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The extraordinary life of Horatia Nelson

Date published 29/01/2023

Horatia Nelson, born 29 January 1801, was the only surviving child of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson and his lover Lady Emma Hamilton. At the time of Horatia's birth her parents were married, just not to each other, with Nelson married to his wife of fourteen years, Frances Nelson, and Emma married to Sir William Hamilton. The relationship between Emma and Nelson was incredibly scandalous and the topic of fervent gossip and caricature.

A secret child

Both Emma and Nelson decided to hide Horatia's birth and parentage, hoping to avoid adding any more fuel to the fire of speculation around them. There was also the matter of Sir William Hamilton, as while Nelson had left his wife, Emma was still very much living with William. The Hamiltons and Nelson frequently travelled, and even lived, together (it’s believed that Horatia was conceived on one such trip). It’s unknown how much Sir William knew of the affair, as he never acknowledged the rumours, nor would such complete disregard of Georgian standards and morals allow such a scandal to go unpunished, so a plan was required. 

Emma and Nelson’s plan came in three parts; the first was to state that Horatia was born several months earlier than she already was. The fabricated date given coincided with an overseas trip Emma had been on, giving her an alibi and deniability. The second part was to create a wholly fabricated backstory for Horatia, claiming that she was an orphan to a sailor made up by the couple. To this end, Emma gave the newly born Horatia over to a wet nurse named Mrs Gibson, claiming that the new-born was actually several weeks old, with the ‘mother’ having died in childbirth. The final part of the plan was for Nelson and Emma to adopt the ‘orphan’ child, claiming to be her godparents, and raise her under this guise. 

And it succeeded. Although there was some gossip around the timing of the situation and the open secret of Nelson and Emma’s relationship, it was not enough for the speculation to become ‘fact’. Originally, Nelson wanted to name the baby Horatia Etnorb, a not so subtle reversing of his title Lord of Bronte, but it would appear Emma's more rational head won out as in the event the baby was christened Horatia Nelson Thompson, with the last name being that of her ‘deceased’ parents. 

Horatia lived away from the family home of Merton Place, where Emma, Sir William, and Nelson (when not at sea) lived. During her young life, she would only be brought to Merton for special occasions, normally at the behest of Nelson, but always under the pretext that she was their godchild. Things started to change with the death of Sir William in 1803, and with it Nelson’s last vestiges of discretion. Never a man to be overly concerned about letting the opinions of others stand in the way of what he wanted, Nelson was tired of the charade and wanted to live openly with Emma as his wife and Horatia recognised as his daughter. This despite Frances Nelson, his wife, still being very much alive and not at all willing to concede to a divorce. 

Despite everything, Nelson began preparations and openly started living with Emma and Horatia. Nelson privately told some members of his family that Horatia was his daughter, omitting that Emma was her mother. Horatia was kept ignorant of this, and continued to believe herself an orphan despite Nelson’s increased efforts to change the status quo. Despite his enthusiasm, Horatia was still absent from Merton Place when Nelson boarded HMS Victory for the last time. 

The death of Nelson

Horatio Nelson was killed in action on the 21st of October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar, although news of his death took several weeks to reach his family waiting at home. Upon his desk aboard HMS Victory two letters were found, one for Emma and one for Horatia. In his letter to Horatia, Nelson signs off with, "Receive, my dearest Horatia, the affectionate parental blessing of your father, NELSON AND BRONTE.", and just like that everything Horatia Nelson believed she knew about her “God Papa” changed. The letter, along with his watch, were given to Horatia upon the return of Nelson's body to England, just before her fifth birthday. Neither Emma or Horatia were invited to Nelson’s funeral.

It was not just the shock of discovering and losing her father at the same moment that Horatia had to contend with, but also matters of a more material nature. Nelson's last request to the Admiralty Board was that England take care of both Emma and Horatia in the event of his death. This was a task the country resoundingly failed to do. Although Merton Place belonged to Emma, all other lands, titles, and awards went to Nelson's brother William, with Nelson's pension going to his wife Frances. This left Emma with a small pension drawn from Sir William's estate and a mountain of debts racked up by herself and Nelson during their time at Merton. 

Emma and Horatia

With money rapidly running out, for the first time in her life Horatia was completely under Emma's care as there was no longer any money for a governess. Emma tried to maintain standards and educate Horatia, with Horatia picking up Emma’s talent for languages, as well as various arts and cultural pursuits. During this time Emma formally débuted Horatia to society, making it publicly known that Horatia was Nelson’s daughter. Horatia was considered intelligent, elegant, and very much resembled her father in looks, so much so that it was impossible to deny she was his daughter. Emma invested substantially in Horatia’s debut, either in the attempt to leverage Nelson’s last wishes into some sort of action or potentially to attract new, wealthy, benefactors to help support them.  

