On 29 January 1801 a baby girl was born, ostensibly the posthumous and orphaned offspring of a seaman by the surname of Thompson, in reality she was the daughter of Lady Hamilton and her lover, war hero Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton were, in public, the babies Godparents who adopted her after the death of her parents, and the baby was christened Horatia Nelson Thompson in honor of her ‘godfather’. For the rest of her life, her biological mother would refer to Horatia as her ‘ward’ in an attempt to spare the girl the shame and stigma of illegitimacy, but it was a futile social nicety — the whole world knew that she was Nelson’s daughter.
Horatia’s deep-seated place in her father’s heart was cemented further by the death of her infant sister shortly after birth in 1804. This darling girl might be the only child Nelson would ever have. When Lady Hamilton was widowed in the spring of 1805, he began legal action to divorce his wife, so that he could wed his beloved and hopefully legitimize their adored child.
With his dying breath during the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson pleaded with the his friends to remind England to take care of Lady Hamilton and his daughter. He so trusted that his family and nation would elevate and care for Horatia and her mother, that in his will he left the little girl a mere her £200 per annum and the plea that “”I leave to the beneficence of my country my adopted daughter Horatia Nelson Thompson, and I desire she will use in future the name of Nelson only.”
However, although Nelson’s brother, William Nelson, was created Earl Nelson and Viscount Merton of Trafalgar and Merton in the County of Surrey in recognition of his brother’s services, as well as inherited the Dukedom of Bronté in Sicily, Lady Hamilton and Horatia were mostly left to fend for themselves after Nelson passed. Horatia, as Nelson’s child, was pitied and made a subject of sentiment, but her ‘irregular’ birth and Lady Hamilton’s former life as a child prostitute prevented the government from acknowledging them as Nelson’s dependents.
Lady Hamilton remained bitterly angry at the way the government and Nelson’s own family comfortably ignored Horatia, his only child, after the admiral’s death. When she wrote to Colonel Sir Richard Puleston in 1811 to update him on the 10 year old Horatia’s growth and development, Lady Hamilton could not help but point out, “I hope to see her all that her father wished her to be, however others may have neglected his sacred wishes I act as tho he could have wished me to have done.”
In large part thanks to Lady Hamilton’s gambling addiction, made worse in her depression after Nelson’s death, Horatia and her mother lost everything and were consigned to debtor’s prison in 1812. They were fortunately housed by the jailer in relative comfort, and after a year of imprisonment some of Nelson’s friends helped them move to Calais to escape Lady Hamilton’s creditors. There, Horatia lived in penury with her mother until Lady Hamilton died in January of 1815.
After Emma’s death, the teenage Horatia disguised herself as a boy to evade her mother’s creditors and returned to England. She was welcomed into the bosom of her father’s family, and went to live with first with Nelsons sisters, Mrs Catherine Nelson Matcham in Sussex, and then with Nelson’s sister Mrs Susannah Nelson Bolton in Norfolk. Her aunts took very good care of her, and made sure Horatia was given a place in society as befitted the ward of England’s most treasured war hero.
Horatia did well in society, and not only because she was Admiral Nelson’s daughter. Lady Hamilton had ensured that Horatia had been secured adequate tutelage in how to be a lady before debts drove them out of the Beau Mond, and Horatia could therefore take tea as well as any duchess. Moreover, she was tall, pretty (although not the beauty Lady Hamilton had been), intelligent, and as Jane Austen would have put it, was a woman of information. She spoke several languages fluently, and was considered a lively and good-natured girl.
She seems, however, to have craved respectability – perhaps because of her unconventional childhood? In 1822 she married the one of the most respectable men on the planet, Rev Philip Ward, who was then the curate at Burnham Westgate Church.
With Horatia’s connections, it was not too long afterward that Rev Ward was given the living at Stanhoe in Norfolk, and within a year was next granted another living at Bircham Newton. This was certainly welcome, as much for the roomier parsonage as for the money, because the Wards had two infants, Horatio (Horace) Nelson Ward (born on 8 December 1822) and Eleanor Philippa Ward (born April 1824), and another baby on the way.
Horatia Nelson Ward and her husband would have 10 children in total by their 15th wedding anniversary, with the last baby, Caroline Mary Ward arriving in January of 1836. Sadly, or perhaps happily considering infant mortality in that time, two of their children were lost as infants. Although the Rev Ward would gain other livings, including Tenterden, corn prices and economic instability and the needs of 8 growing children would keep the Wards always in want of more funds.
In 1845 Sir Nicholas Harris published the third volume of Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Nelson, and in those letters were the proofs that Horatia was Nelson’s natural daughter. Rev Ward’s wife embraced the honor of being Nelson’s child, but for the rest of her life Horatia would insist that Lady Hamilton had not been her biological mother. Apparently it was okay to be Nelson’s bastard, but not one born to such a notorious mistress – one who had moreover posed nude for artists? So Nelson either fathered her on a nicer kind of mistress, or she sprung (like Athena) from her father’s brow without maternal assistance of any kind?
To raise money for her eldest son’s education, Horatia sold one of Admiral Nelson’s naval uniforms at auction to Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, who gifted it to Greenwich Hospital. There was an appeal to the public to raise money for Nelson’s only living child in 1850, but it raised only £1457. Rather than keep the money, Horatia and her husband asked that it be divided between their three adult sons who were in military service. To further aid the Wards, the queen “allocated public funds for a £100 annual pension for each Nelson-Ward daughter” in 1854.
Horatia Nelson Ward lived to the ripe old age of 80, dying on 6 March 1881, but her long life was a mixed blessing. She regrettably outlived not only her husband, but also half of her adult children. Only three sons — Horatio, Marmaduke, and Nelson — and one daughter — Horatia Ward Johnson – survived her. She was buried with two of her adult children who predeceased her in Pinner Parish old cemetery, now called Paines Lane Cemetery, in London. The grave marker reads:
In memory of Lieut. Philip Ward, 25th. Bengal Native Infantry, who died 12th. September 1865, aged 33, youngest son of the late Revd. Philip Ward, Vicar, Tenterden, Kent. Also in memory of Eleanor Philippa Ward, Spinster, eldest daughter of the above-named Revd. Philip Ward, who was accidentally killed 6th. August 1872, aged 48. Here also rests Horatia Nelson Ward, who died March 6th. 1881, aged 80, the beloved daughter of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson and widow of the above-named Revd. Philip Ward.”
There is no mention of her mother, Lady Emma Hamilton, once the most famous beauty and courtesan in London, at all. Perhaps, given the over-the-top Puritanism of the Victorians, this is as understandable as it is unsurprising.
To end on a happier note, though, Horatia’s married children blessed her with a multitude of grandchildren, and there are an abundance of Horatia Nelson Ward’s descendants alive throughout Britain today. Nelson’s daughter may not have acknowledged her mother, but Lady Hamilton lives on in the blood of Mrs Ward’s heirs every bit as much as the famous hero of Trafalgar.