Lily Style Author
Four Female Ancestors
Life in Trade, Foreign Courts and Domesticity
(First published in the Trafalgar Chronicle in 2018)
This essay explores women’s relationships with the sea during the Georgian era via the lives of four of my direct ancestors: Elizabeth Peirce Bidwell, a Presbyterian preacher’s daughter married to a Captain of the Bombay Marine; Mary Rogers, Consul’s wife at Menorca; Kitty Matcham, Horatio Nelson’s favourite sister; and Emma Hamilton, a successful ambassadress who actively supported Britain during the early stages of the Napoleonic Wars and, most famously, Nelson’s lover (her and Kitty’s grandchildren, my 2nd great-grandparents, were cousins).
Figure 1: Family tree of the people discussed in this essay (produced by author, 2018).
Elizabeth Peirce Bidwell
My 5th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Peirce Bidwell, baptised in 1729, was the youngest of six children born to Exeter fuller, Hugh, and Hannah, daughter of dissenting preacher and writer, James Peirce (whose own father had captained ships carrying, first, pilgrims to America and then Honourable East India Company goods). The Peirces were Presbyterians who fervently upheld the right to carry and bear arms and to exercise free trade: principles which formed the bedrock of the American Constitution and also secured the expansion of the East India Company (whose early directors were predominantly Presbyterian).
Elizabeth’s mother, Hannah, may have veered from her father’s Presbyterianism in marrying Hugh Bidwell in Exeter Cathedral on 20th July 1720 (James Peirce did not attend). However, the newlyweds were active members of the city’s Presbyterian Meeting House before emigrating to Bombay when. The Bidwells likely set sail when Elizabeth was a tiny baby, as they arrived in Bombay on 20th August 1730. where Hugh became a Senior Merchant in the Civil Service of the East India Company under fellow Presbyterian, Governor Robert Cowan. He died there of consumption in 1738, four years after his wife. Their orphaned daughters, Hannah, Mary, Deborah and Elizabeth remained in Bombay and married expatriates.
The last of these Bidwell weddings was the 1751 marriage of the youngest, Elizabeth, to Dorset-born Captain Simon Matcham in the Bombay Marine, . The Bombay Marine, a precursor of the Indian Navy, was established in 1686 to protect their trading vessels from pirates and French privateers. Secured by this private navy, the port of Bombay attracted traders from around the subcontinent and the city’s population swelled with merchants and artisans, such as goldsmiths and weavers. While her husband helped to sustain the free trade driving the city’s expansion, Elizabeth amassed “a beautiful collection of Oriental embroideries, china &tc.”
Figure 2. Bombay Green, Church and theatre, c. 1750. British Library free image (www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary)
She bore three sons, George, Simon and Charles, though only her firstborn survived infancy, possibly because he was sent from the intense Bombay heat to spend his boyhood in London at Charterhouse. Joining the East India Company‘s civil service upon graduation, George Matcham became a Senior Merchant, like his grandfather, Hugh Bidwell, by the age of 18, then Resident (senior British official) at Bharuch, 200 miles north of Bombay. When Elizabeth was in her 40s, Simon, who was nearing 60, became Superintendent Marine of the Honourable East India Company and a senior member of the Council of Bombay. He died aged 65 and was buried in Bombay on 22 June 1776.
Elizabeth, wishing to retire quietly to England, embarked on the six-month voyage via the Cape of Good Hope, while her son, promising to join her in England and despite his health being poor enough for two friends to consult a doctor on his behalf, intended in 1777 to take the overland route. The doctor, however, pronounced George’s health so dire it made little difference if he attempted the journey or not. He did survive and on reaching England, found his mother ‘in her country home’ (although it is not clear where this was). Reunited, they made plans to purchase an estate, and for George to find a wife to settle with them there. Unmarried and still footloose after several years, George decided in 1781 to take the overland journey to Bharuch and resume his Residency: when in 1783 government was ceded back to the Mahrattas he began a third trans-Eurasia trek. Finally ready to settle, he took a house at Enfield near Bath with his mother Elizabeth, and was there with her for the winter of 1786-87.
