History of the World According to the Movies: Part 46 – Late Georgian Great Britain


The 1941 film That Hamilton Woman starring husband and wife Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh recounts the scandalous relationship between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Of course, this movie isn’t 100% accurate due to stuff like the Hays Code and let’s say that Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton weren’t that hot in real life at this point in their lives. Nor did Lord Nelson ever wear an eye patch. Still, at least this romance featured two historical characters who actually loved each other in real life unlike some movies.

Great Britain’s first 37 years in the 19th century were encompassed by the Late Georgian Era. Of course, the Industrial Revolution had already kicked off by this time and its effects would later lend inspiration to many Charles Dickens novels. The lives of the upper-classes and gentry, however, would become the tableau in which many novels from Jane Austen are set, especially during the Regency when King George III went permanently insane that the future George IV had to rule as regent for nine years. Not to mention, a lot of the works of the Bronte sisters take place in this period as well though you wouldn’t know it since many movies of their works usually have women in big dresses. Still, much the movies set in this period would usually pertain to either Austen novels or the Napoleonic Wars since the British were the main adversaries of the French as well as introduced heroes like the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and Admiral Horatio Nelson, famous for his victory at Trafalgar, having one arm and one eye, and his scandalous relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton. This would also be an era of Romantic Era poets and writers like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley as well. Not to mention, this would be the time period when Britain would give the vote to Catholics and abolish slavery. Nevertheless, there are plenty of historical errors in movies set in this time period I shall list accordingly.

Napoleonic Wars:

The Battle of Waterloo was mostly a British victory. (Wellington’s army wasn’t just made up of English, Scottish, or Irish soldiers as seen in Waterloo, but also the contingents from various German states and the Kingdom of the United Netherlands {Dutch and Belgian} that consisted of 2/3 of his army. It was an international effort.)

General Ponsonby died in the same way as his father during the Napoleonic wars. (His dad was a politician who died peacefully in 1806. Ponsonby himself, according to French accounts surrendered to a French sergeant of lancers who later killed him when a group of British cavalrymen attempted to rescue him {and Ponsonby was getting ready to bolt without handing his sword or dismounting}.)

Royal Marines had child drummers during the Napoleonic Wars. (Their drummers were adults.)

Royal Navy vessels always had one man at the wheel during the Napoleonic Wars whether in battle or during a storm. (There could be as many as four or more guys on the wheel in either situation.)

ADC Lord Hay was killed at Waterloo. (He actually was killed at Quatre Bas.)

The HMS Agamemnon was a 3 decked battleship on the line. (It had 2 gun decks.)

The Santisma Trinidad burned and sank during the Battle of Trafalgar while several ships exploded. (It was captured and taken by the British as a prize after the battle. But it was lost in a storm. Also, during the Battle of Trafalgar, there only one ship that blew up, which was a French gunner called the Achilles.)

The Burke and Hare Murders:

William Burke and William Hare were childless. (Contrary to Burke & Hare, Burke had left a wife and two children in Northern Ireland. We’re not sure whether he deserted them or that his wife simply refused to join him in Scotland. Hare and his wife had a baby with whooping cough during the trial proceedings who was said to be used “as an instrument for delaying or evading whatever question it was inconvenient for her to answer.” Hare’s wife also had another kid to her first marriage.)

William Burke’s girlfriend was an actress named Ginny Hawkins he met during the murders. (Her name was Helen McDougal and they had been living together for 10 years they were assumed to be married. In fact, they had been living at the Hares’ lodging house since they arrived in Edinburgh in 1827. And Burke was well-acquainted with Hare’s wife whom he met on previous trips to the city. As for Hare’s wife, her name was Margaret Laird who did run a lodging house. But she had inherited it from her previous husband after he died. And in 1828, she had one child and was pregnant for some time during the murders. Nevertheless, Ginny Hawkins was loosely based on a real actress named Eva Le Gallienne who played the role of Hamlet.)

William Burke got involved in the murders to raise money for his girlfriend’s play. (This was a ploy for Burke & Hare to make Burke seem like a more sympathetic character. If there’s any motive it might’ve been the possibility that he was sending money to his wife and kids back home. Or that he worked in a variety of trades that either didn’t suit him or didn’t pay well. Or that selling dead bodies to Robert Knox was an easy way to make money. As for Hare, he had a pregnant wife and a stepchild to support and most of his wife’s tenants consisted of beggars and vagrants. And she ran her lodging house at a loss with her charges owing money.)

William Burke’s girlfriend knew nothing about the murders. (While there’s no direct evidence she was, Helen McDougal is widely assumed to be. However, we do know that she had seen many of their victims while they were alive and she had the clothing of one of them in her possession {though to be fair, Burke often passed victims’ clothes to others while Hare disposed them in the Union Canal}. Oh, and they killed her cousin. And that she tried to bribe a couple into keeping quiet about a dead body under a bed. But Burke claimed that she knew nothing and believed he and Hare were grave robbers. Then again, he might’ve been just trying to clear her name. Nevertheless, how much McDougal may have known of the murders and whether she was involved will never be known. Nevertheless, she got off on “not proven.”)

