly breast-feeding or pregnant throughout the early 1800s and she relied on her brother and his mistress to help her make ends meet [...] Exhausted by the recent tour, he was tired of watching [Emma] indulge Nelson’s grasping family.” 

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This portrait, however, appears to be based on dramatic conjecture rather than historical fact.  Of many contrary accounts, the following expands also on the attitude of Nelson’s family towards Fanny: 

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“George Matcham, Nelson's youngest brother-in-law, was seldom importuning. His family grew and his dream of retiring to the continent loitered, but he showed great forbearance over the £4000[*] he had loaned the admiral, and seldom wanted much for himself beyond an occasional introduction to this or that person, or written testimonials on behalf of 'poor relatives'. He alone remained uncomfortable with the family's treatment of Fanny [**]. Kate [***] is said to have wished Lady Nelson dead, and Susannah even faulted the way she spread her hands when talking[.]”  * Over £200,000 in modern currency.  ** The author, Sugden may have based this on a single later source which he quotes next, but which we shall visit later. *** Kitty.

George Matcham, plate in Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe

Now settled at Merton, Emma – who went on regular London shopping trips with Sarah, the wife of Nelson’s elder brother William – took their children Charlotte and Horace under her wing:  

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“Fourteen-year-old Charlotte came down on a regular half-day holiday and sat with Sir William while he caught the occasional pike in the river.  Emma gave her French and Italian lessons as well as entertained her with outings and gifts.  Both Charlotte and Horace stayed at Merton when on holiday from school, and Nelson paid for Horace’s schooling at Eton and his clothes.  [...] Other family members descended for Christmas; Mrs Matcham and her eight children, the Boltons with their six children, and the William Nelsons with their two children.” 

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Of Nelson’s father (his only other surviving close family) Hilda Gamlin – a firm Emma-phile who based much of her extensive research on preserved correspondence of both Fanny and Sir William Hamilton – writes:

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“Nelson's first thought and arrangement after his arrival at Merton on October 22nd [1801], was to ensconce his venerable father, the Rev. Edmund Nelson of Burnham Thorpe, at Merton. A warm room and good nursing were necessities to the aged gentleman, who for some time had suffered from asthma and partial paralysis ; he could no longer hold Divine Service, and could scarcely walk as far as the next house, which was close to his own. By slow stages he reached Merton, and the attentions he there received caused him to write most gratefully when he arrived at Bath, where he had to winter under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Matcham. These latter, he said, meditated a visit of a day or two to Merton when the bairns were returned to their respective academies, "to wait upon Lady Hamilton and yourself!' He desired thanks to Lady Hamilton for her care of a plaid shawl which had been sent to him, and he signed himself with respect to her and Sir William. All of which tends to show that the respectable Nelson family were all of one and the same mind as to the treatment by Lady Nelson of her husband, and that, failing in duty and consideration as she had, there had been no alternative for Nelson but the course of which they one and all approved [...] The Rev. Edmund Nelson had made definite

arrangements to take up his permanent residence at Merton Place in the summer of 1802, but an illness which terminated fatally on April 25th of that year frustrated the design. He died at Bath, aged seventy-eight years.” 

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Three years later, the Matchams and Boltons rallied round heart-broken Emma after news from Trafalgar:

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“William Nelson, so quick to drop Fanny in favour of Emma, now thought it prudent to abandon Emma in turn, although his wife Sarah, now a Countess, would visit her despite the difficulties Emma had with William’s meanness.”

William Nelson, plate in Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe

Nelson bequeathed Emma £2,000 and a £500 annuity, but under the administration of the newly-made Earl Nelson little of this reached her, and a year after Nelson’s death:

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“William Nelson had still not acted upon Nelson’s last codicil to his will and Emma had to write to him urging him to pay her.  He even went to Merton to see what papers he could find and only with the utmost reluctance handed over the coat Nelson had worn at Trafalgar to Emma.  He instructed his wife to write to Emma: the coat which our beloved lamented Lord had on when he received his fatal wound is as you know in our possession – in point of right there can be no doubt as to whom this precious relick belongs, & it certainly is my Lord’s most ardent wish as well as my son’s who spoke very feelingly on the subject before he left us… My Lord is willing & tho’ done with a bleeding heart, to part with it to you, on the proviso she return it to his heir for preservation later.” 

