When Horatia Nelson Ward died at Pinner near London in March 1881, a brief notice in the local paper recorded her as ‘Widow of the late Rev. Philip Ward, Vicar of Tenterden, Kent, in her 81st year.’ However, an article in the Times several days later referred to Horatia as ‘Lady Hamilton’s little daughter Horatia, the same whom her reputed father, Lord Nelson, bequeathed with his dying breath to the care of his country.’ The Ward family wrote to the paper, categorically denying that Horatia was the daughter of Lady Hamilton, though accepting the famous naval hero as her father. Mrs Ward’s death aroused fresh interest in the mysterious circumstances of her birth, which had bemused and scandalised an entire nation earlier that century.
SECRETS AND LIES
In the first week of February 1801, a well dressed woman in her mid thirties arrived at the home of a Mrs Gibson, in London’s Little Tichfield Street. Hidden in the folds of her muff was a baby girl she had arranged for Mrs Gibson to take care of. No information was given regarding the child’s parents, although there was no attempt by the lady to hide her own identity; she was Lady Emma Hamilton, of number 23 Piccadilly.
The nurse had been puzzled by Lady Hamilton’s insistence that the little girl, called Horatia, had been born in October when the baby was clearly a newborn. The reason behind the subterfuge was that Lady Hamilton wanted to prevent anyone associating the child’s birth with the sight of her recently bulky figure. However, Mrs Gibson was paid well to ensure her discretion, and when she took the child to be christened she dutifully gave Horatia’s birth date as October 29th 1800.
The baby girl was the result of the adulterous relationship between Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson which had begun around February 1800 in Naples. At the time, Lady Hamilton’s elderly husband was coming to the end of his term in Naples as British Ambassador and Nelson was being feted in the city following the victorious Battle of the Nile against the French. He too was married, and had been since 1787.
The Ambassador and his wife returned to London in November 1800, accompanied by Nelson. Contemporary cartoons depicted Lady Hamilton as grossly overweight when she arrived, but despite much speculation, the high waisted costumes of the day helped conceal the fact that she was some seven months pregnant. However, Nelson’s growing coldness towards his wife Fanny and his increasing fondness for the company of Lady Hamilton were enough to keep the gossips busy. Emma had made her way in the world as the mistress of a series of well-to-do men, including Lord Hamilton. Their eventual marriage in 1791 was a coup for the daughter of a blacksmith, although her background ensured the couple were not welcome at the English Court.
It is difficult to believe Lord Hamilton was unaware of his wife’s pregnancy, or of her confinement, which apparently took place under his own roof. One can only assume the old man turned a blind eye to the situation. Conveniently, Lady Hamilton’s mother was also part of the household and could have acted as midwife to avoid outside assistance.
The most probable date of Horatia’s birth is 29 January 1801, but she celebrated her birthday on the fictional date of 29th October 1800 for the rest of her life. She also had a much older half-sister, known as Emma Carew. Nelson had never been told of the existence of this child, who was born in 1782 and fathered by one of Lady Hamiltons earlier lovers. The sisters never met as Emma Carew grew up in the country with relatives. In later years Lady Hamilton refused to acknowledge her first born, fearing further scandal.
When Nelson returned to sea, he corresponded almost daily with Emma, maintaining a flimsy pretense that he was writing on behalf of a seaman called Thompson. In turn, Emma led Nurse Gibson to believe that a ‘Mrs Thompson’ was Horatia’s absent mother. In a letter to Emma dated 23 February 1801, Nelson wrote;
‘My dear Mrs T. poor Thompson seems to have forgot all his ill-health, and all his mortifications and sorrows, in the thought that he will soon bury them in your dear, dear bosom; he seems almost beside himself…….I daresay twins will again be the fruit of your and his meeting. The thought is too dear to bear….kiss dear Horatia for me.’
In 1803 Lady Hamilton again fell pregnant and when the birth was imminent Nelson wrote; Kiss dear Horatia for me, and the other. Call him what you please, if a girl, Emma.’. In April 1804 Nelson described his emotions at receiving a long awaited letter; ‘…..which, thank God, told my poor heart that you was recovering; but that dear little Emma was no more.’ The infant’s death meant that Lady Hamilton would never be called on to explain why she had given her name to two of her daughters.
Nelson’s love for his surviving child is touching. He worried constantly about her welfare and did his best to secure her future in the all too likely event of his death.. Answering a letter dictated to Lady Hamilton by Horatia when she was just three years old, her father responded affectionately;
‘It must have slipt my memory that I promised you a Watch, therefore I have sent to Naples to get one and I will send it home as soon as it arrives – the Dog I never could have promised as we have no Dogs on board ship.’
