HMS Dido

Today I once again welcome back Etienne Daly who has been using the ‘lockdown’ very productively continuing his research into Dido Elizabeth Belle and in particular his eye was drawn to the frigate HMS Dido. So, I’ll hand over to him tell you more about his findings:

The ‘lockdown’ and Covid-19 may have forced people to be at home, but for me it turned out to be advantageous because it allowed me time to read some books on admirals that I’d been meaning to do for a while now.

John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent. National Portrait Gallery

John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent. National Portrait Gallery

It was whilst I was reading a book on Earl St. Vincent, known, many years earlier to Sir John Lindsay, simply as John Jervis, that I discovered the frigate HMS Dido. I never knew such a ship existed so was keen to find out more.

I was already aware that both Lord and Lady Mansfield had ships named after them, with Lord Mansfield attending the launch of his, one of the largest of the East Indiamen ships, in 1777 at Rotherhithe and it was this which made me wonder whether HMS Dido could have any connection to Dido Elizabeth Belle and with that, the research began.

HMS 'Dido' and 'Lowestoft' in action with 'Minerve' and 'Artemise', 24 June 1795. National Maritime Museum
HMS ‘Dido’ and ‘Lowestoft’ in action with ‘Minerve’ and ‘Artemise’, 24 June 1795. National Maritime Museum

Sensing this could be linked to Dido Elizabeth Belle, the first thing I needed to establish was whether any ship been given this name in the past, if there was it meant this was not the case and merely a new ship named carrying an older name of Dido. There wasn’t any such ship named in the past and prior to checking this I noted that timeline as being perfect  for the naming of the frigate, notably 1782, 1784, 1785  finally 1787 – all in the ‘catchment time zone’ that I will go on to explain shortly.

Before I do, it’s best to explain first that in the 18th century to progress in life you needed one or all of these: patronage, privilege, grace and favours and if possible, a sprinkling of nepotism from an influential relative or three  this was especially the case in the Royal Navy and the army (during his years of First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich kept a patronage book). Three lords had to sign an admiralty order(and/or request)to get things in motion and Sir John would have been well acquainted with all of them.

Just a point of interest worth mentioning, in August 1779, there was a ship launched named HMS Montagu during the tenure of Lord Sandwich, which, being the first lord of the admiralty was almost certainly named in his honour.

Naval Triumph, or Favours Confer'd. 13 Nov 1780 Royal Collection Trust
Naval Triumph, or Favours Confer’d. 13 Nov 1780 Royal Collection Trust

At the time of the new incoming government of April 1782, the Whig government, headed by the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham all of these elements were in place, in fact Lord Rockingham was a relative of Lord and Lady Mansfield by marriage and this made him Dido’s uncle. To add to this the marquis was a regular visitor to the Mansfield’s at Caenwood House, Hampstead. He in turn would know Dido’s father, Sir John Lindsay, very well.

Portrait of Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730–1782)
Portrait of Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730–1782)

The next influential person was the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral  Augustus Keppel, who knew Rockingham well and Sir John Lindsay even more so, both being in service during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), in the Caribbean, and to make things even  more ‘pally’ was the fact that prior to 1782 they lived only ten minutes from each other in Mayfair. Keppel Keppel also left Sir John his sword, walking stick and a Richard Paton naval painting in his will.

Sir John Lindsay
Sir John Lindsay

Next you have to understand that if the admiralty was the right arm of  the senior service, then the navy board was the left, and in there as surveyor and designer to the Royal Navy was Sir John Williams, who knew all mentioned quite well over the years, he designed the 28-un frigate that was going to be called HMS Dido. Not here, the ship was not named HMS Queen Dido nor HMS Dido, Queen of Carthage, but simply HMS Dido. This name would have been vague had it not been named that way because it was named after a living person, and not named after a mythical queen. This living person was Dido Elizabeth Belle who, when the ship was ordered on 5th June 1782 would turn 21 years old just over three weeks later.

Dido Elizabeth Belle
Dido Elizabeth Belle

It was said that, when Lord Sandwich was in office, he would flick through the pages of Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, looking for names to give ships. This was very much the sort of method used in the 18th century as names were plucked and agreed upon by arbitration, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a department was formed to name ships.

Prior to ordering the frigate relative paperwork, and by no means fully detailed as explained, would have landed on the desk of Admiral Keppel for his approval, perhaps cursory signature followed, but the naming of this frigate would have been fully agreed well in advance. Sir John would have known this.