However, Emma could not stem their monetary woes and the two began the slow descent into poverty. Gone were the lavish parties that marked the Nelson era as Merton Place eventually had to be sold off to pay the outstanding debts. Initially, Emma and Horatia were to live at Merton under the care of the new owner, but this promise, like so many others, was not honoured, leaving Emma and Horatia homeless. The sale of Merton Place was not enough to cover the enormity of the bill and Emma was unable to get out from underneath it. She began to drink heavily, leading to further poor financial management, and a spiral in which both were trapped. The situation became so bad both Emma and Horatia spent time in debtors’ prison, although by accounts Emma still attempted to entertain high society despite the squalid conditions. One of Nelson’s sisters offered to take Horatia in during this time, but would not allow Emma to live with her. Horatia declined the offer, staying with Emma despite Emma’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge herself as Horatia’s mother.

On their release from debtors’ prison, Emma and Horatia stayed with the few of Nelson's relations still willing to be associated with Emma. Although by all accounts Nelson's family doted on Horatia, both she and Emma rarely stayed in any one location for very long, either to stay ahead of Emma’s creditors or due to her increasingly difficult behaviour. The drinking had progressed to gambling, with Emma falling further into debt and alienating those around her. Emma continued to refuse to answer Horatia's questions about her parentage, maintaining the lie that she was only Horatia's Godmother and denying any and all maternal connection between them. After eventually exhausting the goodwill of the friends and family left to her, an increasingly unwell Emma decided to relocate to Calais, France, in a last-ditch attempt to escape the creditors that plagued her. And where Emma went Horatia followed. 

Calais was the lowest point of Horatia's life. Despite the change of location, Emma continued to drink and what little money there was left was quickly spent. Forced into dilapidated accommodation they could barely afford, Emma's health took a turn for the worse. According to Horatia's journals, Emma developed jaundice and became bloated, becoming unable to leave her bed. Long gone were the days of the celebrated beauty and wit, and with no other choice the pair were forced to sell what few possessions they had remaining from their time at Merton Place. One of the few exceptions was Nelson’s watch, the same one that had been delivered alongside the fateful letter, which Horatia kept with her.

Eventually, there was nothing left to sell, and with no friends to turn to Emma’s condition worsened and Horatia was left to take care of her alone in her dying days. Emma Hamilton eventually died on or around Horatia's fourteenth birthday. She denied being Horatia’s mother to the very end and for her part Horatia never publicly acknowledged Emma Hamilton as her mother. 

Flight from Calais

Now alone in a country with which England had only just stopped being at war, with no money, no friends, and as the daughter of England’s hero it was up to Horatia to figure out what to do next. Emma was hastily buried in Calais, where she is still interred to this day, and Horatia appealed to old friends of Nelson to help her escape France, where she was in real danger of being held against her will should the French authorities find her. Eventually, Horatia was smuggled back to England, shaving her head and dressing like a boy to avoid detection. On her arrival, Horatia was sent to live with Nelson’s sister and brother-in-law.

Although Horatia’s return ended the extreme poverty she had endured, her life was still marked with difficulty. Whilst she had been taken in by her father’s family, and seemingly accepted as his child, she was still kept at a distance. Her role in the household included caring for the younger children and later she was shipped out to act as a housekeeper to another member of the family, making her more akin to a servant than a ward. There was also the matter of her legitimacy and inheritance, as despite Nelson wishing it to be so, she could not inherit any of his property and titles. Nelson’s brother, William, had inherited the entire estate, as well as being raised to an Earl in respect for Nelson. Horatia went entirely unrecognised, nor did William seem to want to rectify the situation. 

The beloved daughter

Things did eventually improve for Horatia when she met and married Phillip Ward in 1822, going on to have ten children with him. Phillip was a curate, so their life was simple but stable, with them living in Norfolk, where Nelson himself had been born and raised. By all accounts the marriage was considered a happy one, and the couple were well matched. She was also well received by society, even if not formally acknowledged as Nelson's heir. She met frequently with her father's friends and colleagues, and was involved with various charitable organisations to raise money in his memory. Eventually, the public opinion around Nelson’s last wishes changed, with Queen Victoria herself interceding to ensure a small pension be provided to Horatia’s daughters, with a larger, publicly raised amount split between her sons in military service. 

Horatia Nelson died peacefully in 1881 at the age of eighty and there is a line of descendants through her to this day. Upon her death her gravestone named her as "the beloved daughter" of Nelson and nowadays she is officially recognised as the child of the father she adored and the mother who denied her.


You can find out more about Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, Emma Hamilton, and Horatia Nelson in our Nelson Gallery, found at the National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth

For a limited time only you can also see Nelson in his own Words: Treasures from the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, a temporary exhibition containing over thirty letters written by the man himself. For the first time see into the inner life of one of our greatest heroes, only on display until the end of March 2023.

Want to see more? While onsite at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard experience Victory Live: the Big Repair and walk aboard the Nation's Flagship. HMS Victory is famous for her role in the Battle of Trafalgar, being ship on which Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson died, but did you know she is still the Flagship of the Royal Navy to this day? In order to preserve her for future generations the National Museum of the Royal Navy in embarking on a decade long restoration process, giving you a once in a generation chance to witness her like never before. 

All of this and more is included in the price of a three attraction or Ultimate Explorer ticket, which you can use to visit the National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth for an entire year. 

Book tickets now