On this day … 26 April 1764

On or about the 26 April 1764, according to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the future Emma Hamilton, mistress to Admiral Nelson, was born in Preston.

Emma Hamilton - aged about seventeen
Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, in a Straw Hat by George Romney painted around 1782-1784: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:George_Romney_-_Emma_Hart_in_a_Straw_Hat.jpg

This is what that edition of Britannica (below) has on Emma:

Sir William Hamilton’s second wife, Emma Lyon or Harte, whose name is so notoriously associated with that of Nelson, was born of very humble parents at Preston in Lancashire, about April 26, 1764. Her youth was spent in domestic service, and it was first as attendant on a lady of fashion that she learned to develop her talent for singing and mimicry. Having lost this situation she became waitress in a tavern frequented by actors, and soon entered upon a gay and dissolute career.

Emma Hamilton - extract from Encyclopaedia Britannica ninth edition

The ninth edition of the encyclopaedia appeared as Anthony Hewitson was writing his history of Preston. He found an earlier reference to Emma’s birthplace being in Preston in an article in an 1860 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, a gentleman’s journal, which stated that she was born on 25 April 1764 to ‘poor parents of the name Lyons’.

Hewitson combed through all the Preston records he could find and not a trace of Emma was there to be discovered. Also, he went to a second edition of her memoirs published in 1815, where he discovered that she:

… “owed her origin to a couple that lived together, in a menial capacity, in the county palatine of Chester,” and that the father, “whose name was Lyon, survived this marriage only a short time, leaving, in 1761, a young widow, and an infant daughter named Emma, wholly without support.” The author of these statements specifies no particular town or village, in “the county palatine of Chester,” where either the birth or the death took place.

Hewitson wrote to the publishers of the encyclopaedia in 1883 seeking the sources for their article, and was told:

‘Since last writing to you, we have had a communication from the author of the article, Lady Hamilton, in the Encya. Brita. He is not able to give his authorities, at present, for his statement as to her birth; but he has a perfect recollection of taking pains in the research necessary for verifying the matter when the article was written.’

Hewitson was convinced, opted for Preston rather than somewhere in Cheshire as Emma’s place of birth, and went on to devote nearly twenty pages of his history to the lives of Emma and Nelson and the spurious Preston connection, convinced by the authority of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In fact, all the latest sources, including the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, now agree that she was born in Great Neston in Cheshire in around 1761. not Preston in 1764.

Nelson himself did have a connection with Preston. Skeffington Lutwidge (below), a member of the Lutwidge family that owned a large slice of Preston in the nineteenth century, commanded a vessel that engaged in a lengthy exploration of the Arctic in 1773.

Admiral Skeffington Lutwidge (1737-1814).*watercolour on ivory.*6.5 cm high

One of his midshipmen on that voyage was a young Horatio Nelson, and it was while the expedition vessels were trapped in the ice that Nelson was reportedly chased by a polar bear. Another version has Nelson chasing the bear.

Nelson again served under Lutwidge as commander of his own vessel when Lutwidge was appointed admiral. The Skeffington Arms, at the corner of Skeffington Road and Ribbleton Lane, was probably named for the admiral, which means that the pub sign depicting a soldier probably celebrates the wrong arm of the services.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s