For whilst Dido’s father was no longer on active service since April 1779, the same time as his close friend Keppel resigned his services, Sir  John was since the August of the previous year, 1781, a ‘Colonel of Marines’ a sinecure given to those deemed  worthy of such a role by their past naval service, this position was offered to him by the king himself, who I’ll  mention, as a patron and influence to Sir John a little later.

For now, Keppel drew up a list of naval officers he wished to employ with immediate effect and on that list at the top for captains/commodores was the name of Sir John Lindsay KB and other names followed after. It hasn’t been fully discovered yet why Sir John didn’t take up this offer but the whole list was presented to the First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Rockingham, who would have seen this familiar name on the list  – it’s safe to say that Lindsay could have had the job that April 1782 rather than a year later as a lord of the admiralty in 1783. Being a wealthy man perhaps Lindsay was content for the time being as Colonel of Marines, but Keppel and Sir John would definitely have been in regular contact in those early days of a new Whig government.

Lord Mansfield, whilst a Tory would have been contact with his relative the new premier, as mentioned Rockingham often dined at Caenwood House, ad certainly would have met his niece Dido there.  When seeing the approval of the name HMS Dido for a small ship by Keppel with Sir John’s instigation, it would have been immediately sanctioned and passed. All parties involved would have agreed by arbitration leaving nobody else to challenge the decision save jeopardising their career and patronage.

George III in 1781 Johann Hurter Royal Collection Trust.jpg
George III in 1781 Johann Hurter Royal Collection Trust.jpg

Back now to the king, he was Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy and whilst not getting involved in everyday events at the admiralty he would certainly be aware of the naming of ships a well as promoting officers of the rank. The king was a regular visitor to the Mansfield’s at Caenwood House as Lord Mansfield was to the king at St. James’s Palace, the Queen’s House and at Kew Palace.

The king and queen would probably have met Dido on their visits to the Mansfield’s, so her name wouldn’t sound strange in 1782 when a frigate is passed and ordered by the admiralty lords called HMS Dido. It’s also worth noting that the king’s governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, was related to the Countess Mansfield by marriage, having married Lady Betty’s brother William.

Lady Charlotte Finch. Royal Collection Trust
Lady Charlotte Finch. Royal Collection Trust

Lady Charlotte was governess to the princes/princesses for 30 years, so she too would have visited the Mansfield’s with her husband, so you can see now where the patronage is coming from and why there would have been no obstacles in the way of naming a ship, in this case HMS Dido and on the month of her 21st birthday and no longer a minor.

A View of Kenwood, the Seat of the Earl of Mansfield, in the county of Middlesex
A View of Kenwood, the Seat of the Earl of Mansfield, in the county of Middlesex. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The king and queen would, most likely have been aware of the ship’s naming  and who requested it, this brings them to Sir John Lindsay whom the king himself knighted in 1764, made a Knight of the Bath in 1770 and commodore with full command of  the East India Station and Gulf of Persia the previous year. If that wasn’t enough, he was also representing the king as ‘ambassador’ to India with his dealings with both the crown prince of Arcot and the Honourable East India Company. He was also given full command of all marines stationed at Madras. Now this should tell you of the patronage, privilege, grace and favours bestowed upon Sir John Lindsay by the king and the nepotism of his uncle the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. By now you should be able to see the people of influence involved of the initial influencer, Sir John and why all would agree upon the name choice.

Just the following year as the frigate was under construction in 1783, and through Admiral Keppel, Sir John accepted the role of commodore and commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, which greatly pleased the king. Was this in return for the king’s support in the naming of the vessel? We will never fully know, but we do know that the king often met with Sir John.

William Bentinck,3rd Duke of Portland, a Whig, became premier in April 1783 and was also a close friend of Sir John and had rented out his house in Mansfield Street to Sir John from June 1782 prior to him joining the administration in 1783 as an admiralty lord. As a close contact of Sir John he wouldn’t question his frigate request and would pass it unchallenged, leaving as mentioned no one else to question the final decision.

It’s also noting that Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Portland, William’s mother, was a very close friend of the Mansfield’s, especially Lady Betty, again showing influence in the right places. She would have most likely have met Dido often on her visits to Caenwood House.

