by Kathryn Hadley
A series of Viscount Horatio Nelson and Sir William Hamilton’s accounts were sold yesterday by Christie’s auctioneers in King Street, London, for £7,500. The lot was a set of 16 weekly accounts, dating from June 21st 1802 to April 4th 1803, whilst Nelson, Sir William Hamilton and his wife Emma Hamilton were living together at Merton Place. The accounts were estimated to fetch between £6,000 and £9,000. Two of the accounts are signed by Nelson and two others include financial calculations in Nelson’s hand. All the accounts are signed by Francis White, who is presumed to be Hamilton’s steward.
It appears that Nelson and Hamilton largely shared the costs between them. On the accounts bearing Nelson’s signature, the viscount paid half the household expenses, the residue being paid by Francis White on Sir William Hamilton’s behalf. On the remaining accounts the balance is paid by Francis White. The weekly disbursements vary from £27-1-7½, in late June 1802, to £156-4-4, in March 1803, and included payments for tradesmen and foodstuffs, to the butcher, greengrocer and fishmonger, as well as washing and household wages. The payments to household staff notably include £2 13s 9d, over three months' wages paid to a maid called Phillis Thorpe.
Dr Thomas Venning, a manuscripts expert at Christie's, was quoted in an article on the website of The Telegraph referring to the maid’s wages:
‘That's only about one-third of the amount they forked out for fish in a single week[…]. These accounts provide a valuable insight into life in England just before Trafalgar.’
Sir William Hamilton and Emma were introduced in 1782 by Charles Greville, the lover of Emma Hamilton’s mother. William Hamilton was Charles Greville’s uncle and a widower and antiquarian who was the ambassador at the court in Naples. William and Emma married in September 1791. Two years later, Emma and Nelson met in Naples for the first time. It is believed that the couple became lovers in December 1798, when Nelson evacuated the Hamiltons and the Neapolitan Royal family to Palermo, Sicily, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Nile. Lady Hamilton organised the purchase of Merton Place, a country estate in Merton, Surrey, in 1801 and Nelson moved in with the couple at the end of October. Hamilton died, however, on April 6th, 1803, just two days after the date of the last account paid in his name.
Emma Hamilton died in poverty in France, in January 1815. Shortly, after her death, in the summer of 1815, Memoirs of Lady Hamilton, which detailed the ‘habitual adultery’ between Emma and Nelson, was published anonymously. The book caused a sensation and the first edition sold out in weeks. It was only over 200 years later, however, in 2008, on the eve of the 250th anniversary of Nelson’s birth, that the mysterious author was discovered. For further information, read our article Peeping John.
In 2001, a series of letters written by Frances, Lady Nelson, to her husband’s prize agent Alexander Davison were also discovered. A significant number of the letters date from the time of the break-up of Nelson’s marriage, in early 1801, and provide an insight into the feelings of his wife. Margarette Lincoln and Colin White debate the significance of the letters in our article Kiss me, Horatio.
For further information on Nelson’s character and views, read our article Nelson: Admirable Lord. For Andrew Lambert’s view on why Nelson’s life and death should never be forgotten, read our free article Nelson, Trafalgar and the Meaning of Victory.