Emma Hamilton was born Amy Lyon on Friday, April 26, 1765, into squalid poverty. Ness was a ramshackle huddle of thirty or so miners’ hovels set in scrubby, stony, infertile land. Moored on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire, just over twelve miles from Liverpool, near England’s northwest coast, the village now gleams with luxurious houses for commuters, but for a girl child in the eighteenth century, it was a one-way ticket to misery. The Stanley family, the owners of the area around Ness, reclined in elegant splendor at nearby Hooton Hall, ignoring the miners and the few fishermen scraping out a miserable living by the bleak shore. Ness was at the forefront of the burgeoning industrial revolution, and Amy was destined for a cruel and meager life: backbreaking labor by the age of ten, a hard marriage, and an early death.
Baby Amy owed her very existence to coal—the black gold of the eighteenth century. For the first half of the century, the factories, sweatshops, and businesses in nearby Chester and the surrounding area had been powered by coal shipped in from North Wales along the connecting Dee estuary, but the waterway was silting up and Welsh coal was growing very expensive. When reserves were discovered in 1750 at nearby Denhall, the landscape of Ness changed forever, from an area only sparsely populated by fishermen and the odd farmer to a mini Wild West town teeming with investors and get-rich-quick merchants. After the Stanleys finally opened their mine to huge excitement in the late 1750s, cartloads of brawny young colliers arrived from Lancashire, Staffordshire, and North Wales. Others trekked over from Ireland to build a quay for exporting the coal, and laborers came to build the Stanleys’ new mansion on the banks of the River Dee. Ness was designated as the village to house them, and quickly built, cheap cottages mushroomed on the stony fields. In this brand-new village, much of it still a building site, twenty-one-year- old Mary Kidd arrived in 1764. Since there were five men to every woman in Ness, she was guaranteed to be popular.
Ness’s men were hardened by dangerous work. Conditions at the Denhall mine were notoriously poor, and they had to crouch in muddy, icy water and hack at the sides of the flooded tunnels. Mice and cockroaches scampered into their pockets to eat their food, especially if they worked near the areas where the pit ponies were stabled. Once extracted, the coal was loaded into boats roped together in sets of four or five on the underground canals. Miners lay on the boats and “walked” their feet along the ceilings of the tunnels to push the boats to the bottom of the shaft, where the coal was hoisted up. Men of twenty were bent and crabbed within a few years of beginning work, and others were dead, poisoned by pockets of methane gas or killed by rock falls.
Emma’s mother had traveled from Hawarden, a small village just outside Chester across the Dee. She was in Ness for a holiday of sorts. William Kidd, Mary’s elder brother, had moved to Ness and was working as a miner. Banns were published for his marriage to Mary Foulkes, a Chester girl, in January 1763, and their first son, Samuel, was born in the spring of 1764 and christened on April 15. In the eighteenth century, every available female relative was roped in to help with a new baby, and so Mary traveled to Ness around the time of Samuel’s birth to be an unpaid nursemaid, cleaner, and cook to her brother and a sister-in-law she hardly knew. On the ferry across the Dee between Flint, near Hawarden, and Parkgate, and then the walk to her brother’s home, Mary was excited, buoyant with holiday spirit. Ness was the first place she had seen other than her dead-end home town, and she was determined to make the most of it. Having escaped her other siblings, dreary cottage, and angry, resentful mother, she was intent on enjoying herself.
Mary was slim, lively, and fond of fun, and men competed for her attention. She was the new belle of the village (although there was hardly much competition). Frantic to escape Hawarden and the iron grip of her mother, Mary flung herself at Henry Lyon, the blacksmith at the mine. Emma later implied her father was from Lancashire; he was possibly from Skelmersdale or Ormskirk, where his surname is common in the parish registers. In order to have reached the position of a blacksmith, he would have to have been in his late twenties, and so was probably born around 1737. Judging from Emma’s stature and appearance, Henry was tall, broad, handsome, and dark. To impoverished Mary, he would have appeared impossibly wealthy and independent. Henry’s courtship was swift, perhaps rough. By May 27, perhaps less than two months after Mary’s arrival, the banns were published for their wedding.