Now to the timeline of events from that order in June 1782 for the frigate named HMS Dido. To start, by June 1782 peace overtures were in their early stages of ending the American War of Independence, but in the March, Dido’s aunt Margaret Ramsay died, starting off a cycle of deaths within the family. In July 1782, the Marquess of Rockingham died. Margaret’s husband Allan Ramsay, the renowned artist, being Dido’s uncle would have been aware of the naming of the frigate.

HMS 'Dido' and 'Lowestoft' in action with 'Minerve' and 'Artemise', 24 June 1795 Royal Museums Greenwich
HMS ‘Dido’ and ‘Lowestoft’ in action with ‘Minerve’ and ‘Artemise’, 24 June 1795. Royal Museums Greenwich

The year 1783 saw Sir John made both Lord of the Admiralty and a commodore who by October that year headed off as Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. In the meantime, in the previous 12 months the keel went down for the ship at Sandgate, Kent and construction was on the way. 1784 saw the death of Countess Mansfield in the April and Allan Ramsay in the August, so both would have been aware of the forthcoming frigate’s launch later that year but never got to experience it. 1785 saw the ship completed in the main and it was sent up to Royal Deptford dockyard for final finishing and coppering. That year was also the last year Lord Mansfield was in full office, as the following year he began working part-time from home, with Dido’s assistance until a new chief justice was found. He resigned office in June 1788.

Sir John Lindsay. Scone Palace
Sir John Lindsay. Scone Palace

Whilst Sir John returned from his command in late October 1784, he would have heard of the launching of HMS Dido on 27th November 1784 and have been kept aware of that ship’s progress well into 1787 when the frigate was now based at Portsmouth. On 24th September 1787 HMS dido was commissioned by the Royal Navy for service, and note, the very day that Sir John was promoted by the king to Rear Admiral of the Red – the highest promotion for a rear admiral whilst suffering from severe gout, Sir John remained in service albeit on terra firma, until his death on 4th June 1788, when returning from Bath after taking the waters.

Based upon my findings it was no coincidence that both the commissioning and Sir John’s promotion took places on the same day – in my opinion, it was planned that way.

There were 27 Enterprise frigates designed and built over the years, in batches but note the last batch of 3 frigates covered the period 1782-1783, just the very years that the Whigs were in power in government and all known or related to Sir John, (later an admiralty lord himself) and his daughter Dido. All had an input in the naming, launching and the commissioning of the first ship ever named Dido in the Royal Navy to date.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich after Johan Joseph Zoffany. National Portrait Gallery
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich after Johan Joseph Zoffany. National Portrait Gallery

It’s also worth noting that prior to the naming of the newly designed frigate by Sir John Williams, then to the request of naming, building, launching and commissioning was a certain recently retired first lord that knew all about it and knew it was patronage from start to finish was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. During his career he was 3 times First Lord of the Admiralty and kept a personal ‘patronage book’ himself – I bet Sir John was in it, because he wrote to Lord Mansfield in November 1780 requesting Sir John rejoin the navy (after his resignation in 1779), as he was a naval officer of merit.

Oddly, Lord Sandwich came to live at Sir John’s house in Hertford Street after the North administration fell in March 1782 and stayed there till his death in 1792.

I doubt any paperwork exists that can fully confirm the order of the frigate and as names were plucked or discussed arbitrarily in the 18th century the latter was more the case. There are too many coincidences in my findings overall, and many influential persons to be found with close links to Sir John and his quest to name a ship after his daughter in her 21st year, a year when she was no longer a minor. It was also in 1782 that Dido was included in Lord Mansfield’s will, freeing her of any slavery in the future. So, Dido received two very good birthday presents for her 21st birthday.

Just one final items which demonstrates that Dido was not hidden away, but was known to Lord Mansfields family and friends comes in the form a newspaper report about the death of Sir John Lindsay, from 1788:

Public Advertiser. June 10, 1788
Public Advertiser. June 10, 1788
As a final point of interest, Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) was given her surname Bonetta by Captain James Forbes, who liberated her from slavery and who was the captain of HMS Bonetta.
Portrait of Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763.

Revealing new information about the courtesan, Nelly O’Brien

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the courtesan Nelly O’Brien twice, between 1762 and 1764. Both paintings were paid for by her lover, Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, although she was introduced to Reynolds by Admiral Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel. (Keppel was the great-grandson of Charles II by his mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth.)

Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Nelly O’Brien by Joshua Reynolds; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Bolingbroke also commissioned Reynolds to paint a picture of his wife, Diana Spencer, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough at the same time. Horace Walpole claimed that Bolingbroke had asked Reynolds to give Diana’s ‘eyes something of Nelly O’Brien, or it will not do’. Walpole continued, ‘as he has given Nelly something of his wife’s, it was but fair to give her something of Nelly’s; and my Lady will not throw away the present!’.

Lady Diana Beauclerk by Joshua Reynolds
Lady Diana Beauclerk by Joshua Reynolds; English Heritage, Kenwood

Frederick and Diana’s marriage was a disaster; he took lovers and so did she, famously having an affair with Topham Beauclerk (like Keppel also a great-grandson of Charles II, but by Nell Gwyn). When Bolingbroke divorced his wife in 1768, she promptly married her lover.

Frederick and Nelly (whose origins remain obscure) were an item certainly by 1763. Most sources seem to suggest that Nelly bore Bolingbroke a son, born c.1764, supposedly named Arthur and of whom nothing else is known. If she did bear a child by Bolingbroke, it’s more likely that he was born a year or two earlier. It was not Bolingbroke who fathered a child on Nelly in 1764, it was her new love, the splendidly named Sackville Tufton, 8th Earl of Thanet.

Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke
Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (via Brigitte Gastel Lloyd)

Alfred (not Arthur) Tufton was born 23rd November 1764, and baptised almost a month later, on 20th December, at St George, Hanover Square. His birth was hardly a secret; Nelly was named alongside Sackville in the baptism register. The wit, George James ‘Gilly’ Williams, writing to his friend, George Selwyn on Christmas Day, 1764, said:

I told you Nelly O’Brien has a son. It was christened yesterday. Bunny and his trull were sponsors. Now for his name; guess it if you can; it is of no less consequence in this country than Alfred; but Magill was so drunk he had like to have named it Hiccup!

(Bunny is thought to be Sir Charles Bunbury, who had recently married Lady Sarah Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Magill, the drunk, was Henry Magill, curate of St George’s.)

A year later, on 4 December 1765, a second son was born; this one was given his father’s name, Sackville Tufton, and baptised at the same church as his elder brother on New Years’ Day, 1766.

St George's, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787
St George’s, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787

After that, things rapidly went downhill for Nelly. Her earl was seeking a wife, and his family would certainly not countenance a union with a courtesan. In the summer of 1767 (on 30th July), Sackville Tufton married Mary daughter of Lord John Sackville. Beforehand, Nelly had been turned out of his Grosvenor Square house to make way for the new bride, although she appears to have moved only a few streets away and taken rooms on Park Street, almost certainly provided for her by the earl as Nelly was once again carrying his child.

Grosvenor Square c.1789; Robert Pollard
Grosvenor Square c.1789; Robert Pollard

Nearly six months after Sackville’s marriage to Mary, Nelly was delivered of a third son. Stanley Tufton was born 18th January 1768 and baptised 5th February. In the baptism register at St George’s, his parents were described as they had been with the older boys, Sackville Tufton, Earl of Thanet and Elinor O’Brien. Presumably, the new Countess of Thanet was fully aware. She was also pregnant herself and her daughter, Lady Elizabeth Tufton, was born that spring. Nelly was, however, furious at having to leave Grosvenor Square. As she complained to anyone who would listen, her former lover had a good precedent to follow: when the wife of Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton was pregnant in 1764, the duke moved his lover, the courtesan Nancy Parsons, into their London home where they lived together openly. The Earl of Thanet had moved his courtesan out!

Nancy Parsons, also Mrs. Horton and later Viscountess Maynard by Joshua Reynolds
Nancy Parsons, also Mrs Horton and later Viscountess Maynard by Joshua Reynolds;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A few weeks after Stanley’s birth, realising that she would never reclaim her position as the earl’s mistress and facing an uncertain future, Nelly wrote her will. All her wealth appeared to be in the form of fine clothes and a quantity of valuable diamond jewellery which, besides her three sons, were all that she had been left with. Her star, which had shone so brightly, was looking decidedly dimmed.

I Elinor O Brien do leave to my mother all my best cloaths, to my maid Ann Dixon all my old cloaths, to Miss ?Pyrott one of my best diamond rings, to Nurse Duran such token or legacy as they can chuse out. I beg Lord Thanet will take care of his children and believe them his own. To my children I give my diamonds to be equally divided between the three and I beg my ready money will be sent to my mother and some to poor Molly and I hope all my debts will be paid immediately my ??

