Tracing Emma’s Footsteps

 The Mistress and her daughter: Emma, Lady Hamilton and Horatia Nelson 1801-1815

By Alex Grover, Assistant Curator at the Royal Museums Greenwich

Transcript of talk delivered at Queen’s House, Greenwich on 27th February 2019

Horatia as a young girl at Merton Place

Photo © Style family

A quick question for you all, how many biographies do you think have been written about Horatia Nelson? The answer is one, written by Winifred Gérin in 1970. There may be several reasons for this, but the main one is probably that most of Horatia’s life conformed to the social aspirations of the day by becoming a wife and mother.  It was in itself normal, quiet and in many ways quite boring – in direct comparison with her parents, Lord Horatio Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton.  Now this is in no way a criticism of Horatia herself. In fact it is significant exactly for that. Due to the social norms of the early 19th Century the illegitimate female children of mistresses did not usually live normal lives. They were tarnished from birth, their mothers were unmarried and because of this their own choices were severally limited.  Emma Hamilton knew this well, because her own background limited her interactions with social circles in society. So what I’m here to talk about is how Emma and Nelson tried to navigate the minefield of social norms and unwritten codes and the relationship Emma tried to develop with her child. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well for Emma for a lot of reasons and it was definitely not easy for Horatia. The decisions that Emma made, however, illustrate a mother trying to do the best for her child in the worst of circumstances, and although her choices meant poverty and hardship for herself, ultimately she won the great game for Horatia.

The late 18th Century has Emma at the height of her influence and someone who had accomplished more than most women at that time. Despite a very uneasy start in childhood, growing up in poverty in Northern England, she becomes the muse of the painter George Romney, the mistress and eventual wife of the British Ambassador to Naples Sir William Hamilton, the favourite of the Queen of Naples Maria Carolina, and known throughout Europe for her classically influenced choreographed performances, the ‘Attitudes’.  Issues of her background and social standing, (including rumours that she used to be a prostitute), which were essentially ignored when Emma lived in Naples, are reignited when she is forced to move back to Britain in 1800 with Sir William and Nelson, with whom she has now started her famous affair. 

Queen Charlotte refuses to receive Emma at Court, despite a letter of recommendation sent by Maria Carolina, outlining all her achievements as the wife of an ambassador, Emma’s standing in some social circles in Britain had not changed despite all she had accomplished.  High society still looked down its nose at the former actress and she was never truly accepted by many, something that she found for the rest of her life. What’s more, she was pregnant with Nelson’s child. With both Emma and Nelson being high profiles celebrities in their own rights, in separate marriages and their affair creating scandals within Britain via the press, they knew that having a child out of wedlock was unacceptable and the potential damage it could cause to their reputations. To throw people off the scent, which I should note she appears to do quite successfully on her trip from Naples to Britain, Nelson and Emma established a secret communique between them selves, with Nelson writing on behalf of an illiterate sailor known as Mr Thompson to Emma as the protector of Thompson’s pregnant wife. Nelson would destroy Emma’s letters, so as to avoid any suspicion or prevent any impediment to his naval career. Emma, however, kept all of his, which would spell consequences for her later. In these letters, Nelson would pour out his love both for Emma and his soon to new born daughter in a letter dated 1st February 1801, “I believe poor dear Mrs. Thompson’s friend will go mad with joy. He cries, prays and performs all tricks, yet dare not show all or any of his feelings, but he has only me to consult with”. In another letter 2 days later to Emma he writes that “He hopes the time may not be far distant when he may be united for ever to the object of his wish, his only love. He charges that on every opportunity, kiss and bless for him the dear little girl, which he wished to be called Emma, out of gratitude to our dear, good Lady Hamilton”. 

Horatia was born on 29th January 1801. To keep the birth secret from prying eyes, it is written in one letter that she went to bed for three days with the excuse of “a very bad cold” to cover for the birth. No matter how joyous, Horatia’s birth presented Emma and Nelson with a dilemma. Emma was one of many mistresses in society to bear an illegitimate child, but hiding the evidence, so that scandal might be avoided, was deemed essential in fashionable circles. When mistresses in the 18th and 19th Century had illegitimate children, there were usually two options that could be followed, one was to give up the child completely so as to retain their status and never see the child again; or to acknowledge the child as their own, but lose their social status. Some women such as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire were able to return to society from an enforced exile after giving birth to an illegitimate child, but cases like this were rare and many usually had their husbands as protectors and the social capital that Emma lacked. It seems that Emma and Nelson carved a narrow path between these alternatives which can be deemed both risky and brave. One could say very cynically that Emma would never give up the child of Nelson because she knew that Nelson, desperate for a child of his own, would do all he could to provide for it and she could use it as leverage. On the other hand, Horatia was her daughter. Emma already had to give up a child when she was 16 to become the mistress of Charles Greville.  It’s arguably hard to imagine the emotional trauma that Emma would’ve suffered and how difficult it must have been for her to give up her first child. 