At a Christmas ball in Bath, 31-year George was invited to meet the eligible Miss Scrivener, but instead he fell in love with her pretty, 19-old cousin, Miss Catherine ‘Kitty’ Nelson (my 4th great-grandmother), and they were wedded within two months.
Figure 3: Kitty Matcham née Nelson portrait at New House, Wiltshire.
George’s intention to purchase an estate with Elizabeth was superseded by new plans to set up home in Norfolk, close to his bride’s frail, elderly father, Edmund, Rector of Burnham Thorpe. George and Kitty rented Barton Hall at Barton Turf, a substantial red brick, mid-eighteenth century country house with wide grounds gently sloping to the lushly tranquil northern Broads. Here they “read, rode, studied and gardened to their heart’s satisfaction”.
Figure 4: Barton Hall, Barton Turf. Author's photograph, 2018, courtesy of current owner, Mrs. Jean Peel
Elizabeth had moved to London, but when George and Kitty set off to visit her in January 1788, Kitty was preoccupied by news of the return from the West Indies of her older brother, Horace with his new bride, Fanny, who had not seen England for eleven years. Kitty was disappointed to learn that Horace (and he would always remain Horace, not Horatio, to her) and his wife had gone to Bath before Norfolk. As Nelson’s favourite sister she would grow used to waiting anxiously for news of him, she revelled in news of his triumphs, but was always anxious to know if he had been wounded. Her heartfelt, loving letters would have comforted his absences at sea, and in the last letter she received from ‘the best of Brothers written with his right hand’, Horace wrote from Irresistible at Lisbon on 3rd March 1797:
My dear sister; your letter without a date came to me last night and believe me my affection is as great for you as ever.... I long to see England but whether ever I shall have that pleasure God only knows… Believe me ever my Dear Sister, Your most affectionate Brother, Horatio Nelson.
Another of my 4th great-grandmothers, Mary Blanckley was British Consul’s wife in Mahon, Menorca. Born mid-century to a Cork-based military family, her father Captain Henry Rogers had been buried at Magourney, just west of Coolyduff near Corktown in 1773. She married her 26-old cousin Henry Stanyford Blanckley in March 1779 at Coolyduff, most likely at Coolyduff House, which appears to have been the Rogers’s family home.
Her husband, Henry was appointed in December 1790 to be British Consul to the Balearics, where Mahon was a strategic harbour, and where his diplomacy with the allied Spanish government during the French Revolutionary War was of importance to Britain’s war effort between 1793 and 1796, when Spain sided with the French Republic.
Figure 5: Minorca illustrated in 1836. British Library free image (www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary)
There is scant record of the Blanckleys’ time in Menorca, but it is possible to glimpse Mary’s role through the diary of Blanckley’s second wife, another Mary, during Henry’s six years as consul in Algiers. Besides the many official diplomatic engagements she attended, Mary visited Algerian women, including the Dey’s wife, in their lavish harems (from which, as a man, Henry was barred). She also noted, with alarm, that diplomatic status did not ensure safety and that the Dey, quick to anger, put the Danish Consul in heavy chains after tribute from Denmark failed to arrive in 1808. Henry led a delegation begging for mercy, but the family also feared for themselves and Mary, in her diary, writes of having packed their possessions in secret ready to flee. Ever generous, their door, purse and even wardrobes were open to the needy. For example, they financed the rescue of fifteen shipwrecked Britons for whom Mary sewed shirts and, after housing them in their own villa, acted as nurse.
Conditions were similarly hard for the native population of Menorca during my 4th great-grandmother, Mary’s time there in the 1790s. Britain’s ceding of the island to Spanish rule in 1782 had resulted in the banning of their Catalan language; the imprisonment their men; heavy restrictions on trade; and the brutal taxation of what little income remained. A succession of poor harvests and swarming rats triggered widespread starvation. S. pain’s switch of alliance from Britain to France in 1796 not only closed this strategic port to the British fleet, but faced the Blanckleys with an actively hostile government. On top of this, plague, first reported in Constantinople, Corsica and the Barbary Coast, spread rapidly across the Mediterranean in the summer of 1797 prompting Britain to issue strict quarantine that forbade vessels all communication with Menorca, Corsica, Gibraltar and Spain. Mary herself fell ill at this time and, in the words of her granddaughter, Mary, in a letter to her cousin dated 1875: ‘She was in her last illness in Bath, & went to what was then called Bristol Hotwells as a last resource, & there she died. All this I have heard from my mother’.