Emma’s parents were married on June 11, 1764, in Great Neston church. As the wedding was held on a Monday, it is unlikely that any relative, even William Kidd or his wife, attended. Like many workingmen, Henry was illiterate and signed the register with an X; Mary also signed with a cross. Henry probably had to return to the smithy soon after the ceremony. Even though working-class weddings were low-key affairs, Mary’s seems hurried. Most women were married in their late twenties—the average age was twenty-six—after their fiancés had set aside sufficient money to set up a home. Mary, however, was unusually young. Pregnancy may have made marriage a necessity.
First babies were often conceived outside of wedlock; indeed, many communities encouraged it to preclude the disaster of marriage to an infertile wife. As there is no birth certificate, we must assume that Emma claimed her birthday on the day her mother told her to do so. Henry and Mary were not religious, and there is no reason why Emma should have been any different from most of the first children born in Ness. Emma’s fondness for celebrating a birthday on April 26 and stressing 1765 as the year of her birth suggests she was concerned to emphasize her legitimacy. Only Mary and her brother William knew the actual date of Emma’s birth, but the possibility that Mary’s pregnancy had forced the marriage might explain the couple’s unhappiness. Mary came to Ness looking for a life more exciting than the one she had left behind, only to find herself trapped in poverty and despair in a part of England far harsher than Hawarden.
Mary’s new home was a miner’s cottage near the road to Denhall, rented from the mine authorities. A low-built house, connected to two others, it was one of hundreds of similar workers’ cottages in the area. Sandstone steps skittered up to the low door. Now it is a pretty cottage and the subsidence gives it a picturesque appeal, but then it was a rackety, dirty, cramped place to live. At twenty-one, Mary was a drudge in a dirty hovel, her day consumed by domestic chores, in a village populated by people who were in the 1850s, according to visitors, “as primitive as their village was secluded.” At four, she awoke to fetch water, light the fire, and prepare Henry’s breakfast. After he left at five, she began her daily battle against the dirt that silted up the windows and covered every surface with a grimy film. Outside her window lay a treeless expanse of scrub scarred by heaps of coal waste and cheap stone cottages blackened by sooty rain. She knew that soon after she gave birth, she would be expected to work in the mine with the other women. There was little to look forward to and not much to enjoy. Henry returned in the late afternoon, exhausted by a day of laboring in hot and dangerous conditions, and like most men in Ness, he drank and probably beat his wife.
Helped only by neighbors, women drank gin to dull the pain or pulled on a knotted rag. Mary called the child Amy, her sister’s name and a Kidd family favorite. Perhaps Henry was not particularly interested in his daughter’s name. Many communities held a form of party for new mothers twenty-eight days after the birth, a version of the older “churching” ceremony, which was an attempt to combat postnatal depression and to celebrate the mother’s survival, but it appears that Mary had no such party. No relations came to assist her, and because there were so few women in the village, she had little companionship. Lonely and overwhelmed, the young Mrs. Lyon struggled not to vent her frustration on the child. She might have had a closer immediate bond to a son, but Amy was a burden and a seemingly inescapable tie to Ness. Mary’s life stretched out drearily before her, a monotony of children, domestic labor, and poverty.
Emma was baptized on May 12. On the register, her name looks like “Emy,” but Emma herself always claimed it was Amy, a common name in the Kidd family. It is likely that the registrar simply misspelled it: parents were at the mercy of the registrar’s choice of orthography, particularly if, like Henry and Mary, they could not read. One in three children like Emma died within infancy, but she was born in the best season for survival: disease was more virulent from June to September, and babies died of cold from November to February. There was hard work ahead for the infants who lived. Denhall employed most children over nine or ten as cheap labor. All the girls born in Ness were, by the age of ten, pulling baskets to the surface every day, covered in dirt and regularly harassed by the men. At the end of the day, they returned home to cook and clean for their family or, as was nearly as likely, since many women died in childbirth, stepmother.
The grim cycle of Emma’s life seemed preordained. But two months after her baptism, Henry died suddenly. By June 21, 1765, he was buried. Mary and Emma were free.
Emma never discussed her father, and her mother did not disclose any details. Research into death in the eighteenth century gives us some clues about the cause of Henry’s demise and his daughter’s refusal to discuss him: Emma and her mother might have been covering a scandal.
