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Surprising Twists Surrounding Henrietta Blanckley’s Death

(First published in the Kedge Anchor in 2020)

My passion when carrying out genealogical research is in resurrecting portraits of living, breathing, feeling human beings from the dry facts they have left behind.  I think of my ancestors as family members and am curious to know them better.  Be they well-known, like Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson, or forgotten in time, like my 4th great-aunt Henrietta Blanckley, my interest lies in finding snippets of human description.  What did they look like?  What were their beliefs?   What motivated them?  What was their inner experience of life?  What did they actually feel?

This mindset drew me to question Horatia’s feelings for her mother, Lady Hamilton.  The assumption has been, in part, encouraged by Horatia herself, who she emphatically refused to countenance the very idea of Lady Hamilton having been her biological mother.  I realised I felt alienated from her because of this.  The Horatia who said, “I will never accept that that woman was my mother!”, was not a relative I could warm to.  A clergyman’s respectable wife eschewing both limelight and her natural mother, felt cold and closed to me; as well as deeply unjust to Emma.  Her public stance, however, felt increasingly false.  My hunch grew that Horatia had felt tightly bound to deny her true, loving feelings in the face of the vicious demonisation hurled upon Lady Hamilton by misogynistic Victorian society.  Emma is even defamed in Chamber’s 1860s Dictionary of Universal Knowledge.  This intuition (that Horatia had felt obliged to conceal her love for Emma) is the basis of my novel, Horatia’s Secret.

Having never written a novel before, historical biographical or otherwise, I wasn’t sure where to begin.  Horatia biographer Winfred Gérin’s assertion that elderly Horatia’s ‘cup of happiness’ had been filled by the arrival of granddaughters brought to live near her in Pinner, Middlesex, by her son William (my second great-grandfather) returning from India in 1873, was a snippet of humanity that I wanted to include in my narrative.  I initially set the story in 1878, when my great-grandmother-to-be Alice Lilian Ward was five.  However, research-gleanings pointed me to relocate the timeline to the latter half of 1873: a few months before Horatia’s childhood friend Henrietta Blanckley wrote a Will bequeathing £200 to Alice Lilian Ward’s next older sister, Ada, whilst leaving nothing to William’s other children.  He and his wife Tori had a total of six children, all of whom were girls.  Why was only Ada named in Henrietta’s Will?  This suggested a background story worthy of explanation.

My mother was told that her grandmother, Alice Lilian Ward, had been born with congenital heart disease, and that this had caused her death when pregnant with her third child in 1911.  This is borne out by her death certificate, which states her cause of death as ‘heart failure due to unsound heart’.  My hunch is that Henrietta Blanckley had known of Alice’s life-shortening prognosis when she wrote her Will on twentieth February, 1874 and had thus elected to sponsor William and Tori’s next youngest child, Ada, in her place.

Henrietta was the youngest daughter of Henry Stanyford Blanckley, British Consul to the Balearics and Algiers during the Napoleonic wars, and a family friend of Nelson.  Henrietta and her sister Elizabeth were the daughters of Henry’s second wife, Mary Richards.  Correspondence held by Princeton University tells of an emotional divide between Mary Richards’ children and those born to Henry Stanyford Blanckley’s first wife, Mary Rogers, the latter being termed ‘the first family’.  This emotional divide can be glimpsed in Henrietta’s sister, Elizabeth Broughton’s 1839 memoir ‘Six Years Residence in Algiers’, which is based on their mother's journals from 1805 to 1812.  The ‘first family’ includes Tori (Horatia’s daughter-in-law), whose father was Henrietta’s half-brother, Captain Edward Blanckley RN.

Henrietta’s 1874 Will continues to be of interest.  Whilst she bequeathed the majority of her estate to her niece Lizzie (the younger daughter of Elizabeth Broughton) and £200 to her toddler great-niece Ada, her only other beneficiaries are the three surviving descendants of her ‘first family’ half-brothers.  These are Tori (with a bequest made also to her husband William), her brother Horace, and their cousin Henriette (the only surviving child of Tori’s paternal uncle).  It seems to me odd that nothing is bequeathed to the children of Henrietta Blanckley’s half-sister Maria, nor to the children of her full-sister’s other child, Mary Lattey.  I have incorporated her decision to bequeath money to the children of her half-brothers into my narrative.

An additional point of interest surrounding Henrietta Blanckley’s death, which I suspect fellow 1805 Club members will immediately grasp, is that she died on the twenty-first of October 1874.  The date could very well have been coincidental, but the dry fact that she passed on Trafalgar Day, the anniversary of the death of her childhood friend’s hero father Horatio Nelson, whose grandson William George Ward was a named beneficiary in her Will, felt too significant to ignore.

Strange circumstances continued to haunt Henrietta even after her death.  Her obituary published in multiple newspapers, as well as her Withycombe Raleigh, Devon, tomb inscription, name her as the youngest daughter of Major Henry Stanyford Blanckley, 23rd Welsh Fusiliers.  This was, in fact, the rank of Henrietta’s eldest half-brother, named for their father.  Their actual father had served in the 31st and 97th Regiments of Foot.  Her obituary and tombstone inscription goes on to state that her father was ‘for many years a member of the household of H.M. George III’.  Whilst it might be grand to picture him as having wiled away many cosy years in the household of George III, surviving records make this an impossibility.  He was on active service overseas until at least 1783 (when Thomas Spooner replaced him as a Captain of 97th Regiment) and is recorded as having been employed as a gentleman gamekeeper at Little Hallingbury in Essex in 1785.  Several of his children were baptised there before notice of an auction of his household affects was posted in the autumn of 1789.  This corresponds with his 1790 appointment as Consul of the Balearics.   The blatant misinformation presented as fact in Henrietta Blanckley’s obituary and tombstone text speaks to me not just of surprising ignorance, but of a jostling for familial aggrandisement.  The only beneficiaries I can see for this are her inheriting niece Lizzie and the Cooke family she married into a few months after Henrietta’s death. 

These surprising facts surrounding her death have guided my narrative, , in conjunction with other gleaned facts, such as two accounts of Lizzie viciously destroying the family papers, shortly after Tori and Horace had been witnesses to her wedding to Francis CookeThat the only child Henrietta made provision for in her 1874 Will was her two-year-old great-niece Ada, suggested the story of her having known of Baby Alice’s congenital heart disease, and having had a soft spot for Ada.  That, beyond Lizzie, the only other relatives she bequeathed money to were the adult descendants of her half-brothers, suggested a story of her wishing to make amends for past mistreatment.  That she died on Trafalgar Day suggested her having held out to honour a promise to raise a toast to Nelson’s daughter, her childhood friend.  That her obituary and tomb inscription share sloppy and aggrandising inaccuracies, suggested that those responsible for the words had little interest in Henrietta’s true genealogy, but ample interest in personal gain.