Who was the orphan Ann who was cared for by Mary Wollstonecraft?
Every biography of Mary Wollstonecraft mentions Ann, a young orphan girl of about 6 or 7 years with no surname and who was possibly related to Hugh Skeys. Mary took in this young girl around 1790/1791, and then passed her on to her sister Everina and thereafter Ann went to Ruth Barlow. After that she passes into oblivion.
Is it possible after so many years to identify this girl and to discover her subsequent life story?
I believe it is.
Ella B. Day in her unpublished and unreliable biography “Without permit” (1), of her great grandfather Robert Home (See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) (2), 1752-1834, the painter, a typescript copy of which is in the British Library, states that this orphan Ann was Ann Home, Robert Home’s daughter. Unfortunately Ella B. Day does not present a single shred of evidence to support this claim.
Isobel Armstrong in her introduction to “The life and poems of Anne Hunter; Haydn’s tuneful voice” (3), makes the same statement. Among the various sources she mentions to substantiate this she includes the 1798 edition of William Godwin’s biography (4) of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin stated the following :-
“In addition to her exertions for her own family, she took a young girl of about seven years of age under her protection and care, the niece of Mrs. John Hunter, and of the present Mrs. Skeys, for whose mother, then lately dead, she had entertained a sincere friendship.”
The historian, Arthur Marwick, would argue that the unwitting evidence in this statement is that Godwin knew who these two people were and, more importantly, expected his readers to also know.
The “present Mrs. Skeys” is obvious – she was the second wife of Hugh Skeys. They married sometime in Ireland in the late 1780s. Her name was Betty Delane and she was a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft. Her sister was Susanna Delane who married Robert Home in Ireland in 1783. Obviously Betty Skeys would be an aunt to the children of Robert & Susanna.
Mrs. John Hunter, I believe, is Anne Home (see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) (5), 1742/3-1821, the poet and lyricist. In 1771 she married John Hunter (See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) (6), 1728-1793, Surgeon-Extraordinary to George 111. It is his collection of material that now forms the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons. Anne Home (Mrs John Hunter) would have been an aunt to any children of Robert and Susanna Home.
Robert Home and his wife Susanna Delane had a total of five children – four boys and one girl. The girl was named Ann Home, 1785?-1829, and she would have been the niece of Mrs. Skeys and Mrs. John Hunter.
So why did Ann Home end up being cared for by Mary Wollstonecraft?
Robert Home took his ill wife Susanna back to London about 1788/9, probably to see his brother-in-law John Hunter, and probably leaving their children in Dublin and in the care of the Skeys. On 25 April 1789 the fifth and final child, Richard, was baptised in St James Piccadilly. Susanna died and by the end of 1790 Robert had left for India, again leaving all his children with the Skeys, arriving there in early 1791. He remained in India until his death in 1834. It is probable that the Skeys, knowing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s interest in the education of girls, believed that she was better qualified to look after a little girl than they were.
Is it possible that William Godwin knew Anne Home (Mrs. John Hunter)?
It is more than probable that he knew of her but may never have met her. Her husband was famous. She moved in literary circles, albeit probably not the same circles as Godwin and Mary did. Mrs. John Hunter was friends with Horace Walpole, knew Fanny Burnley, wrote lyrics for Dr Haydn and was aunt to Joanna Baillie (See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) (7), 1762-1851. A distant cousin was David Hume the philosopher, who at one time consulted John Hunter.
She was also a published poet. Some were published as “Anonymous”, some as “A Lady”, some as “Miss Home”, some as “Mrs. Hunter” and some as “Mrs. John Hunter”. In 1794 Haydn printed and sold some of his music (8) which included a dedication to Mrs. John Hunter. Also in 1794 one of her poems “The Death Song” (9) under the name Mrs. Hunter was published in a collection of Scottish Songs. The publisher was J. Johnson, the very same Johnson who was a friend and publisher of both Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.
So what happened to Ann Home after Ruth Barlow?
She probably returned to the Skeys. Then in the late 1790s she went to live with her aunt Anne Home (Mrs. John Hunter). She remained with her aunt until 1803 when, with two of her brothers, she joined her father in India. There Robert Home painted a portrait of her with an open book of music on her lap. In 1806 she married John Walker and they had a daughter Jean Walker. In 1808 her husband John Walker died in a riding accident and she returned to England with her daughter. She remained in England, living some of the time with her aunt Anne Home, Mrs (John Hunter) until 1817 when she returned to India to live with her father.
She died in Cawnpore on 8th November 1830. There is a letter (10) from her sister-in-law, Frances Sophia Home, formerly Fraser, to her father Charles Fraser, now in the British Library :-
“… … of the death of Mrs. Walker (Capt. H’s sister) she died at Mr. Home’s home in Cawnpore on the 8th November after a long illness … …”
So little orphan Ann has her full name and her life story back.
However it would seem that the achievements of John Hunter and his wife Anne Home have been so quickly and so totally forgotten that those researching Mary Wollstonecraft’s life can no-longer make the connection. John Hunter’s name and his achievements will always be remembered in the Hunterian Museum. Caroline Grigson and Isobel Armstrong have done much to restore Anne Home (Mrs. John Hunter) to greater public awareness with their excellent book (3) about Anne and her poetry.