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Beyond this however, other members of Nelson’s family remained vigilant of Emma’s well-being, as reflected by George and Kitty’s great-granddaughter:

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“For the rest her life, Lady Hamilton’s affairs were a source of worry to those who, for the Admiral’s sake, would have wished her to live in comfort and quietness.  But this was beyond her powers.” 

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Emma accumulated crippling debt which eventually cast her, along with teenaged Horatia, into debtor’s prison.  George Matcham wrote to her there in the winter of 1813 offering “potatoes, a turkey and anything their farm could supply” and then later inviting her “to join his family as they prepared to start a life elsewhere.  They offered to take care of both Emma and Horatia but Emma was too proud. In any case, with debtors still hovering to pounce, she had to move quicker than the Matchams were able. [...] She wrote to Earl Nelson asking him for money she was due from the Bronte estate, and he sent her £225. [...] as soon as she was released, she took passage on The Little Tom from London Bridge Wharf in June 1814 setting sail for Calais.” 

That it was George Matcham who sailed for Calais to rescue teenaged Horatia after Emma’s death in January 1815 has been well-remembered by the family.   George and Kitty’s 3rd great-grandson George Jeffreys, who has hosted 1805 Club events, showed me an underlined section in Memoirs of Lady Hamilton (W. H. Long, 1892, p. 313) crediting Horatia’s rescue to Earl Nelson, with next to it a note written by his great-grandfather William Eyre Eyre-Matcham firmly stating, “not so”.  His footnote follows:

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“Mr Matcham, not Earl Nelson went over to Calais, & brought back Horatia to England dressed in boy’s clothes.”

However, although the Matchams then took orphaned Horatia on as their ward, the normally affable George Matcham was distinctly uncomplimentary towards Emma in later years.  His following diatribe (cited also by Sugden, referenced above) portrays Emma as the artful corruptor of malleable Nelson:

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“The connection which [Nelson] formed with a certain lady has been the cause of much blame and much ungrateful calumny.  It was certainly in its commencement of a purely platonic kind ; nor is it much to be wondered that it afterwards assumed a warmer complexion. His warm heart eagerly strove to attach itself to some object of primary affection : if Lady Hamilton had not artfully endeavoured to inveigle it, some other female would.  Long before Lady H. came to England, he had made up his mind not to stay in this country. Better would (it) have been for him, to have adopted his resolution of retiring alone to the Continent ; years might have softened mutual seeming asperities, and he and his wife might have lived at the close of life, peacefully and comfortably.

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“But Lady H.’s disposition was satirical, not I believe from malignity (or) temper, but from an affectation of point and wit.  Her letters and even casual notes were never free from this despicable propensity.  Lord N. in reply to her, could not but somewhat flatteringly adopt her style ; that he ever did an act, to prejudice of another, we may defy the whole world to prove ; the whole invariable tenour of his life was benificent ;  with gentle manners, and of a temper never ruffled, but of unparalleled sweetness, he was the delight of every house he blessed with his company.” 

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This assessment of Emma and Nelson’s relationship feels somewhat tinged by the then prevailing slut or saint view of womankind.  George’s opinion, however, does not, appear to have been shared by fellow Matchams. For example, the impression gleaned from George Jeffreys – George Matcham’s 3rd great-grandson – is of his having inherited a fervently pro-Emma attitude from his parents.  Further, a footer beneath this in the Nelsons of Burnham Thorpe quotes George Matcham’s youngest son, Nelson countering his father’s diatribe:

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“When we reflect that that [Emma’s] hand led him onto glory. That that head planned and devised means of intelligence which paved the way to the boldest enterprizes, that the flattering distinction of a crowned head, and the praises of an admiring world, followed those valorous achievements, and that the unfortunate lady, now no more, possessed a devotion to his glory, to his welfare, and to his interest that knew no bounds, and hesitated at no means to promote these ends.  She was moreover the depositary of every secret of his life, as well as the frequent adviser, or rather approver, of his laudibly ambitious projects ; and lastly, she was of that cheerful turn which beguiled many a tedious hour, smoothed many a rough moment of melancholy musing, and banished many an unwelcome intrusion of painful remembrance.” 

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In summary, barring William Nelson’s cold-seeming dissociation after Trafalgar and George Matchams later diatribe, Emma’s relationship with Nelson’s biological family seems to have been of welcoming cordiality and loyalty that endured.

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Lily Style 2018