A few days after Horatia’s birth, Emma arranged for Horatia to stay with a nurse known as Mrs Gibson, who had been recommended to her by a close friend. By modern standards, this might seem cruel as it deprives both the baby and mother from the early maternal bonding which is now viewed as so important, but back in the 18th Century, this sort of practice was very normal, even for legitimate children. Emma told Mrs Gibson that she was acting as godmother on behalf of the baby’s unknown parents, that absolute discretion was vital and instructs Mrs Gibson to look after Horatia in return for money. She also mentions that the baby was born in October the previous year, despite the baby looking only a few days old. This was to muddy the waters further about Emma being Horatia’s mother. 

By looking at the surviving letters sent to Mrs Gibson, Emma visited, or had Horatia bought to see her frequently for the first three months after she was born. She would constantly ask Mrs Gibson to bring Horatia to her and Sir William’s property in Piccadilly, London, but probably only when Sir William was not at home, so as not to cause discomfort for him. During this time, Emma was also busy finding a new home on Nelson’s behalf, which she did in Merton, and immediately set about altering and redecorating the building, whilst also trying to keep up social appearances hosting lavish parties or being invited to them. Despite efforts trying to conceal Horatia’s existence, there are occasions when Emma does reveal Horatia to people outside of her close circle. Nelson’s captain Thomas Hardy recalls an occasion when he calls in on Emma in 1801. She briefly leaves the room and returns with Horatia saying “Look what a pretty baby I have got”.  Luckily for Emma, it appears Hardy does not think anything more of the baby. Some historians have argued this gives an early glimpse into the maternal pride Emma felt for Horatia, but I also think it was a huge risk to take by showing Horatia in the first place. 

Nelson, who falls in love with Horatia as soon as he sees her for the first time, tries to persuade Emma to bring Horatia to Merton to stay from 1801 onwards. One reason was partly due to concern for Horatia’s welfare, as he knew that both Sir William, but especially Emma’s finances were strained, so he wanted to see her secure. Another reason is that now he finally had a child of his own, he felt that having Emma and Horatia together at Merton would be the realisation of the domestic family life that he had always fantasised about, but never achieved with his wife Frances.

Emma is reluctant to do this. One likely reason is that it might raise suspicious questions from visitors to Merton, but another possibility is that Merton was subject to continuous building alterations right up until 1805, so Emma may not have thought it was a suitable environment for extended visits for a baby at the time. Emma, knowing many people would be curious about her and Nelson’s relationship, begins to form a close friendship with his family, whilst at the same time also maintaining a high degree of discretion about Horatia, for Nelson’s reputation and Sir William’s sake. In her interactions with Nelson’s family, part of her motive is to undermine the influence of Lady Nelson on them, but she also knows how important Horatio’s relatives are to him, hence why she makes the effort. Emma, like Horatio, would become exceedingly generous with presents and money, allowing the junior members to stay at Merton, educating them, especially Charlotte Nelson and Ann Bolton and through her skills and contacts as a former ambassador’s wife, even introduces some of them to high society. Soon enough Merton would become the holiday for the younger generation of the Nelson family. This not only gives an idea of the generosity that Emma showed towards Nelson’s family but would also be used as a pretext for introducing Horatia to Nelson’s family. Emma, partially through the care and attention to their children when they visited would eventually win them over and would help to solidify a bond between them all that endured after Nelson’s death in 1805.

Throughout 1801 and 1802, Emma still has Horatia visiting her and aside from one or two occasions, her secret is safe and she has established a true rapport with Nelson’s family. Unfortunately, in 1803, things start to unravel for Emma. The most significant event is the death of Sir William in April. Emma’s marriage to Sir William had granted her a modicum of respectability, but also shielded her from the vast majority of uncomfortable questions surrounding her affair with Nelson. With Sir William dead, these rumours and questions intensify, but also her financial situation became dire. Several historians have talked about Emma’s financial extravagance, even when she was living in Naples and her inability to live within her means. A lot of this is true, however her eventual destitution from this point is partially due to a lack of provision by Sir William in his will and his executor Charles Greville, Sir William’s nephew and Emma’s former protector. Sir William’s will granted Emma an annual annuity of £800 paid every quarter to her. There is evidence that either money which was left to Emma simply did not exist, or Charles Greville does not appear to have paid Emma what she was rightfully owed. In one case, it took nearly five years for a payment to be made to Emma which in the will stipulates that it was to be given immediately after his death. Rather vindictively, Greville did Emma another disservice by almost immediately after Sir William’s death giving Emma less than a month to move out of her Piccadilly home. Technically, Greville was within his rights as he now owned the property, but it meant that Emma was forced to find another, a house in Clarges Street, stretching her limited finances even more.  Moving to Merton, which was being managed by Emma’s mother and closest confidante, Mrs Cadogan, was out of the question in order to avoid any more potential scandal. 