Figure 6: Emma, Lady Hamilton (?as a Figure in ‘Fortune Telling’) by George Romney, 19th century albumen print. Style family collection.
The best known of my 4th great-grandmothers, Emma, Lady Hamilton (at this time 33-years old) is one of those rare women who is universally known by her first name, Emma, and whose story, unlike the vast majority of women of her time, has been intricately documented. Her 1791 marriage to Sir William Hamilton gave her access to the Neapolitan Court, and, like Mary Blanckley, she was able to go where men could not, and this entrée led to her friendship with Queen Maria Carolina. This proved to be of huge political importance to Britain, for it was the Queen, rather than her boorish husband, King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, who actively ruled.
Figure 7: View of Naples Bay from Sir William Hamilton's residence by Giovanni Battista Lusieri, 1791. Free image under the Getty's Open Content Program.
Consoling the distraught Queen when news reached them in late autumn of 1793 of her sister, Marie Antoinette’s execution, Emma shared her hatred and fear of the French Jacobin revolutionaries. However, King Ferdinand had different family ties and in 1795, when Maria Carolina learned that his brother, King Charles IV of Spain, had been sending clandestine letters about plans to switch allegiance to France and urging Ferdinand to follow suit, the Queen colluded with Emma to borrow Charles’s letter for Emma to copy and pass to the British Government via Sir William.
When Spain did switch allegiance in 1796, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was Britain’s only remaining Mediterranean ally. Two years later, Kitty’s brother, now a rear- admiral, leading the British fleet in pursuit of the French, asked Sir William to procure authority from the King for the release of supplies from Syracuse for his ships, and it was Emma’s influence with the Queen which helped to secure this.
Figure 8: Profile of Emma in seal impression attached to letter of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton, 2 April 1801. British Library free image (www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary)
Jubilant celebrations following Nelson’s triumphal return to Naples after the Battle of Aboukir, were soon overshadowed by French-provoked revolutionary unrest. Emma helped the royal family escape one stormy December night onto Vanguard for Nelson to transport them towards the safety of Palermo. In the rough seas only Emma and her mother, Mrs Cadogan, were unaffected by seasickness, and the 6-year old Prince Alberto died in Emma’s arms.
When news came from Naples of a mob massacring nobles and the establishment of a French-inspired Parthenopean Republic, Cardinal Fabrizo Ruffo volunteered to raise a peasant army to quell the uprising and he granted armistice to the thousands who surrendered. However, King Ferdinand and his Queen, still reeling from the execution of her sister, wanted the rebels punished not forgiven. Emma, now Maria Carolina’s closest confidante, and Nelson, who had pledged himself to protect the Neapolitan royal family, were eager to oblige when asked to intervene. Sir William and Emma accompanied, he as interpreter and she, in her own words, as the ‘Queen’s Deputy’. Nelson wrote to Emma’s mother in Sicily: ‘Our dear lady… has her time so much taken up with excuses from rebels, Jacobins, and fools, that she is every day most heartily tired’.
Despite calls to honour the terms of the rebels’ surrender, acting by Neapolitan royal proxy, Nelson gave little or no mercy, viewing all expressions of the French Revolution as treasonous. He allowed the former commander of the Neapolitan Navy, Admiral Frederico Caracciolo to be tried by a Neapolitan court martial aboard his flagship and to be summarily hung from the yardarm of Caracciolo’s former flagship. Meanwhile, Emma was sending lists of names to Palermo for Maria Carolina’s judgement. This kept many members of Naples’ intellectual elite, including 47-year old Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, poet and revolutionary, in cells for two for months until they too were hanged in the marketsquare on 20 August 1799. Nelson, Emma and Sir William, however, were not witnesses, as they had already sailed back to Sicily.
