Nelson, Frances Herbert (DNB00)

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NELSON, FRANCES HERBERT, Viscountess Nelson (1761–1831), baptised May 1761, was the daughter of William Woolward (d. 18 Feb. 1779), senior judge of the island of Nevis in the West Indies, and, by her mother, niece of John Richardson Herbert, president of the council of Nevis. On 28 June 1779 (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. v. 222) she married Josiah Nisbet, M.D., who shortly afterwards became deranged, and died within eighteen months, leaving her, with an infant son, dependent on her uncle. While living with him she became acquainted with Nelson, then the young captain of the Boreas, and was married to him at Nevis on 12 March 1787 [see Nelson, Horatio, Viscount]. The irregularly kept register at Nevis gives the date as 11 March (Mrs. Gamlin in Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iv. 413); but in a letter to her husband on 11 March 1797 Mrs. Nelson wrote: ‘Tomorrow is our wedding day, when it gave me a dear husband, and my child the best of fathers’ (Nicolas, i. 217).

When the Boreas was paid off Mrs. Nelson lived with her husband at Burnham-Thorpe till February 1793, and during his first absence in the Mediterranean corresponded with him on most affectionate terms. When he returned home after losing his arm at Teneriffe, she tenderly nursed him during the months of pain that followed, and through 1798 Nelson's letters to his wife appear as affectionate as ever. Lady Nelson, however, seems to have been early disquieted by rumours which reached her from Naples, and on 7 Dec. Davison wrote to her husband: ‘Your valuable better half … is in good health, but very uneasy and anxious, which is not to be wondered at. … She bids me say that unless you return home in a few months she will join the standard at Naples. Excuse a woman's tender feelings; they are too acute to be expressed’ (ib. iii. 138 n). Any reports of wrongdoing which she had received at that time were certainly exaggerated, though it may readily be understood that a lady of delicate taste disapproved of her husband's extreme intimacy with a woman of Lady Hamilton's antecedents, and felt insulted by that woman's presuming to write to her in terms of friendship (ib.) Later on it would seem that Nelson persuaded himself that, as Sir William Hamilton did not object to his intimacy with Lady Hamilton, Lady Nelson had no reason to do so, and he was painfully surprised, on arriving in London in November 1800, to find that his wife received him with coldness and marks of disapproval.

We know from Nelson's letter to Davison (23 April 1801) that the weeks which followed were rendered miserable by frequent altercations; and, though the often quoted statement of Mr. Haslewood (ib. vii. 392) has been held to prove that the quarrel was a sudden outburst of anger on the part of Lady Nelson, goaded past endurance by the iterated reference to ‘dear Lady Hamilton,’ such a statement made forty-six years after the date by a very old man has but little value when it implies a contradiction of Nelson's letter written at the time. On the other hand, Harrison asserted that there were many differences between the husband and wife respecting Nelson's nieces and nephews; that Nelson loved the companionship and the prattle of the children, which annoyed his wife; that they quarrelled, too, about Lady Nelson's son, Josiah Nisbet, at this time a captain in the navy, whom his mother wished to be considered as her husband's heir; and that after ‘one of these domestic broils’ Nelson ‘wandered all night through the streets of London in a state of absolute despair and distraction’ (Life of Lord Nelson, ii. 276–8). It is well established that Nisbet was rude, quarrelsome, and intemperate (Nicolas, iii. 195, 239, 333, 375, iv. 50); that he had much annoyed his stepfather while in command of the Thalia, and that when that ship was paid off he was never employed again. Harrison's story is thus not in itself improbable, and is partly confirmed by Nelson's letter of 23 April 1801, already referred to (ib. vii. p. ccix); but the source from which it comes is tainted, and there is no direct evidence in support of it. Even admitting serious differences on the subject of Nisbet and the children, there can be no reasonable doubt that Lady Hamilton was the actual cause of the separation; and it is quite certain that Nelson's friends and society at large so understood it (Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, iii. 284; Hotham MS.)

After separating, early in 1801, from her husband, who settled 1,200l. a year on her, Lady Nelson lived a quiet, uneventful life, mostly in London, where in later years she was frequently visited by her brother-in-law, Earl Nelson, with whom she was to the last on friendly terms. She had been for some time in feeble health, when the death of her son in August 1830 proved a blow from which she did not recover. She died on 4 May 1831 in Harley Street, London.

[Nicolas's Despatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, passim; Clarke and m'Arthur's Life of Lord Nelson; Gent. Mag. 1831, pt. i. p. 571; manuscript of Sir William Hotham, q.v.; art. Hamilton, Emma.]

J. K. L.