Following the birth of Horatia, Nelson had asked Emma to find him a suitable house in the English countryside and in September she found a property called Merton, in Surrey. It became Nelson’s home when he was on leave and was also occupied by Emma and Lord Hamilton – the latter still calling Nelson ‘ …the best man and the best Friend I have in the World.’
Lord Hamilton’s acceptance of the situation is in part explained by a comment he made in a letter to Emma in 1802. Remonstrating with his wife over the cost involved in living at Merton he conceded;
‘I was sensible, and said so when I married, that I should be superannuated when my wife would be in her full beauty and vigour of youth. That time is arrived, and we must make the best of it for the comfort of both parties.’
Both Lady Hamilton and Nelson were at Lord Hamilton’s bedside when he died in April 1803. A few weeks later Nelson was back at sea, chasing the French Fleet. He began to push for his ‘dearest angel’ Horatia to be removed from the care of Mrs Gibson and settled at Merton. Lady Hamilton, busy with her own affairs, did not share his enthusiasm and the child only made a permanent move to Surrey as Nelson was about to return home in August 1805.
It was to be his last leave. Several months later the English fleet engaged with and defeated the French at the Battle of Trafalgar but Nelson, all too recognizable in his uniform bedecked with medals, was killed by a French musketeer. Via a codicil to his will he left Lady Hamilton and his ‘adopted’ daughter Horatia as a legacy to his country, pleading that they be provided for. The codicil was published in the London press and speculation regarding the child’s parentage was intense. On January 10th, just one day after Nelson’s State Funeral, a friend of Emma’s called Mrs Lutwidge took up her pen;
‘Tell me, my beloved Emma, that you will take care of yourself for the sake of the interesting little being consigned to your care………….I own , my dear Emma, I shall have no small curiosity to know who this dear little being is, who is so distinguished. ‘
Following Nelson’s death, Lady Hamilton began to drink heavily. Her financial situation grew steadily worse. Despite Nelson’s wishes, those in authority were not disposed to help their hero’s mistress. Merton was sold and in 1813 Lady Hamilton was arrested and committed to the Debtors’ Prison at Temple Place in London. In 1814 there was another blow to her reputation. Nelson’s ‘Thompson’ letters found their way into the hands of an anonymous publisher. The Admiral had repeatedly warned his mistress to destroy his correspondence;
‘I burn all your dear letters, because it is right for your sake, and I wish you would burn all mine – they can do no good, and will do us both harm if any seizure of them, or the dropping even one of them, would fill the mouths of the world sooner than we intend.’.
Lady Hamilton must have deeply regretted not following Nelson’s advice. as the printed letters found an avid readership. To escape humiliation and evade her creditors, she fled to France with Horatia, arriving in Calais at the beginning of July 1814. As their meagre funds dwindled, fourteen year old Horatia was forced to borrow from friends in England and to pawn family mementos. During this period Emma was often unkind to her daughter, due to the effects of alcohol and illness. However, the welfare of Horatia was always on her mind.
It says much for Horatia that, although her Nelson relatives urged her to return to England, she refused to desert the woman she believed to be her guardian. On 5 January 1815, Lady Hamilton died from dropsy. Horatia later wrote ‘…the baneful habit she had of taking spirits and wine to a fearful degree brought on water on the chest.’
The girl had begged Lady Hamilton to tell her the truth about her birth; ‘On her death-bed, at Calais I earnestly prayed her to tell me who my mother was, but she would not; influenced then I think by the fear that I might leave her.’
Horatia subsequently returned to England and was welcomed into Lord Nelson’s family. In 1822 she married a young curate, Philip Ward. The couple had ten children, although only eight survived to adulthood. The only shadow on Horatia’s life was that she was still searching for the identity of her mother.
In 1828 Horatia received a letter from Mary Johnson, daughter of the nurse Mrs Gibson. Mary had been 12 years old when her mother took charge of Horatia, and she remembered the period clearly. Horatia’s private hopes that her ‘real’ mother visited were dashed when Mrs Johnson reported that Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson were the sole visitors. Johnson also passed on thirty eight notes written to her mother by Lady Hamilton. Tellingly, one included a postscript in Nelson’s own hand;
‘Mrs Gibson is desired on no consideration to answer any questions about Miss Thompson (Horatia) nor who placed her with Mrs Gibson as ill tempered people have talked lies about the child.’