William Hare’s wife knew about the murders and was perfectly fine with them. (Yes, but that wasn’t all. Margaret certainly knew about the murders and there’s enough evidence to suggest that she might’ve assisted or even initiated some of them. We know this because when Burke and Hare split the money among themselves, she always got a cut “for the house.” But what role she played is unknown other than covering them up since many of the victims were her own lodgers.)

William Burke and William Hare were grave robbers before they turned to murder. (There’s no evidence to suggest they ever were. Besides, by then, grave robbing was so commonplace back then that relatives of the recently deceased were known to watch over their graves. And watchtowers were installed in cemeteries. Such developments sped the way for many grave robbers into committing anatomy murder with Burke and Hare’s being the most infamous.)

Dr. Robert Knox performed a sideshow act in America after the Burke and Hare murders. (Contrary to Burke & Hare, Knox continued to teach for many years, but his career and reputation were ruined since he’d always be known as the guy who bought bodies off of serial killers. His house would be frequently vandalized. He’d soon have to resign as curator of the museum he founded and students stopped taking his classes. He ended up working in a cancer hospital in London and writing various works. Still, I can forgive John Landis for that since the sideshow act was too good to miss.)

Dr. Robert Knox’s motivation for getting mixed up with Burke and Hare was that Dr. Monro had access to all the good cadavers and to receive a prestigious award from the King. (In reality, Knox was likely to already have an established network of body snatchers in Edinburgh as well as had agents in Glasgow, Manchester, and Dublin. All of these guys charged him the same as Burke and Hare. Yet, the bodies Burke and Hare sent were obviously in much better shape. Still, Knox was a very busy man at the time since he was aspiring to become a professor at the University of Edinburgh, was working on a research project of comparative anatomy,was Curator of the Museum of the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and was in the process of seeing several books through publication. Furthermore, he usually delegated responsibilities of his dissecting establishment at 10 Surgeon’s Square to his staff. This included his brother, his technician and doorkeeper, and 3 assistants. It was these guys who mostly dealt with Burke and Hare directly, not Knox. So to say that Knox was complicit in the murders other than being a paying customer who didn’t know he was getting into, is a bit of a stretch. Still, the idea of Dr. Monro hogging the cadavers makes sense since an act of 1823 saw a dramatic drop in crimes punishable by death which caused an extreme shortage of dead bodies legally available for medical schools.)

William Burke confessed to his crimes to save his friends and love. (Burke did no such thing. In fact, he was betrayed by William Hare who sold him out after they were caught. Hare agreed to testify against Burke and his girlfriend to escape persecution. This is mostly because the police had little hard evidence to convict both of them. Nevertheless, if given the chance, Burke would’ve done the same thing but he wasn’t offered. Hare was perfectly happy to do this. Nevertheless, Burke probably did try to clear his girlfriend by claiming she knew nothing about the murders, but he only confessed after knowing he was going to be hanged and there was nothing he could do about it.)

Most of Burke and Hare’s victims were men of various backgrounds. (The known victims consisted of 12 women, 3 men, and one child. All were very poor, often homeless {which doesn’t make for an entertaining black comedy}. To target men in fancy clothes, carriages, or fur coats would’ve been unthinkable to them since it would’ve led to an easy arrest {no matter how vulnerable these guys were at the time}. So like most serial killers, they preyed on Edinburgh’s poorest communities who were less likely to be missed or recognized. Nevertheless, this resulted in the two being charged with only 3 of the murders. And while Burke and Hare are said to have killed 16 people, the real total is likely to be a lot higher.)

Suspicion of Burke and Hare’s murders arose when medical  body of a local crime boss appeared at Dr. Knox’s dissection table. (The bodies that were recognized by Knox’s students were of a prostitute named Mary Paterson and a mentally challenged young man with a limp but a familiar character named James Wilson also known as “Daft Jamie.” Nevertheless, the two wouldn’t be caught until a couple lodgers called the cops after discovering the body of Mrs. Mary Docherty {or Margery Campbell} under a bed. The body was removed when the police arrived. Burke and Helen McDougal were arrested under questioning. As for the Hares, they were arrested after police were given an anonymous tip-off to Knox’s dissecting rooms where the couple who turned the guys in positively identified Docherty’s body.)

William Burke and William Hare had a genial relationship throughout the murders. (Their relationship had disintegrated towards the end as Burke became suspicious that Hare and Margaret were cutting him and Helen McDougal out of deals with Knox. When they were arrested along with their women, each gave conflicting testimony and the two guys blamed each other.)

William Hare and his wife started a funeral business in Edinburgh after William Burke’s execution. (Contrary to Burke & Hare this wasn’t true. Rather, in reality, Hare and his wife along with Helen McDougal entered into the 19th century equivalent to “witness protection.” And for awhile they had to be taken into police custody and moved since their notoriety attracted mobs and threats to their safety. For the Hares, establishing a funeral business in Edinburgh wouldn’t have been possible for they had no peace afterwards. Nevertheless, McDougal was last seen in Durham, Margaret went back to her family in Ireland, and Hare was last seen fleeing an inn after being trapped by a mob. We’re not sure what happened to him since.)