Men who worked in or near a mine had a short life expectancy, but their deaths from respiratory diseases were lengthy and agonizingly protracted. If Henry had been tubercular, he would no longer have been working. He would have been visibly sick, and Mary would have been unlikely to marry him. There are no records of any pit disasters or smallpox epidemics in the summer of 1765. No cause of death is recorded, and in the yard of Great Neston church, there is no marker for his grave. Mary did not receive a pension or payout from the mine, which was usually awarded if the employee died on site. She had no contact with her husband’s family following Henry’s death. Instead, she fled back to Hawarden. If she had expected a pension or if there had been help forthcoming from the local community, she would have stayed.
Only Mary knew the whole truth about what happened on that hot night in June. It is very likely that alcohol was involved. Alcohol killed more men than tuberculosis or smallpox and caused most accidental deaths. The gin sold in Ness was much cheaper and stronger than what is sold today, and a few pennies bought immediate oblivion. Nowadays, the majority of deaths from alcohol or other substance abuse occur in the first half of the month, after people have received their pay. More than 250 years ago, Henry was probably following a familiar pattern: he received his wages and drank them away.
It is possible that Henry killed himself in a fit of drunken despair. If he had simply knocked himself out on the way home from the pub or fought with another man, Mary would have had less reason to flee in shame. Nowadays, suicides peak in the months of May and early June, and it is unlikely the eighteenth century was different, although suicide was hardly ever recorded as the cause of death. Many more men committed suicide than women (and the women who did so were generally driven to it by extreme poverty or unwanted pregnancy). Ness was an alienating place, Henry’s job was exhausting, life with his wife was difficult, and the sleepless nights with a new baby perhaps tipped him over the edge. Suicide was common, but it was considered a disgrace and a sin, and unless the local rector was particularly sympathetic, Henry would have been denied a funeral and a grave in the churchyard, incentive enough for Mary and Emma never to mention him.
Alternatively, Henry’s death may have been the consequence of an argument. Exhausted and irritable after a day with the baby, Mary may have begun a bitter argument when her husband strolled in, squandered wages reeking on his breath. After a struggle, Henry might have fallen so violently that he died. There was no local police force or constable, so the law in Ness depended on the justice of the peace, presumably Lord Stanley at Hooton Hall. As the local landowner, he would have been most interested in protecting his property. In the eighteenth century, justice was dominated by the propertied classes, and an offense as trivial as stealing a handkerchief was punishable by hanging. Men such as Stanley dismissed fights between poor workers as the feuds of the lower classes. Death from a drunken fall was common enough, and without the medical science that exists today, the exact cause of death would have been impossible to determine.
Henry’s death was one of the greatest mysteries in Emma’s life. It seems most likely that he and Mary fought, but we will never know the truth about whether the cause of death was accident, suicide, ill health, or murder. Whatever the reason, the consequence was the same: Mary was a widow and Emma was fatherless. At the time, 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were older women and widows. No longer controlled by their fathers and without husbands, they were objects of intense suspicion and hatred. A widow at twenty-two, Mrs. Lyon was not going to be popular.
Mary was a determined girl, but within fifteen years she was working for free as Emma’s housekeeper. She remained submissive to her daughter’s every desire until she died. Her devotion was self- sacrificing by any standard, but particularly when most children made their own way through life; moreover, mother and daughter were very distant in Emma’s childhood and teenage years. Perhaps Mary’s willingness to cater to Emma’s every need and whim, like a servant rather than a mother, stemmed from guilt. In the eighteenth century, widows habitually bolstered their shaky respectability by wearing black dresses and veils, weeping over lockets of their spouse, and persistently recalling the days of their marriage in conversation, but nobody reports that Mary ever mentioned her husband. Emma never spoke of her father, and when she holidayed near Ness she did not visit the village. Once she was Lady Hamilton, Emma was praised for her reluctance to sponsor stories that she was the secret daughter of the gentry. But perhaps she knew it would be foolish to talk too much about her father, in case it reminded a few old miners about an unexplained death in June and a flighty wife who disappeared.
In later years, Mary’s brother, William, repeatedly demanded money from Emma and her mother. He always received it, perhaps because he threatened to tell scandal-mongering journalists the truth about Henry’s death.
Emma never returned to Ness, but its legacy remained. She inherited her mother’s impetuousness and her father’s forceful personality. The poor daughter of a young bride whose husband had died in shady circumstances, little Amy Lyon was in the same class as thousands of other children who grew up to supply England with its beggars, criminals, and prostitutes.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from England's Mistress by Kate Williams. Copyright © 2006 by Kate Williams. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.