In 1843, Sir Nicholas Harris began the daunting task of editing and publishing a complete collection of Lord Nelson’s letters. Horatia was happy to assist, in the hope that Harris might yet solve the mystery of her birth. Naturally, the infamous Thompson letters were examined, but Horatia dismissed them as fakes. She could not bear to think that Lady Hamilton was her mother, particularly as this would also mean that the man she proudly accepted as her father had committed adultery with his close friend’s wife. Despite his suspicions to the contrary, Harris’ book contained a statement arguing against ‘intimacy of a criminal nature’ between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.
It is doubtful whether readers of the work were convinced, although Sir Harris was able to provide some evidence to back his statement. In the course of his research he had contacted William Haslewood, who had been Nelson’s solicitor. Haslewood told Harris that he knew the identity of Horatia’s mother, but had been sworn to secrecy. Horatia must have felt close to discovering the truth when she made an impassioned plea to Haslewood;
My Dear Sir
So many years have passed since I had the pleasure of meeting you that I feel some hesitation in again recalling myself to your recollection. I have just read the 7th Vol. of Lord Nelson’s Letters and dispatches and find by a paragraph in the Appendix that you are acquainted with the Secret of who my Mother was. Believe me, my dear Sir, I am actuated by no idle curiosity but by an earnest and natural desire to know to whom I owe my being, when I implore you to impart the knowledge to me. What you would have been unwilling to disclose to a giddy girl I hope you will not fear to trust to the discretion of a woman of forty six. I am sure that although you were requested to preserve a mother’s secret, that injunction was never intended to extend to her own daughter….’
Haslewood replied that he could not betray Lady Hamilton’s trust, but in view of Mary Johnson’s comments about the baby in her mother’s care having only two visitors, Horatia should have been able to put two and two together when the solicitor stated; ‘Your Mother was well acquainted with Lady Hamilton; and saw you frequently during your infancy….’
Shortly after Sir Harris’ book went to press, a Mr John Croker produced the originals of the Thompson letters, which he had bought privately. It was a bitter blow for Horatio, who commented sadly to Sir Harris;
‘Most correctly have you judged when you said I should be much shocked to find that those wretched letters were genuine. Alas! that such a master-mind (Lord Nelson) should be subject to such weakness’ .
Horatia must now have believed with her head, if not her heart, that Lady Hamilton was her mother. Still, she insisted to Harris that she could not recall a single letter in which she was identified as a ‘mutual tie’ between Nelson and her guardian. Three years later such a letter appeared when the Croker letters were published. On 1st March 1801, Nelson had written to Emma as he was about to set sail for the Baltic. The letter was hand delivered, allowing him to speak more freely;
‘Now, my own dear wife, for such you are in my eyes and in the face of heaven, I can give full scope to my feelings. You know, my dearest Emma, that there is nothing in this world that I would not do for us to live together, and to have our dear little child with us……..I love, I never did love, anyone else. I have never had a dear pledge of love till you gave me one, and you, thank God, never gave one to anyone else.’ (Nelson, it should be remembered, was unaware of the existence of Horatia’s half-sister Emma Carew).
Thirty years later Horatia contacted John Paget, author of a book called Paradoxes and Puzzles. She was responding to inaccuracies in an account of Lady Hamilton’s final days in Calais but the mystery surrounding the identity of her mother was also discussed. Such was her reluctance to accept Lady Hamilton as her mother that despite all the revelations, Horatia could still tell Paget;
‘Many other things that I could mention would destroy I think with you the idea of Lady Hamilton being more to me than a guardian which if we meet I will tell you…’
Horatia was now over seventy years old and due to her growing incapacity from arthritis a proposed meeting with Paget did not take place. She died at Pinner on Sunday, March 6th 1881. Initially her gravestone read ‘ADOPTED DAUGHTER OF VICE-ADMIRAL LORD NELSON’ . Later the word ‘adopted’ was quietly replaced with ‘beloved’.
When her eldest son Horace died in 1888, the Times again suggested that Lady Hamilton was Horatia’s mother. Her younger son Hugh responded immediately, completely rejecting the notion. His letter concluded;
‘…….Lady Hamilton herself never claimed to be the mother of the child; in fact, she left behind her an emphatic denial of her right to the relationship, and the frequent unkindness she displayed towards Horatia in her latter years would not lead one to bestow it gratuitously upon her.’
In other words, while it may be historically accurate to add Lady Hamilton’s name to Horatia’s gravestone, to do so would be spiritually and emotionally incorrect.
I wonder is this was true?
The new Lord Mayor of London, Sir Edward Cooper, claims to have been taught to dot his ‘i’s’ and cross his ‘t’s’ by Horatia, daughter of Lord Nelson, who married the Rev. Philip Ward. She kept a dame’s school at Windsor in the ‘fifties…….( Express and Telegraph, September 9 1920)