The papers of Mary Hamilton represent a significant resource for the study of, and a window into, not only the intellectual and social world of the late eighteenth century but also to the court of George III and to the Bas Bleu circle - a group who included amongst them, prominent figures such as Elizabeth Montagu, Mary Delany, Elizabeth Vesey, Hannah More, Horace Walpole and Elizabeth Carter.
Mary Hamilton was a member of an old aristocratic family. She was born in 1756, the daughter of Charles Hamilton a soldier who had fought as a volunteer for the Empress of Russia and the son of Lord Archibald Hamilton and grandson of the third Duke of Hamilton. Her mother was Mary Catherine Dufresne, the daughter of Colonel Dufresne, aide-de-camp to Lord Archibald Hamilton. After her father’s death in 1771, she and her mother initially settled in Northamptonshire and then later moved to London. One of Hamilton’s uncle's was Sir William Hamilton who as well as being the British Ambassador to Naples from 1764 to 1800 was also an avid art collector. [He was also the husband of Lady Emma Hamilton, née Lyon]. Another uncle was Lord Cathcart, the English Ambassador at the court of St Petersburg. The Duchess of Atholl, Lord and Lady Stormont, Lady Frances Harpur and the Countess of Warwick were all her near relations.
Hamilton began her ‘public’ life as an employee in the court of George III. From 1777 until 1782 she was employed as a sub-governess to the young Princesses there. She was a popular figure at court not only with her colleagues but also with the royal family including the Princesses in her charge who nicknamed her ‘Hammy’. Also whilst there, the young Prince of Wales fell in love with Hamilton and inundated her with letters. [Hamilton refused his attentions and he later became involved with the actress Mary Robinson.] Hamilton's position at court was tiring and restrictive and although loyal to the royal family Hamilton resented her lack of freedom. She found life at court tiring and stifling. She also resented the politics of court and noted that it is quite an ‘instruction one gains by living in such a school’ as this. At an early stage as a governess she offered her resignation to the Queen but was persuaded by her not to leave. After receiving a letter from Hamilton asking to be ‘let go’ the Queen responded in a note stating that she attributed her request to her having low spirits. It took three years before the Queen would eventually let her go.
After her ‘emancipation' from court, Hamilton lived as an independent woman, setting up house in London at Clarges Street with two sisters and friends of hers, the Miss Clarkes. Although they shared a house, they lived independently of each other. The house was opposite that of the 'bluestocking', Elizabeth Vesey who Hamilton visited almost on a daily basis. The majority of Hamilton’s diaries in this archive (HAM/2) cover the period after her leaving court up to her marriage to John Dickenson in 1785 and are full of detailed entries of her day-to-day life and social engagements. She often attended bas bleu parties and wrote of the conversations and evenings spent with such public figures as Horace Walpole, Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More and Samuel Johnson. Hamilton dedicated much of her time in London in the company of her friends such as Mary Delany, Hannah More and Eva Maria Garrick and of attending the theatre [including having the use of Mrs Garrick's box to watch Mrs Siddons], attending lectures, concerts and exhibitions and with her own literary pursuits.
Hamilton enjoyed being part of this intellectual world and was an enthusiastic student of Latin and Greek amongst other subjects. Although advised against the study of such languages she refused to give them up. She herself, was nevertheless hesitant when acknowledging the intellectual achievements of other women. Hamilton recognised that a high degree of education could be a stigma to some. She acknowledged the intellectual achievements of Charlotte Boyle, the daughter of her friend Mrs Walsingham but was uncertain for what this might mean for her. In 1784 she wrote of Charlotte Boyle that she had never met such an accomplished ‘young person’ who was educated not only in ancient and modern history and in numerous languages but had also mastered painting and music. Hamilton acknowledged that such an education will provide her with many rewards but she feared that it would also limit her socially as women will envy her and be afraid of her and the men will not appreciate a woman as educated as themselves and shun her. Hamilton herself was not shunned by society for her learning and it is clear from the papers in this archive that Hamilton was a popular figure amongst a diverse group of friends.
After her marriage to John Dickenson in 1785, she and Dickenson settled in Taxal, near Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire until 1793 later moving to Leighton House in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire until finally moving back to London in 1811. Throughout this time Hamilton remained in contact with her numerous friends in London, many of whose letters form part of the archive. Hamilton had one child, Louisa born in 1787 who married Sir William Anson in 1811. Hamilton died in her home at Devonshire Place, London in 1816.
The Mary Hamilton Papers is a significant resource for the study of the intellectual and social elite of society and for the study of court life in Britain during the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries.