Famous ladies of Exmouth: Viscountess Nelson of the Nile

The tomb of Lady Nelson in Exmouth

The tomb of Lady Nelson in Littleham Churchyard, Exmouth - Credit: Exmouth Museum

Lady Nelson was born Frances (Fanny) Herbert Woolward in May 1761, the daughter of William Woolward, a senior judge on the island of Nevis in the West Indies and his wife Mary (nee Herbert) who was the niece of John Richardson Herbert, President of the Council of Nevis. Frances’s mother died when she was a child and her father died on 18 February 1779, when she was just 17. 

On 28 June 1779 Frances married Josiah Nesbit, MD on Nevis. Shortly after they moved to England and and he became somewhat deranged and died within 18 months, leaving Frances with an infant son, Josiah. Being dependant on her uncle she and Josiah moved back to Nevis to live with him at Montpelier. It was while living with her uncle that she met Horatio Nelson who was then a young Royal Navy captain of HMS Boreas. They soon fell in love and married at St Kitts in the West Indies on 12 March 1787. Upon returning to England they initially lived with her uncle, John Herbert, at 5 Cavendish Square, London, before renting several other houses in London before moving to Nelson’s birthplace, Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where they lived until 1793.They then moved back to London to a house at 17 Dover Street.

In the spring of 1788 the Nelsons had a happy holiday in Exmouth. In 1798 Nelson went to Naples in Italy where he first met Sir William Hamilton and his wife Lady Emma. She soon became smitten with him and rumours abounded about their affair and news of this reached Nelson’s wife in London. In 1801 Nelson returned to London and stayed at Nerot’s Hotel with the Hamiltons. He met his wife at the hotel and when she realised that the Hamiltons were there and Emma was pregnant with Nelson’s child she became very angry and there followed many quarrels. Nelson and his wife never had children and it was known that he was very frustrated at his wife being unable to provide him with a child. They separated in early 1801 and Nelson settled on her an income of £1200 per year. Nelson’s father also 
financially supported her.

In the meantime Nelson had bought Merton Place in Surrey (demolished 1846) where he lived with both Emma and her husband. Neither Nelson or Lady Hamilton ever divorced their spouses. In 1805 Viscount Nelson as we know was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar and following this his wife was given a government pension. She then moved to Paris with their son, Josiah, also a naval captain of HMS Thalia. They then returned to England and remembering the happy holiday they had in Exmouth settled at a house at 6 The Beacon where there is a blue plaque to commemorate this. In 1829 they moved to a house in Louisa Place, the former house being too large for her needs as her health was beginning to suffer. In 1830 her son Josiah died and she never really got over his death and her health continued to deteriorate. She returned to London to live at 26 Baker Street and there is a touch of irony here as Nelson detested this street when alive, seeing it as not fit for someone of his standing to live in! She died there on 6 May 1831 although some reports say she died in Harley Street. He funeral was at Littleham and she is buried in the churchyard near her son’s grave. Her elaborate tomb, surrounded by railings, is just inside the main entrance to the right of the path and is maintained by the 1805 Club. There is also a memorial to her inside the church.

If you would like to know more please visit the museum’s website at www.exmouthmuseum.com or you can email mike at mike.menhenitt@btinternet.com