Ross-on-Wye Civic Society

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Ross-on-Wye & District Civic Society newsletter Autumn 2002 (number 78)

It was two hundred years ago this summer that Ross was paid a visit by Admiral Nelson, accompanied by his mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton. Lord Nelson and Emma were at that time the country's top celebrity couple, the David Beckham and Posh Spice of their day. What made the occasion all the more bizarre was that Emma's husband, Sir William Hamilton, came along too.

In 1802 Horatio Nelson was idolised as England's hero, following his victories over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile and at Copenhagen. He was somewhat at odds with William Pitt's government, because they had made what he considered to be an unwise peace with the French at the Treaty of Amiens. But at least this gave him time for some rest and recreation with Emma. In the previous year he had made the final break with his wife and at the same time Emma had given birth to their daughter, Horatia.

Emma was a blacksmith's daughter who, even before she met Nelson, had become famous all over Europe. She was a noted beauty, was painted by some of the most famous painters of the day and popularised a new performance art, her 'attitudes', in which she posed in flowing robes to evoke the spirit of classical sculpture and paintings. She became, first the mistress, and then the second wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador in Naples, and it was in Naples in 1793 that she met Nelson.

Lord Horatio Nelson
Lord Horatio Nelson
Lady Emma Hamilton
Lady Emma Hamilton

By 1802 Sir William was 72, retired, and concentrating on his famous collections of classical antiquities. He, Emma and Nelson were all living cosily together in Merton Place, a house near Wimbledon, which was then out in the Surrey countryside. It was at Sir William's instigation that the tour, which included the Ross visit, took place. He had family interests in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire and wanted to promote the port there as a rival to the great naval dockyards of Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. What better advertisement than to have Nelson visit there in time to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Battle of the Nile on the 1st August.

So it was that Sir William and Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson and various of his relatives set out on 21st July on a leisurely journey towards west Wales. It was not intended to be a triumphal progress across the country, but, as word of their journey got out, the citizens of the towns en route came out to cheer the famous couple and local dignitaries provided lavish entertainment for them. Nelson and Emma did not seem averse to being wined and dined, but Sir William soon began to feel the pace of late night festivities, followed by early morning starts on the next leg of the journey.

On Saturday, 24th July the party stayed the night in Gloucester and next day left before breakfast for the journey to Ross. Nelson was always interested in the cultivation of trees as the source of timber for the Navy's ships, and, as they skirted the Forest of Dean, he was critical of the state of the woodland he saw. He was later to write a report for the Admiralty pointing out these deficiencies.

On arrival in Ross they breakfasted at the Swan Inn in the High Street. This was not the Swan on the corner of Edde Cross Street, but what had long been the Swan and Falcon and more recently was the Falcon shop. The day had now turned warm and sunny and Nelson probably needed little persuasion to continue their journey to Monmouth by boat.

Watched by a great crowd of Ross citizens the party strolled to the river by way of the gardens of Mr. Walter Hill's Merton House, an event commemorated today by a blue plaque on the wall of the Merton House Hotel. They embarked on a pleasure boat garlanded with laurel leaves and drifted downstream, reaching Monmouth in the late afternoon and taking in the picturesque scenery of the Wye Tour on the way.

However, this brief encounter was not the last Ross saw of the great naval hero, because on 20th August the party passed this way again on their return journey from Wales. The previous day had been a very full one spent in Monmouth. This included an ascent to the summit of the Kymin to view the Kymin Pavilion and the Naval Temple recently erected to honour the Admirals who had brought victory to England in the "last and present wars". A local reporter eavesdropped to hear Nelson's reaction to this monument, but the only snatch of conversation he caught was the Admiral's unequivocal assertion "I hate the French." The party moved on to the Buckstone, a large boulder, which had been whitewashed for the occasion, and looked like "a small Welsh cottage without a chimney"! Later they were dined by the Mayor and Corporation of Monmouth and afterwards took coffee in the garden summerhouse in Monnow Street still preserved today as "Nelson's Seat".

in contrast to Ross, Monmouth has always made the most of its brief acquaintance with Nelson because the visit was extensively written up by a local reporter, Charles Heath, and later Lady Llangattock of the Rolls family put together a large collection of Nelson memorabilia which forms the core of the Nelson museum in Monmouth today.

When the party set out for Ross the next day, the aim was to slip through the town unnoticed, but word of their arrival was out and once again the crowds gathered. They were persuaded to drive their carriages under a triumphal arch of oak and laurel carrying an appropriate inscription in praise of Nelson.

They then made for Rudhall Manor, where they stayed for three days with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Westfaling, friends of the Hamiltons from their Naples days. On one evening there was a grand ball, complete with firework display, and again hundreds of spectators were there to look on and to enjoy the several hogsheads of cider dispensed to them. The Mayor of Hereford, not wishing to be upstaged by Ross, had arrived with a delegation to invite the party to visit his city. Obligingly they did, before travelling homewards via Ludlow and Worcester, and that was the last Ross saw of them.

Within a year Sir William Hamilton was dead and three years later Nelson met his heroic end at Trafalgar. The distraught Emma was deserted by most of her friends, fell into debt and ironically fled to France, the old enemy, where she died in 1815.

Much of the information for this article is taken from "Nelson and the Hamiltons on Tow" by Edward Gill, published in 1987.

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