Mary Hamilton Papers
Date range: 1743-1826
Mary Hamilton (1756–1816), courtier and diarist, stood at the nexus of several interlocking royal, aristocratic, literary and artistic circles in late 18th-century London. She was the only child of Charles Hamilton (1721–71), soldier, and was descended from the 3rd Duke of Hamilton; her uncle was Sir William Hamilton.
In 1777 Mary was invited to court by Queen Charlotte, to help look after her rapidly expanding brood of young princesses, and she remained a courtier until late 1782 For several months in 1779 the adolescent Prince of Wales became infatuated with her.
After leaving St James’s Palace in December 1782, she took apartments near Piccadilly and became a member of the Bas Bleu (Bluestocking) circle; she counted Hannah More, Frances Burney and Mary Delany among her literary friends. She dined frequently at the houses of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole and met Samuel Johnson on several occasions. Throughout this time she maintained a meticulously detailed diary, recording her daily activities, conversations and private thoughts. In 1785 she married John Dickenson, only son of John Dickenson of Birch Hall, near Manchester.
The substantial archive of Mary Hamilton is a remarkable survival. It comprises:
- Approximately 1,200 pages of autograph diary describing in detail Hamilton’s daily life, chiefly between her leaving court in November 1782 and marrying John Dickenson in June 1785;
- A very large collection of letters and notes sent to Mary Hamilton by her relatives and friends, but also including letters addressed to her husband, together with occasional explanatory notes, drafts or copies of letters by Mary Hamilton herself, 1768-1815;
- Six manuscript volumes, largely commonplace books containing anthologies of verse and prose, copies of correspondence, and 'Notes to the Portraits in Woburn Abbey by Horace Walpole'.
Hamilton's voluminous correspondence and extensive, intimate diaries provide unparalleled insights into the day-to-day life of the royal household and of the artistic and social elites during a period of rapid change in the nation’s political, economic and cultural life.
Among the major figures represented in the archive are:
- Queen Charlotte and the Princesses
- Elizabeth Montagu
- Elizabeth Vesey
- Elizabeth Carter
- Samuel Johnson
- James Boswell
- Sir Joshua Reynolds
- Horace Walpole
- Joseph and Thomas Warton
- Hannah More
- Frances Burney
- William Pepys
- Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland
- Mary Delany
- Lady Charlotte Finch
- Richard ‘Leonidas’ Glover
- William Hamilton
The archive was purchased by the Library in 2007, following a temporary export stop, with financial assistance from the V&A/MLA Purchase Fund, the Pilgrim Trust, the Friends of the National Libraries, the Society of Dilettanti, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the Friends of the John Rylands.
Catalogue available online via ELGAR.
The Mary Hamilton Papers have previously been the basis of transcription projects at the University of Manchester and the University of Zurich. A major research project based on an edition of the collection is in its final year of AHRC funding.
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