Even in her day it was hard to tell Emma, Lady Hamilton, tittle from tattle. The Prince of Wales himself swore that he’d caught sight of her as a prostitute in Covent Garden — he, of course, was there merely for the purposes of research. Others remember her in all manner of seedy venues, some probable and others less so.
Emma Lyon/Hart/Hartley/Hamilton was highly skilled at exploiting whatever busted-flush life dealt her. She’d weigh up the odds of each rubbish hand, then run with the least-worst option. She can be hard to track but Sarah Wood, Exhibition Interpretations Curator of the National Maritime Museum’s Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity exhibition, has made a stab at tracing her London world. “She constantly reinvented herself,” says Wood, “and she was very ambitious.”
The map below shows the key London sites from Emma's life.
First year in London
Born into poverty in Cheshire in 1765, 12-year-old ‘Emy Lyon’ made her way to London in 1777, drawn by the traditional gold-paved streets. She found employment as a maidservant in Chatham Place, Blackfriars, at the home of a Doctor Budd of Bart's Hospital. Hey — it was a roof over her head.
Emy shared duties with young Jane Powell, who’d set her sights on the stage. They were never going to last long as skivvies. Not a year passed before they were sacked and threw their lot in with the wild world of Covent Garden, London’s pleasure quarter. Jane Powell would find fame as an actress but Emy’s path involved different boards; not always with that meaning or, indeed, spelling.
“Thomas Linley was a mover and shaker in the theatre world,” says Sarah Wood of Emy’s next employer. “He took over the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after David Garrick. It’s likely Emy worked with Mrs Linley in the costume department and perhaps in the family home. We’re not sure where it was but Linley died in Southampton Street in 1791.”
School for Scandal, by Linley’s son-in-law, Richard Sheridan, debuted in 1777, and Emy may well have been a dresser on the production.
Meanwhile, a quack doctor called James Graham, inventor of ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’, was setting up a sort of sex therapy unit called the ‘Temple of Health’ at the Adelphi in the Strand. Girls dressed as classical goddesses danced to aid gentlemen with their ‘recovery’. It’s rumoured 13-year-old Emy was one of the dancers — if so, it would have been her first foray into posing as a neoclassical model, something she was soon to do rather a lot.
Hey — it was a job, and she learned some nifty moves at the same time.
Graham later set up the Temple of Hymen at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, birthplace of the famous ‘Celestial Bed’ which sent electric shocks through its occupants while emitting ‘aetherial gases’ and ‘celestial sounds’, displaying erotic imagery and the usual dancing goddesses. By this time, however, Emy had moved on.
Madames and aristocrats
The number of women in the sex trade in the 18th century was huge, as the exhibition’s copy of Harris’s List demonstrates in eye-popping detail.
Notorious madam Charlotte Hayes, aka Madame Kelly, operated several brothels in St James's. Emy joined Mme Kelly as a servant. We have no evidence she became a prostitute, but as a pretty 14-year-old with no other protection, the temptation must have been great.
Hey— working for Madame Kelly, in whatever capacity, beat pounding London’s terrifying pavements as a street walker.
It was at Madame K’s that Emy met with the dashing aristocrat Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who effectively purchased her. He bundled her off to Uppark in West Sussex and installed her in a cottage where she performed various duties including hunting, entertaining his friends and, if gossip is to be believed, dancing naked on a table for them.
Hey — she was out of Covent Garden, being ‘kept’, and there was always the outside chance Harry might marry her.
It was an outside chance. Emma fell pregnant and Fetherstonhaugh abandoned her.
One of Harry’s friends, Charles Greville agreed to take her on, under the strict understanding she:
- Gave up the child and never mentioned it again.
- Cut ties with Sir Harry.
- Changed her name.
- Lived quietly in a house of Greville’s choice, to be visited by himself from time to time.
Hey — it was better than the gutter and there was always the outside chance Greville might marry her.
The house of Greville’s choice was deep in the countryside at Paddington Green, now Edgware Road and Emy, now ‘Emma Hart’, moved in in 1782.
Emma fell deeply in love with the Rob-Titchener-alike Greville and made a valiant attempt at living demurely.
It was common for aristocratic men to show off paintings of their mistresses to their friends and Greville took Emma to the famous painter George Romney.
Romney was smitten. Over four years he painted her obsessively, producing between 80 and 100 works. Emma was constantly at his studio on the south side of Cavendish Square. It’s now a Pret, next to John Lewis.
Hey — could be a Starbucks.
London was in the midst of Shakespeare Mania after David Garrick’s mesmerising performances at the Theatre Royal. Businessman James Boydell recruited Romney as one of several big-hitter artists for a sort of Ultimate Shakespeare Experience. Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery featured scenes from plays by the Bard with a beady eye on the merchandise. Collectible prints available in the gift shop included Emma as ‘Miranda’.
Emma becomes Lady Hamilton
There’s a gap in the Emma’s London life between 1786 and 1791, while she goes to Naples, breaking Romney’s heart. Basically:
- Greville wants to marry money so he pimps-out Emma to his ageing uncle William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples.
- Greville packs off Emma to Hamilton, promising to join her later.
- He doesn’t.
- The penny drops. Emma is devastated.
- Hey — Hamilton’s less of a snake than either of her past lovers. He pays for Emma’s education, introduces her to society — and there’s always the outside chance he’ll marry her.
Bingo, third time lucky. Hamilton and Emma were married at Marylebone Parish Church in 1791 — not the one you’re thinking; as with all Emma’s buildings, this one doesn’t exist anymore, but it was right at the top of Marylebone Lane.
Romney painted her wedding portrait but his heart was broken a second time when the happy couple returned to Naples two days after the wedding.
Emma blossomed, becoming BFFs with the Queen of Naples, performing diplomatic duties and her famous Attitudes. Building on the goddesses she may or may not have played at the Temple of Health, Emma depicted 200 classical heroines to rapt audiences.
Hey — there aren’t many people in history who invent a whole new art form.
It was in Naples that Admiral Lord Nelson first clapped eye on the woman who was to captivate him for the rest of his life. He and Emma began an affair that led to a strange menage a trois between them and the elderly Lord Hamilton.
By the time the three arrived at Hamilton’s London residence at 23 Piccadilly, they were the centre of society gossip, shocking and titillating in equal measure.
Emma gave birth to Nelson’s daughter Horatia in Piccadilly, but was desperate for somewhere out of Society’s eye.
Nelson bought Merton House in 1801 and charged Emma to furnish it as a retreat of their very own. She spent vast amounts remodelling, and on fancy bling, on tick against the lovely loot Nelson would get as prize money from his battles.
Hamilton died in 1803. He left Emma a small pension but the estate went to Charles Greville.
Hey — she was going to get all that prize money, yeah?
Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 was a big shock. The estate went to his wife; the glory went to his brother. Emma was sent a pigtail, cut from Nelson’s head at his request.
Hey — she still had a few friends, didn’t she?
Cash running thin, some neighbours helped Emma sell ‘Paradise Merton’ in 1809 and continue to live there at a peppercorn rent. She’d become accustomed to lavish living, though, and was now drinking heavily. She started staying at friends’ houses but eventually her creditors caught up with her. In 1813 Emma was sent to debtor’s prison, the King’s Bench in Southwark.
Hey — she wasn’t actually clapped behind bars. She was allowed to live ‘within the rules’ which meant she could rent a room within a couple of streets of the prison.
On her release, she fled to Calais where in 1825, she died alone in squalid conditions in a single room.
Sorry — no ‘hey’ to beat that.
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity is at the National Maritime Museum until 17 April 2017.