England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton

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9780099451839: England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton

The story of Emma Hamilton’s rise, from prostitute to consort of the most famous man in England, has a contemporary ring of the self-made celebrity.

Emma Hamilton was only twelve-years-old when she set off for London, initially as a domestic servant, before finding work as an actress’s maid at Drury Lane. Within a short space of time, this indomitable young woman became the mistress of a leading aristocrat, the wife of another, the Lady Ambassadress to Naples, and the notorious lover of the most sought-after man in England, Horatio Nelson.

In the days before photography, television and tabloid newspapers, Emma Hamilton would make astute use of art to promote an image of herself as an icon of fashion and beauty. The artist George Romney helped make her famous, producing hundreds of canvases devoted to the woman who was his perfect muse.

However, it was her association with Nelson that brought Emma the kind of stardom we associate today with Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. When she first met him — the conquering hero of the Battle of the Nile — he was a small man with only one arm, one eye and his front teeth missing. But he was to be the consuming passion of her life.
From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Kate Williams has published articles and essays in a wide range of books and journals. She appears regularly on BBC and Channel 4 to discuss her work.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

Harsh Beginnings

Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon on Friday, April 26, 1765, into squalid poverty. Ness was a ramshackle huddle of thirty or so miners’ hovels set in scrubby, stony, infertile land. Moored on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire, just over twelve miles from Liverpool, near England’s northwest coast, the village now gleams with luxurious houses for commuters, but for a girl child in the eighteenth century, it was a one-way ticket to misery. The Stanley family, the owners of the area around Ness, reclined in elegant splendor at nearby Hooton Hall, ignoring the miners and the few fishermen scraping out a miserable living by the bleak shore. Ness was at the forefront of the burgeoning industrial revolution, and Amy was destined for a cruel and meager life: backbreaking labor by the age of ten, a hard marriage, and an early death.

Baby Amy owed her very existence to coal—the black gold of the eighteenth century. For the first half of the century, the factories, sweatshops, and businesses in nearby Chester and the surrounding area had been powered by coal shipped in from North Wales along the connecting Dee estuary, but the waterway was silting up and Welsh coal was growing very expensive. When reserves were discovered in 1750 at nearby Denhall, the landscape of Ness changed forever, from an area only sparsely populated by fishermen and the odd farmer to a mini Wild West town teeming with investors and get-rich-quick merchants. After the Stanleys finally opened their mine to huge excitement in the late 1750s, cartloads of brawny young colliers arrived from Lancashire, Staffordshire, and North Wales. Others trekked over from Ireland to build a quay for exporting the coal, and laborers came to build the Stanleys’ new mansion on the banks of the River Dee. Ness was designated as the village to house them, and quickly built, cheap cottages mushroomed on the stony fields. In this brand-new village, much of it still a building site, twenty-one-year- old Mary Kidd arrived in 1764. Since there were five men to every woman in Ness, she was guaranteed to be popular.

Ness’s men were hardened by dangerous work. Conditions at the Denhall mine were notoriously poor, and they had to crouch in muddy, icy water and hack at the sides of the flooded tunnels. Mice and cockroaches scampered into their pockets to eat their food, especially if they worked near the areas where the pit ponies were stabled. Once extracted, the coal was loaded into boats roped together in sets of four or five on the underground canals. Miners lay on the boats and “walked” their feet along the ceilings of the tunnels to push the boats to the bottom of the shaft, where the coal was hoisted up. Men of twenty were bent and crabbed within a few years of beginning work, and others were dead, poisoned by pockets of methane gas or killed by rock falls.

Emma’s mother had traveled from Hawarden, a small village just outside Chester across the Dee. She was in Ness for a holiday of sorts. William Kidd, Mary’s elder brother, had moved to Ness and was working as a miner. Banns were published for his marriage to Mary Foulkes, a Chester girl, in January 1763, and their first son, Samuel, was born in the spring of 1764 and christened on April 15. In the eighteenth century, every available female relative was roped in to help with a new baby, and so Mary traveled to Ness around the time of Samuel’s birth to be an unpaid nursemaid, cleaner, and cook to her brother and a sister-in-law she hardly knew. On the ferry across the Dee between Flint, near Hawarden, and Parkgate, and then the walk to her brother’s home, Mary was excited, buoyant with holiday spirit. Ness was the first place she had seen other than her dead-end home town, and she was determined to make the most of it. Having escaped her other siblings, dreary cottage, and angry, resentful mother, she was intent on enjoying herself.