Emma was not provided with a pension on Sir William’s death. Many people, including Nelson, appealed on her behalf to grant part of Sir William’s remaining pension to her, citing her accomplishments in Naples and Malta. While there were sympathetic politicians in the government, her social background, relationship with Nelson and a renewed threat of war with France meant it was not granted.

Nelson, aware of Emma’s financial troubles, decides that Horatia should live with Emma instead of with Mrs Gibson, potentially to ease Emma’s burden. He sends a letter on October 1803 saying he has set up a trust for Horatia of £4000 to be paid to Emma for Horatia’s welfare and education and that she will become Horatia’s protector and guardian: “I trust my dearest friend, that you will (if it should please God to take me out of this world) execute this great charge for me and the dear little innocent, for it would add comforts to my last moments to think that she would be educated in the paths of religion, and receive as far as she is capable, some of those brilliant accomplishments which so much adorn you”. He adds a personal letter to Horatia on the 21st October 1803 where he acknowledges that he is her father, but without compromising Emma’s position or reputation by saying she is his adopted daughter.  Nelson still presses on Emma to take Horatia to Merton and out of Mrs Gibson’s care. However, it was not until mid-1805 that Emma gives in and Horatia permanently takes up residence at Merton and to make sure that there was no objection from Mrs Gibson, he instructed his agent to set up a £20 a year pension for her. For 25 days in 1805 the three of them lived under one roof in Merton, before Nelson was called away on service again. At this time we get a brief glimpse into Horatia’s feelings for Emma. Mrs Cadagon writes to Emma from Merton saying that she doted on Horatia and couldn’t live without her. Emma writes enthusiastically “what a blessing for her parents to have such a child, so sweet, altho’ so young so amiable”. We also see Horatia’s affection for Emma in a letter sent by her governess “My dear my lady, I thank you for the books. I drink out of my lord’s cup every day (a silver cup given to her by Nelson), give my love to him every day you write, and a kiss. Miss Connor gave me some kisses when I read my book well. O here three kisses. My love to mis Nelson, my dear my lady. I love you very much”. It’s possible because questions surrounding Horatia’s parentage may have subsided somewhat, we see Emma writes affectionately about Horatia. In one of her final letters to Nelson Emma says: “My dear girl writes every day in Miss Connor’s letter and I am so pleased with her. My heart is broke away from her, but I have now had her so long at Merton that my heart cannot bear to be away from her. You will be even fonder of her when you return”.

Nelson, unfortunately would not return as he was killed in action at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. If Emma was in a desperate financial position after Sir William had died, she would be even worse now. Nelson had put a codicil in his will stating that Emma should be provided for with a pension of £500 a year, a trust set aside for Horatia and that Horatia should now use the surname Nelson. Only the last of these were granted, the rest were ignored by the government. With her finances spiralling out of control and under constant pressure from creditors, Emma increased her petitions to the Government for a pension or at least part of Sir William’s in recognition for her services, with very little success. In 1808 a group of friends band together to set up a trust to pay off her immediate debts and also to take charge of Merton, which was sold in April 1809. However, the relief from this was short lived and creditors were haranguing Emma again.

During this time and for the next few years, Emma, Mrs Cadagon, Horatia, her governess and a few servants are moving in and out of different houses, which means that her creditors had difficulty locating them, but so do Nelson’s family, who are obviously concerned they have not heard anything from her and as such have no idea of her perilous financial situation. Things became so desperate for Emma that she voluntarily submitted herself to “Living within the Rules” which is an area in Southwark controlled by King’s Bench Prison reserved specifically for debtors. By doing this she could not be approached by any of her creditors and I believe she hoped it would give her time to try and pay off the more aggressive ones. Emma does finally confess to Kitty Matcham, Nelson’s younger sister, in January 1813 on her and Horatia’s situation. Kitty writes back to her offering to take Horatia to live with her and to supply Emma with food and produce: “You know she is one of our children & while we have a loaf for them, she shall share it and with it our best affections”. Emma, however, did not want to send Horatia away. You could argue that Emma felt as Nelson’s daughter that Horatia was her key trump card for getting recognition and money to care for the daughter of one of Britain’s greatest heroes and she did not want to lose that. However, it must be acknowledged that Emma never did exploit Horatia in this way and indeed made every attempt to protect her reputation. Nelson’s last request for her was to take care of Horatia. Emma herself writes to an Admiralty judge in 1809 that “ My only ambition now is that I shall fulfil Nelsons’ last request, take care of Horatia, make my mother comfortable, pay everyone what is their due”, and I think she felt duty-bound to honour her departed lover’s wishes and something she would try to do until she died.

