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WEBSITE ENQUIRY – THE MYSTERIOUS MISS WHEATLEY

Ray Aldis and Lily Style

Our website (www.nelson-society.com) and our Facebook page (The Nelson Society UK) both receive regular enquiries from followers from around the world and our team of experts do their very best to answer them. One recent contact was from a lady in Australia who sent the following:

Hello - my maiden name was Wheatley - the Wheatley family in the late 1700's to early 1800's were much involved in the Admiralty/Navy ending with William Wheatley being appointed Librarian to the Admiralty and his sons entering the Navy. There was always a whisper that the Wheatley family had a connection with Horatio Nelson - I have a water-coloured etching of him. I have recently read that a Miss Wheatley taught music/singing to his daughter and sang at his funeral. Do you have any more information on her - even her Christian name??
Would much appreciate hearing from you.
Thanking you,

Louise Davies

We asked the enquirer for any further information she had on her Wheatley ancestors from the Nelson era and a copy of the ‘water-colour etching’.

The matter of the etching was easily resolved. It was a copy of an 1801 portrait in oils of Nelson by John Rising (see illustration).  Of William Wheatley (born 1783) we were told by Louise that he entered the Royal Navy in 1798, served for 2 years and 9 months reaching the rank of petty officer. On leaving the Navy he was employed by the Admiralty, in a series of posts, for the rest of his working life; as a clerk in the Slops Office, Superintendent of the Rope and Twine department and finally as Librarian to the Admiralty.  William was twice married and had 8 children (6 sons and 2 daughters). The sons would have been too young to have served with Nelson. William died in 1831.

The questions we were left with were: Did Miss Wheatley teach Horatia music and singing? Did she sing at Nelson’s funeral? Was she related to William Wheatley of the Admiralty and therefore an ancestor of our enquirer? What was her Christian name?


Ray Aldis forwarded the enquiry to me, as Emma Hamilton Society Chair. I was able to find an eye-witness account of Lady Hamilton’s first encounter with Miss Wheatley in the 1826 “Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, of the King's Theatre and Theatre Royal”. In writing of his June 1811 play, “The Royal Oak”, Kelly recalls:

Connected with my recollections of this play, is an anecdote relative to my deceased friend, Lady Hamilton, so characteristic of that talented, but unfortunate woman, and at the same time so demonstrative of her warmth of feeling, that I cannot suffer it to pass unrecorded.


I had composed a plaintive ballad in the second act for a Miss Wheatley (formerly a pupil of Attwood's,) who possessed a fine deep contre altro voice—the poetry was descriptive of a warrior, who had fallen in recent battle. Upon the fifth representation of the new play, Lady Hamilton, with a party of friends, occupied one of the stage boxes, appearing all gayety and animation. Scarcely, however, had this ballad commenced, when she became tremulous and agitated ; and at its conclusion, upon the encore being loudly demanded, she exclaimed, "For God's sake, remove me–I cannot bear it." Her terrified friends withdrew her from the box, whence she was immediately conveyed home in a fainting condition.


Kelly elaborates on the circumstances of Lady Hamilton recruiting Miss Wheatley as Horatia’s music tutor:


The following morning, Miss Wheatley received a note from her Ladyship, (to whom she had previously been unknown,) inviting her to her house, where, after complimenting her upon the force and feeling with which she had given the melody, she added, The description brought our glorious Nelson with such terrible truth before my mind's eye, that you overwhelmed me at the moment, but now I feel as if I could listen to you in that air for ever." She prevailed upon her visiter [sic] to repeat the ballad no less than four times at the piano-forte, "as if increase of appetite grew by what it fed upon."


Eventually, so powerful became this sentiment, that she induced Miss Wheatley to retire from the stage altogether, and accept, under her roof, the post of musical governess to the young Horatia Nelson, who had been confided to her Ladyship's guardianship. Not a day afterwards elapsed, but the favourite song was put in requisition. I published it under the title of " Rest, warrior, rest." It was generally esteemed one of my happiest efforts…


The precise identity, however, of the Miss Wheatley who tutored ten-year-old Horatia remained elusive. As Kelly’s account provides no forename, it was impossible to know which, if any, baptism or other record pertained to her. Fortunately, a substantial clue to her identity is provided in a 1993 “Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800”, whose “Miss Wheatley” entry tells us she was first noticed on the bill for an elaborate Drury Lane pantomime in February 1795 and that, in November 1797, a publication called The True Briton reported her as “not quite 15 years old” (suggesting she was born in late 1782, or early 1783). The European Magazine, writing about her that same month, said “her voice is well-toned and powerful, and she seems to have made some progress in the science of music. As an actress her defects are general. On the whole, however, we must set down the appearance as the most promising of the season in this line.” 

According to her biographical entry, “she continued at Covent Garden in the winter seasons until 1804–5. The Thespian Dictionary of 1805 reported that she performed in summers at Richmond, Brighton, &c. She was also at the Haymarket Theatre frequently after her first appearance as Jaquelina in Davy’s new comic opera What a Blunder!” ... but there is no mention of her singing at Nelson’s funeral, and no wider evidence has come to light to support this. Further, Kelly’s account tells that she first met Lady Hamilton in 1811. If she did sing at Nelson’s funeral, it would not have been through a personal connection to Nelson’s close kin. 

