The People of Gibraltar
1790s - Betsey Wynne

Casanova, Fremantle and Nelson - Mrs Pigot, O'Hara and Inglefield

O’Hara also always seems to have found it difficult to ignore anything pretty with a skirt on. When the Wynne family came to stay at Gibraltar he made sure that they were royally entertained – especially the eldest daughter, Elizabeth. The Wynne family had been evacuated from Elba by the Royal Navy when it came under French control. They were also Catholics.

Elizabeth, who was known as Betsey to her family and friends, was born in Venice and brought up mainly on the continent. She was an avid diarist and kept a record of her everyday life from the tender age of eleven. During her early years she lived in Switzerland where her family hobnobbed with King Louis XVI’s main political agents and other aristocrats in positions of power who had retreated from the chaos of revolutionary France. Her father’s rather more interesting claim to fame, however, was that he was a friend of Casanova. The family eventually ended up in Naples where she vividly described her life amongst the glitterati of the city.

Betsey Wynne (Unknown)

Betsey met her future husband - the dashing British Captain Thomas Francis Fremantle in Naples, fell in love and married him. The reception took place in Lady Hamilton’s house in Naples, but she soon took up residence on her husband’s ship HMS Inconstant. She was apparently immune to sea-sickness and many of her entries suggest that she enjoyed rough seas. 'Very blowing weather' she writes. It did not affect me, it increased my appetite and I laughed at everybody else.

The dashing young captain Fremantle (Unknown)

Nevertheless it cannot have been all that much fun. Her husband was a strict disciplinarian who believed in ‘much flogging’ of the crew. Hidden away in her cabin, Betsey could often ‘distinctly hear the poor wretches crying out for mercy’. She was she wrote, 'quite miserable all the morning as the three Mariners were punished and flogged along side of every ship, some men flogged likewise on board.'

Thomas Francis Fremantle. He was one of Nelson's famous ‘band of brothers’ and eventually ended up as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Here he is in as an Admiral (Unknown)

Capt Fremantle is the officer holding his sword rather ineffectually in his left hand. He is helping Nelson fight off several members of a Spanish launch during the blockade of Cadiz after the battle of Cape St Vincent. The middle member of the three officers is Nelson's coxswain, John Sykes. The poor man was accidentally killed a few years later while firing a salute in Gibraltar (Unknown)

Betsey was on board her husband’s ship at the fiasco of the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797. Fiasco from a British point of view of course. Not only did they lose against the Spaniards but Nelson had his right arm partially amputated. The story is that Betsey was the first person to receive a note written with left hand.

'You will excuse my scrawl' writes Nelson, 'considering it is my first attempt'. Betsey was obviously not the first . . . unless Nelson was lying.

After the battle, Betsey nursed both Nelson and her husband while returning to England on HMS Seahorse. From her entries it would seem that apart from his injuries, Captain Fremantle appears to have been suffering from shell shock. It must have been a difficult task for the newly pregnant Betsey. 'A foul wind' , she writes during one of the long night on their way home, 'which make the Admiral fret. He is a very bad patient'

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Unknown)

Nelson minus part of his right arm (Unknown)

By all accounts she must have had a great time on the Rock and the Governor ‘was always very civil and attentive’ towards her. Betsey’s description of O’Hara was that of a ‘quaint old man’ with a double row of sausage roll curls. She must have mistaken his wig for the real thing as O’Hara was actually bald. The ‘quaintness’ probably refers to O’Hara’s affectation for wearing old fashioned clothes more in keeping with the mid 18th than the turn of the century.

Eugenia Wynne, one of Betsey's younger sisters and another diarist (Unknown)

Another British lady writing anonymously in the Metropolitan Magazine about her memories of Gibraltar during this period also seems to have been quite smitten by the Governor. So much so that she alludes to St Georges Hall erroneously as ' the 'galleries or excavated batteries of O'Hara'. In those early years of the century the place was being used as a favourite arena for 'picnic refreshments and dances'. Despite the overwhelming quantity of ordinance and weaponry these were apparently 'less dangerous than the bright eyes that so often flash among them.'

St Georges Hall. A drummer boy and a dog and plenty of space for dancing 
(William Robert Hill)     (see LINK)

Just like this anonymous lady, Betsey was also very fond of Gibraltar's eccentric Governor although she seems to have found the O'Hara's never ending formal dinner parties something of a bore; they were usually made up of military officers who spoke of nothing but matters of war and their wives who spoke of nothing at all. It was she wrote ‘rather tiresome when 58 people sit at the same table – and such figures some of them.’

O'Hara's tower is shown in the center of this semi-contemporary engraving of the Rock. Betsey's comments suggest that O'Hara's folly went further than just ordering the creation of a useless structure on the highest point of the Rock (Thomas Roscoe) LINK

But there was much to enjoy. Late breakfasts, balls, dancing lessons and trips to the top of the Rock where she ‘burnt’ her face ‘shockingly', were all part of a social whirl which included the entire spectrum of the higher echelons of the military establishment. She was, for example, a frequent guest at Commissioner Inglefield’s residence at the Mount where she was royally entertained.

A semi-contemporary sketch of the balcony of the official residence of the Commissioner of the Navy in Gibraltar known as the Mount. The lady in the center of the group could easily have been Betsey Fremantle.

As far as one can make out from her diaries, however, she never met, noticed or wrote about anybody who was not British born. Which was probably just as well as her opinions of some of those of her own class and sex could be quite cutting. A well known ‘lady’ - discreetly left nameless - was described as ‘the stupidest of all women and insupportable and tiresome,' and General Pigot’s wife was described as ‘a great favourite of all the gentlemen’ as she still had ‘a pretty face with the help of paint but is crooked and not near,’ as tall as Betsey.

There must have been an element of jealousy here. When Admiral Sir John Jervis' fleet was away from Gibraltar blockading Cadiz Mrs Pigot went to visit aboard his ship. Betsey must have been dismayed to learn from her friends that 'everybody is at her feet and old Sir John the most gallant of men.'

Another portrait of Betsey Wynne as Mrs Fremantle

Shortly after this she herself took off to visit the fleet off Cadiz. She was finding Gibraltar's hot and humid summers difficult to cope with. Aboard her husband's ship she entertained his officer friends and listened to what they had to say about the recent mutinies at the Nore and Spithead. Many of the captains around her table were quite worried about the discontent they were experiencing on their own ships.

One of them was 'old Nelson' who had just returned from Gibraltar after escorting from Elba nearly 4000 troops under General de Burgh and landing them on the Rock. He was probably quite disgruntled by the fact that his first hostile contact with ‘the Dons’ had resulted in a very severe dual with a Spanish frigate. The Spanish ship was captured - and then very quickly lost.

Mrs Fremantle's diaries published in 1935. Anne Fremantle was one of her descendents.

Most modern British historians tend to write about Mrs Fremantle with a fawning sense of surprise. Here was an attractive lady who actually bothered to write about Gibraltar in her diary.

My own view is that as part of the social history of Gibraltar, Mrs Fremantle is hardly worthy of much more than a mention, if that. Her stay on the Rock was extremely short and most of the interest lies in her considerable ability to name drop. She is silent as regards the local population showing no interest in them. For all intents and purposes she could have been anywhere else. In fact that is where she was most of the time; on board her husband's ship.

However, and it is a big however, she is worthy of a mention in the sense that she is yet another stereotype of those Britons abroad who visited the Rock and left us their thoughts. What is interesting is not what they wrote but what they left out.

Harriet and Justina Wynne. Two more of Betsey's younger sisters. Harriet was the third sister to keep a diary (Unknown)