It was around 1813 that the relationship between Horatia and Emma becomes fraught. Historians note that Horatia becomes more rebellious and started behaving badly. It’s hard to know whether this was Horatia becoming more aware of their downward spiral into poverty, or her natural inquisitiveness about her parentage. Historian Winifred Gerin points out that it may have been due to Horatia finding the letter from her aunt inviting her to live with them and her resenting Emma’s refusal to let her go. Usually, if Emma and Horatia did have disagreements, it was Emma’s mother Mrs Cadogan, who would step in as mediator, cool Emma’s temper, and usually resolve the situation between the two. With her death in 1810, however, along with all the stress and various ailments that Emma was suffering from, Emma had considerable difficulty dealing with Horatia. She decides to remonstrate with Horatia in note form, in the same way that she wrote to Sir William if they were having disagreements: ”I have weathered many a storm for your sake, but these frequent blows have killed me. Listen then, from a mother who speaks from the dead! Reform your conduct, or you will be detested by all the world, & when you shall no longer have my fostering arm to shield you, whoe betide you! You will sink to nothing”. During this time, Emma is appealing again for part of Sir William’s pension and also money for Horatia from the Prince of Wales and the British Government, but her appeals are rejected or ignored. A calamitous situation for Emma is made worse with the release of two books containing letters from Nelson to Emma, the same ones she had decided not to destroy. What was particularly damaging was the inclusion Nelson’s unguarded remarks about the Prince of Wales. Although Emma fiercely denies any responsibility for its publication, her final hopes of any recognition from the Government and members of the Royal Family were dashed. She has her immediate debts paid by her friend Alderman Smith and resolves to flee with Horatia to France in 1814. In Calais, Emma lived in rented accommodation, with very little money and failing health. Despite this, Horatia herself, interviewed later in life says that Emma “through all her difficulties, expended on my education, the whole of the interest of the sum, which was left me by Lord Nelson and which was left entirely in her control”. 

In the end 14 year old Horatia was left to care for Emma. Amazing though it seems, Horatia has never been let into the secret of her parentage.  She tries to find out from Emma who her mother is, but there is no evidence that Emma ever told, possibly for fear that Horatia would leave her. Horatia describes this as a time where Emma did nothing but drink. Her health was failing and she spent most of her time in bed, a period Horatia later confesses was “too indelibly stamped on my memory to forget”. Unable to move Emma would die a few months later in January 1815. 

To her dying day, Emma never publicly acknowledges she’s Horatia’s mother. Now this will sound strange, but you could argue that this was done out of love. By admitting Horatia was born out of wedlock to Nelson’s mistress, Emma is likely to have felt that it would irrevocably damage Horatia’s reputation to the extent that Horatia would never be able to marry respectably.  She is also likely to have felt that as the only child her naval hero father Nelson – even if only an acknowledged adopted child – could potentially lead to a better life for Horatia, and overall she was proved right. Emma had played the social class game which was always stacked against her and although it ultimately cost her life, she won. Horatia would go and live with Nelson’s relatives for a number of years back in England, marrying Revd. Phillip Ward and go on to raise a family of 10 children in moderate comfort. So in the end, Horatia did get the normal life that Emma and Nelson had wished for her all those years ago. I think I will leave the final words to Horatia, who despite her traumatic final few months with Emma, does give a compassionate tribute: “With all her faults- and she had many- she had many fine qualities, which had she been placed early in better hands, would have made her a very superior woman”.


-Kate Williams (2006) England’s Mistress: The Infamous life of Emma Hamilton Hutchinson, London

-Walter Sichel (1905) Emma Lady Hamilton : from new and original sources and documents, together with an appendix of notes and new lettersArchibald Constable

-Flora Fraser (2003) Beloved Emma: The life of Emma, Lady Hamilton John Murray.

-Winifred Gerin (1970) Horatia Nelson, Oxford University Press

-Sir Harry Nicolas (1845-46), The Dispatches and letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson Volumes 4-7, Henry Colburn

-Quintin Colville (2016) Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, Thames & Hudson

-Sylvia K Robinson (2016), In defence of Emma: 'scheming adventuress' or 'radiant presence'?, Sylvia K Robinson

-Tom Pocock, (1999) Nelson’s Women, Andre Deutsch