Mary was slim, lively, and fond of fun, and men competed for her attention. She was the new belle of the village (although there was hardly much competition). Frantic to escape Hawarden and the iron grip of her mother, Mary flung herself at Henry Lyon, the blacksmith at the mine. Emma later implied her father was from Lancashire; he was possibly from Skelmersdale or Ormskirk, where his surname is common in the parish registers. In order to have reached the position of a blacksmith, he would have to have been in his late twenties, and so was probably born around 1737. Judging from Emma’s stature and appearance, Henry was tall, broad, handsome, and dark. To impoverished Mary, he would have appeared impossibly wealthy and independent. Henry’s courtship was swift, perhaps rough. By May 27, perhaps less than two months after Mary’s arrival, the banns were published for their wedding.

Emma’s parents were married on June 11, 1764, in Great Neston church. As the wedding was held on a Monday, it is unlikely that any relative, even William Kidd or his wife, attended. Like many workingmen, Henry was illiterate and signed the register with an X; Mary also signed with a cross. Henry probably had to return to the smithy soon after the ceremony. Even though working-class weddings were low-key affairs, Mary’s seems hurried. Most women were married in their late twenties—the average age was twenty-six—after their fiancés had set aside sufficient money to set up a home. Mary, however, was unusually young. Pregnancy may have made marriage a necessity.

First babies were often conceived outside of wedlock; indeed, many communities encouraged it to preclude the disaster of marriage to an infertile wife. As there is no birth certificate, we must assume that Emma claimed her birthday on the day her mother told her to do so. Henry and Mary were not religious, and there is no reason why Emma should have been any different from most of the first children born in Ness. Emma’s fondness for celebrating a birthday on April 26 and stressing 1765 as the year of her birth suggests she was concerned to emphasize her legitimacy. Only Mary and her brother William knew the actual date of Emma’s birth, but the possibility that Mary’s pregnancy had forced the marriage might explain the couple’s unhappiness. Mary came to Ness looking for a life more exciting than the one she had left behind, only to find herself trapped in poverty and despair in a part of England far harsher than Hawarden.

Mary’s new home was a miner’s cottage near the road to Denhall, rented from the mine authorities. A low-built house, connected to two others, it was one of hundreds of similar workers’ cottages in the area. Sandstone steps skittered up to the low door. Now it is a pretty cottage and the subsidence gives it a picturesque appeal, but then it was a rackety, dirty, cramped place to live. At twenty-one, Mary was a drudge in a dirty hovel, her day consumed by domestic chores, in a village populated by people who were in the 1850s, according to visitors, “as primitive as their village was secluded.” At four, she awoke to fetch water, light the fire, and prepare Henry’s breakfast. After he left at five, she began her daily battle against the dirt that silted up the windows and covered every surface with a grimy film. Outside her window lay a treeless expanse of scrub scarred by heaps of coal waste and cheap stone cottages blackened by sooty rain. She knew that soon after she gave birth, she would be expected to work in the mine with the other women. There was little to look forward to and not much to enjoy. Henry returned in the late afternoon, exhausted by a day of laboring in hot and dangerous conditions, and like most men in Ness, he drank and probably beat his wife.

Helped only by neighbors, women drank gin to dull the pain or pulled on a knotted rag. Mary called the child Amy, her sister’s name and a Kidd family favorite. Perhaps Henry was not particularly interested in his daughter’s name. Many communities held a form of party for new mothers twenty-eight days after the birth, a version of the older “churching” ceremony, which was an attempt to combat postnatal depression and to celebrate the mother’s survival, but it appears that Mary had no such party. No relations came to assist her, and because there were so few women in the village, she had little companionship. Lonely and overwhelmed, the young Mrs. Lyon struggled not to vent her frustration on the child. She might have had a closer immediate bond to a son, but Amy was a burden and a seemingly inescapable tie to Ness. Mary’s life stretched out drearily before her, a monotony of children, domestic labor, and poverty.

Emma was baptized on May 12. On the register, her name looks like “Emy,” but Emma herself always claimed it was Amy, a common name in the Kidd family. It is likely that the registrar simply misspelled it: parents were at the mercy of the registrar’s choice of orthography, particularly if, like Henry and Mary, they could not read. One in three children like Emma died within infancy, but she was born in the best season for survival: disease was more virulent from June to September, and babies died of cold from November to February. There was hard work ahead for the infants who lived. Denhall employed most children over nine or ten as cheap labor. All the girls born in Ness were, by the age of ten, pulling baskets to the surface every day, covered in dirt and regularly harassed by the men. At the end of the day, they returned home to cook and clean for their family or, as was nearly as likely, since many women died in childbirth, stepmother.

The grim cycle of Emma’s life seemed preordained. But two months after her baptism, Henry died suddenly. By June 21, 1765, he was buried. Mary and Emma were free.

Emma never discussed her father, and her mother did not disclose any details. Research into death in the eighteenth century gives us some clues about the cause of Henry’s demise...

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