Could ‘poor Molly’ possibly be Nelly’s sister? The will is frustrating in its ambiguity. Another mystery concerns the nurse, was she there for Nelly, or for her newborn son. Was Nelly ill? Although still just a young woman, she would be dead before the year was out. While she was afterwards said to have died in childbirth, and in anguish from being abandoned by her earl, the fact she wrote her will, to try to safeguard her children’s future, could indicate that she had indeed been unwell for several months. In March the Public Advertiser newspaper reported her demise, followed by a retraction:

Wed. March 23, 1768. Sunday last died in Park Street, Grosvenor Square, the celebrated Miss Nelly O’Brien.

Friday, 1 April, 1768. The account inserted in the Papers of the Death of Miss Nelly O’Brien in Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, is premature; that lady being in perfect health.

Unfortunately for Nelly, the account was not premature. On Saturday 2nd April 1768, Nelly O’Brien was buried at St George’s, Hanover Square (a new burial ground attached to the church had been consecrated in Bayswater three years earlier).

(A burial at St Ann, Rotherhithe on 29th December 1768 is often mistakenly thought to be hers. Likewise, Nelly’s assumed birth year of 1739 is taken from incorrect burial: the Elinor O’Brien buried in Rotherhithe was 29 years old. We still have no true idea of Nelly’s birth date.)

On 4th May 1768, one of her creditors was granted administration of her estate; the whereabouts of her diamonds are now unknown.

The two elder sons, Sackville and Alfred Tufton, joined the East India Company, Sackville in their naval service and Alfred as a writer, based at Kolkata. When his brother Sackville wrote his will in October 1788, Alfred was left the bulk of his wealth.

Stanley was not mentioned and, although we have not been able to trace him further, it would seem likely that he died young. In a later codicil, Sackville left bequests to his half-brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters from his father’s marriage to Mary Sackville, so it looks like he had been brought up as their sibling.

He also left legacies to his O’Brien aunts and uncles (sadly not named!), his mother Nelly’s siblings and to his grandmother (Nelly’s mother) who was still clearly alive in 1794. Sackville died the same year. Alfred lived to 1812; he had been promoted to the position of Judge at Gya but had returned home in the early 1800s in ill-health, and had never fully recovered. He was only 47-years of age when he died. Both Sackville and Alfred’s resting place is a shared grave in the church at Hothfield in Kent, where his ancestors, the Earls of Thanet, have their seat.

Portrait of Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763.
Portrait of Nelly O’Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763. © The Wallace Collection

In September 1809, almost 41 years after Nelly’s death, a gentleman named Edward Jeremiah Curteis wrote to Alfred Tufton, who had been detained in London due to illness. There had clearly been some conversation between the two, and Alfred had been under the illusion that his long-dead mother, who he hardly recalled, had died around the time of Sackville’s birth.

Mrs Curteis, Edward’s wife or mother, recalled that:

your mother did not die until about the period of Lord Tufton’s marriage, which was more than two years later than you suppose – she was then great with child and the probable cause of death was grief and vexation at the marriage and desertion of the Earl of Thanet.

She went on to say that the earl had been persuaded to marry by his family, but before that, he had previously taken a ‘small but elegant’ and admirably furnished house in Brook Street for his mistress (which Lady Thanet went to see incognita). A Mrs Toke had told Mrs Curteis that Lord Thanet had snubbed Nelly in public which ’caused chagrin and mortification to such a degree as that a miscarriage ensued, and that having miscarried a third infant she died in childbed’.

It’s possible that Nelly had been pregnant again, but her third child was Stanley, born a year before her own premature death. Mrs Curteis’ memories had possibly become confused.

Sources not mentioned above:

George Selwyn and his contemporaries, with memoirs and notes, vol. 1, John Heneage Jesse (1843)

Correspondence of the Curteis family of Windmill Hill, Battle, East Sussex Record Office, AMS 5995/5/8

The Diaries of a Duchess: extracts from the diaries of the first Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776), edited by James Greig (1926)

National Archives wills: PROB 11/1247/21 and PROB 11/939/51

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, vol 82, part 1 (1812)

The letters of Horace Walpole (ed by J Wright), 1842

We would like to thank the staff at the City of Westminster Archives for confirming the record of Nelly’s burial for us.