Britain was disgusted by news of these executions, and Charles James Fox denounced Nelson in the House of Commons for his unsanctioned role of executioner, and he is still reviled by contemporary Italian academics as a war criminal and butcher. Emma’s involvement jarred with the prevailing female stereotype of passive meekness, while Britain needed Nelson as an untarnished hero to head a renewed naval war effort. Nelson was deemed innocent but childishly malleable while much blame is laid upon Emma as his evil corruptor. Author Susan Sontag argues that the British government’s refusal to acknowledge Emma’s war contribution, and ultimately the right to the pension Nelson explicitly requested, was rooted in this single act of blame-transference; that the State viewed his calls for her recognition as further evidence of his corrupted delusion.
Sir William and Nelson were recalled to England and in July 1800 commenced a triumphal overland journey, accompanied by Queen Maria Carolina as far as Vienna. There Emma received the Maltese cross from the Tsar of Russia in recognition of her aid to the starving population of blockaded Malta. Emma was pregnant, for she and Nelson had begun their famous love affair on 12th February 1800 [ref below], and it was presumably during a cruise in the frigate Foudroyant commencing 24th April or on Malta, where they stayed from 3rd–20th May [ref below] that their daughter Horatia was conceived. In August she, Nelson and Sir William parted from the Queen and continued via Prague to England. Horatia was born the following January.
Ignorant of these events, Reverend Edmund Nelson wrote to Kitty: ‘The hope of receiving the news of your Brother’s arrival in England, has been long deferred, we know not from what cause …’ What Nelson’s family privately knew or guessed of Emma and Nelson’s relationship will never be known, but publically, they accepted the story of their being just good friends and of Horatia being the adopted daughter of the fictitious Mr and Mrs Thompson.
Kitty Matcham was a paradigm of Georgian female virtue. As the passive, home-rooted supporter of her heroic, seafaring brother, her labour had been as a good wife producing multiple children. By the time Nelson, Emma and Sir William arrived back in England on 6 November 1800, she was heavy with her ninth full-term pregnancy. After selling the house George had built at Ringwood in Hampshire, they were now settled with their growing family in Bath near George’s ageing mother, Elizabeth and their good friends, the Blanckleys.
Henry Stanyford Blanckley’s mother had died in Bath in 1797 (the year before his first wife, Mary née Rogers), but, maintaining the lease of 8 Paragon Buildings, his mother’s second husband, Charles MacKintosh and her long-widowed sister, Ann Harrison, remained in the city as close kin. Bath was Henry’s stated residence when he married his young, second wife, Mary Richards, in March 1800. Both the Matchams and Blanckleys attended the out-of-town church of St Swithun’s at Bathford, the same church at which Kitty and Nelson’s sister, Ann, had been buried in 1783, and where Kitty’s mother-in-law, 74-year old Elizabeth Matcham née Bidwell was buried on 9th April 1803.
Figure 9: 8 Paragon Buildings, Bath. Photo courtesy of Ana Bullock, 2017.
Unlike Kitty, Emma, low-born and widely known as Nelson’s lover, was not viewed as a paradigm of female Georgian virtue. However, her phenomenal cultural impact endured, her portraits were sought after and her classical attitudes had directly inspired a pan-European fashion revolution, supplanting uptight, intricately-wigged female attire for the far freer a la Emma look: while Britain’s female nobility snubbed her, they dressed like her, as did fashionable ladies such as Kitty and even Jane Austen. Emma’s bursting into Kitty’s family world, close to her much-missed hero-brother’s side, would have felt thrilling, glamorous and exciting.
Figure 10: Women dressed "a la Emma" in an 1885 illustration of late 18th century fashion. British Library free image (www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary)
Kitty and her lively family became frequent guests at Emma and Nelson’s house, Merton Place, Wimbledon, although Nelson’s absences meant that Emma was often the sole host. Their infant daughter Horatia played with her cousins, of whom the Matcham girls closest to her in age were Harriet, Horatia, and Susannah. Thomas Baxter, one of many guests at Merton Place, sketched Emma performing Attitudes with little girls in Grecian robes, of whom some were likely Kitty’s.
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 made the Matcham’s richer by a government grant of £10,000 in recognition of Kitty’s kinship to Nelson, while she comforted heartbroken Emma and kept a watchful eye for her welfare. Emma petitioned persistently but futilely for the state to honour Nelson’s last codicil to his will, that she should be recompensed for her war effort and provided for. She lavished hospitality (and hope) on the royal princes, who voiced support for her claim, and she has been criticised for partying herself into the debts which lost her Merton Place, but her frequent wining, dining and performing to the cream of society can be explained by her having known no other way to find joy. However, in her desperate social masquerade, true joy eluded her. Kitty’s eldest child, George Matcham Jr. on visiting Emma in Richmond in October 1808, shortly after the sale of Merton Place, wrote: ‘There were some citizens at dinner, but alas! how different that table now to what I had before been accustomed ; where formerly elegance presided, vulgarity and grossièreté was now introduced. I could have almost wept at the change.’
Anxious to help, the Matchams invited Emma to journey abroad with them, but her debtors were closing in faster than the Matchams’ travel plans, and in 1814 Emma fled to Calais with teenaged Horatia. Her time there was short as her health fatally deteriorated, It is generally believed that she had cirrhosis of the liver, though there was never a medical diagnosis, and her indebtedness forced her to relocate several times until her death on 15th January 1815. In their obituary of Emma, Gentleman’s Magazine report that her funeral expenses, including an oak coffin, were covered by Henry Cadogan (no relation), a resident English merchant, who:
Considering the services she had formerly rendered her country, and the wretched situation of the daughter of Lord Nelson (who, in compliance with her father’s wishes, had never left Lady Hamilton), offered to become responsible for the charges of her funeral, which was respectably performed in the cimetiere (church-yard) at Calais; all the English gentlemen in Calais and its vicinity, to the number of ﬁfty, attending as mourners. The merchant above alluded to, ﬁnding that a process was commenced to detain the person of Miss Horatia Nelson for Lady Hamilton’s debts, conveyed that young lady on board a vessel for England; and, on her arrival, placed her in the hands of Mr. Matcham, the late Lord Nelson's brother-in-law, with whose family she is now residing.
The summer saw Wellington’s final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo and the reopening of Europe as an English leisure-destination. Henry Stanyford Blanckley, now settled at 8 Paragon Buildings in Bath, wrote to his married daughter Maria in April 1816:
I would not miss the occasion of giving you a few lines, to tell you of my intention of quitting Bath principally on account of my health, as assuredly it does not agree with me; a third winter each of which I have been laid up in my bed; a proof of it is that when I am out of Bath I am quite well … Whither we proceed on leaving this [house] we have not determined, but for change of air towards the sea coast I fancy we shall ramble, most of the summer, and please God I mean to cheat an English winter by going somewhere to the southward on the Continent; in short no fix’d plan have we thought of. Ten or twelve days I fancy will finish our present residence.
The Blanckleys joined with Kitty and family touring Europe with their orphaned ward, Horatia who, though later recounted having embraced this experience as a ‘giddy girl’, opted the next year, 1817, to stay with the more sedate family of Kitty’s sister, Susannah Bolton in Norfolk. The Blanckleys for their part settled at Versailles and helped Kitty and family secure a large house in nearby Boulogne-sur-Seine for an annual rent of £116 and an additional £5 per week for a carriage to take her substantial brood to and fro from the attractions of central Paris. Kitty’s venturer husband, George, took advantage of post war free trade opportunities to export wine, vegetables and olives from the continent to England, and Kitty, for so long the passive witness to others’ departures, was finally now a venturess herself. A joint tour with the Blanckleys to Naples in the spring of 1819 climaxed with the marriage of my third great-grandparents: Kitty’s 19-old daughter Harriet Matcham to the Blanckley’s’ 29-old son, Lieutenant Edward Blanckley RN.
The discoveries I have made in researching these four female ancestors have been both fascinating and thrilling. Emma, despite being the best remembered, has I feel been the least fairly treated. A legacy of Victorian misogyny has left us with an enduring, but inaccurate portrait of her as a meritless harlot-cum-alcoholic, while her heroic achievements have been studiously dismissed. And whilst the stark facts of Emma’s long-denied valour have been easy to unearth, the less documented stories of Kitty Matcham, Mary Blanckley and Elizabeth Matcham have been equally compelling to trace. I am immensely proud to be connected to them.
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