Helpfully for us, The European Magazine (as quoted in the biographical dictionary) identifies Miss Wheatley as “sister to the gentleman who played Laertes” in Hamlet at Covent Garden on 25th September 1797. More helpfully still, the next entry in the biographical dictionary is for Frederick Wheatley, who “came on stage for his first appearance at Covent Garden Theatre on 25 September 1797 playing Laertes in Hamlet”. So, Miss Wheatley’s brother was a fellow stage performer named Frederick, who, in the words of The Monthly Mirror, had “a good figure, and an expressive countenance, though rather gloomy and forbidding.”

Miss Wheatley’s brother, Frederick, emigrated to America and was in New York by 1804. He married a well-known actress named Sarah Ross and had three children, all of whom took to the stage: “Julia, who succeeded as an operatic contralto, retiring in 1840; Emma a well-known actress who died on 16 July 1854; and William Wheatley [pictured] (5 December 1816-3 November 1876), one of the most prominent and effective American theatrical managers in the middle of the nineteenth century.”

Here at last is a scattering of pointers to help trace the Miss Wheatley whom Lady Hamilton employed as Horatia’s music tutor. I contacted Frederick Wheatley’s descendants –cousins named Jennifer and David Wheatley Smith– through a genealogical website. Their inherited family lore recalls Frederick Wheatley’s date of birth as Christmas Day 1779, although they had conflicting accounts of this having been in either London or Ireland. 

A search of baptismal records returned a likely match: Frederick, son of William and Mary Wheatley, born 24th December 1779, christened at St Leonards, Shoreditch, Middlesex, on 23rd January 1780. A Christmas Eve birthday could, I think, have easily come to be associated with Christmas Day celebrations, especially as many of the European nationalities who settled in New York, such as Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, celebrate Christmas on its eve. 

Records for the enquirer’s naval ancestor William Wheatley (1783 – 1831) tell us his father was “William Wheatley of the Navy and Elizabeth”. This means that if, as Frederick’s likely baptism record says, our elusive Miss Wheatley’s parents were named William and Mary, she could not have been a close cousin to the querent’s ancestor (in other words, their fathers, both named William, could not have been brothers). 

Shoreditch baptism records tell of two siblings for Frederick Wheatley: a brother named William (born 22nd January 1778), and a sister, Mary, born 17th June 1776. Mary, however, seems an unlikely fit for the Miss Wheatley who tutored Horatia, as she’d have been twenty-one when The True Briton reported, in November 1797, that Miss Wheatley was not quite 15 years old. It feels improbable for a newspaper to have identified a grown woman as a fourteen-year-old in this context. 

Shoreditch, during the eighteenth century, had been a sought-after “des res” for the wealthy, with residents having included the Governor of the Bank England and the founder of the East India Company. Its popularity had, however, begun to wane by the time of Frederick Wheatley’s birth on Christmas Eve 1779, as the upper classes migrated to new builds in the West End. 

We do not know whether Frederick’s parents were well off, and he and his sibling’s theatre employment suggest that they weren’t. However, then as now, families of all incomes moved home, and not all 18th century clergymen recorded parents’ names in their records. A baptism record from the neighbouring parish of St Sepulchre, Newgate, jumps out as a likely candidate for Horatia Nelson’s future tutor: Martha Wheatley, whose parents’ names aren’t given, was born on 30th April 1783, meaning she would have been fourteen-and-a-half when The True Briton said Miss Wheatley was “not quite fifteen”. 

It’s worth bearing in mind that not all parish records have survived for the convenience of modern-day researchers, and it may be that the true baptism record of the Miss Wheatley who tutored Horatia has been lost to oblivion, but could Martha, baptised in St Sepulchre in 1783, have grown up to be the contralto who so moved Lady Hamilton with her rendition of “Rest Warrior Rest” that she employed her to tutor Horatia? 

Miss Wheatley’s biographical dictionary entry tells that she was “first noticed when her name was added to the list of Attendant Females on the bill for the third night of the elaborate new pantomime Alexander the Great at Drury Lane on 16 February 1795.” If this was Martha Wheatley, she would have been not-quite twelve-years-old. According to an article posted on Cambridge University’s website, the eighteenth century saw children as young as five appearing on stage. Theatre was a source of employment for many minors, and Emma, Lady Hamilton had herself worked in the entertainment industry as a young teen. According to biographer Flora Fraser, at age thirteen, Emma worked as a costume hand for a Drury Lane theatre. There’s a popular legend also that she gained employment as a classically-dressed dancer in a high-end clinic named the Temple of Health before she was fifteen. So, it seems feasible that the Newgate-born Martha Wheatley could have taken to the boards as an eleven-year-old: just as Miss Wheatley’s biographical dictionary entry implies.

In conclusion, records appear to confirm that Lady Hamilton did indeed employ a Miss Wheatley as a music tutor for Horatia Nelson, and that this took place in 1811. However, no evidence for Miss Wheatley singing at Nelson’s January 1806 funeral has emerged. A 1993 biographic dictionary of 18th century London stage performers tells us that Miss Wheatley was born in late 1782, or early 1783, and identifies her brother as Frederick Wheatley: whose probable parents were William and Mary (not to be confused with the pre-Georgian royal couple!) This makes it unlikely that the querent’s naval ancestors were close kin to Horatia’s music tutor. We cannot be certain of Miss Wheatley’s Christian name, but Martha Wheatley (baptised in St Sepulchre, Newgate in April 1783) seems the most-likely candidate according to available records.