William Burke and William Hare were likeable guys. (Contrary to Burke & Hare, neither were as nice as Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis portrayed them. Hare was said to be prone to violence while drunk and might’ve killed his wife’s first husband who mysteriously disappeared, conveniently leaving a boardinghouse and him a wealthier man. Burke left a wife and two kids in Ireland. He was working as a shoemaker at the time and could read and write. Yet, he was the more likeable of the two.)

The Duke of Wellington:

The Duke of Wellington spoke in an English accent. (He was Irish. Still, as prime minister, his main accomplishment would be granting Catholic Emancipation granted in Parliament.)

Sir Arthur Wellesley was the Duke of Wellington in 1810. (He was elevated to the Peerage after the Battle of Talavera and to a Dukedom in 1814. The post of the Duke of Wellington didn’t exist yet.)

The Duke of Wellington was an old man during the Battle of Waterloo. (He was in his forties around the same age as Napoleon.)

The Duke of Wellington was opposed to the judicial killing of Field Marshall Michel Ney and saw it as a vicious action of the Duchesse d’Angouleme (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s only surviving child at the time). (As a friendly observer and adviser to King Louis XVIII, Wellington had no legal standing to get involved and most likely didn’t.)

Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton:

Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson wore an eye patch after he lost his eye. (Most of the time he didn’t and at least That Hamilton Woman gets this right even though he wears it once. However, Lord Nelson never did look as hot as Sir Laurence Olivier {who’s a rather tall man while Nelson wasn’t} and neither was Lady Hamilton as pretty as Vivien Leigh and was actually kind of chunky in her later years.)

Admiral Horatio Nelson had “A Life on the Ocean Waves,” played at a victory party. (It was composed in the 1830s when Nelson was long dead.)

Admiral Horatio Nelson was a tall man. (Contrary to his Sir Laurence Olivier portrayal in That Hamilton Woman, he was 5’4″ and weighed about 100 pounds. This would make him built like James Madison. But this guy had the habit of showing his chest as well as covering it in official regalia, which made it clear to the enemy exactly who he was. This didn’t go personally well for him at Trafalgar since he was killed by a French sniper because of this. He also flaunted his small size and disabilities as proof of his bravery. And unlike the real 5’7″ tall Napoleon Bonaparte who was really slightly above average by 19th century standards, Nelson was basically the poster child of the Napoleonic Complex that we should call it the Lord Nelson Complex. Let’s just say That Hamilton Woman would’ve made much more historical sense if they cast Claude Rains in the role instead of Sir Laurence Olivier. Then again, Hollywood has a habit of making certain historical figures taller than they actually were, particularly men.)

Horatio Nelson died at sunset during the Battle of Trafalgar when his ship was fighting the French flagship Redoubtable under heavy fog. (The flagship was the Bucenature and the battle was fought on a perfectly clear day. But yes, they were fighting the Redoubtable and the Santasima Trinidad, too. Also, Nelson is said to have died around 4:30 in the afternoon.)

Horatio Nelson was rear-admiral of the Blue in 1798. (His highest rank vice-admiral of the White Squadron.)

Lord Horatio Nelson had to wait for Sir William Hamilton to die before he could shack up with Lady Emma Hamilton and the two of them kept their relationship under wraps despite having a child together. (Yes, they did let their daughter Horatia be raised by another couple {yet they adopted her later}. Yet, they did pose as her godparents at her christening. However, by the time Emma had Horatia, Nelson was already openly living with the Hamiltons in a ménage a trois. For God’s sake, Nelson was holding Emma’s hand at her husband’s death bed. This was no secret in Great Britain but Emma’s devotion to Nelson was notoriously flamboyant {and it helped that Nelson was a such a prima donna that he made George S. Patton look meek in comparison}. Also, unlike what That Hamilton Woman depicts, Emma was doing a performance art show in which she appeared as famous women from history. Emma Hamilton wasn’t a goody-goody wifelet but a crazy freewheeling nympho who’d put Miley Cyrus to shame. Guess 1940s Hollywood was more tolerant on adultery than threesomes.)

Emma Hamilton was surprised to see Lord Horatio Nelson’s eye patch and empty sleeve. (She probably wouldn’t have been surprised by his war wounds since his exploits were known all over Europe at this point. She would’ve known he couldn’t see from his right eye and had lost most of his right arm. Also, Nelson didn’t wear an eye patch {which he doesn’t in much of That Hamilton Woman save a few scenes}. He may have actually worn a less glamorous eye shade on his hat when it was sunny on deck.)

Lord Horatio Nelson had a full set of teeth throughout his life. (It’s said he lost most of his teeth when he and Emma Hamilton were reacquainted. Yet, his time in the Napoleonic Wars had seemed to prematurely aged him and he was afflicted by coughing spells. Oh, and did I say he was around 40 at the time?)

Emma Hamilton was 18 when she arrived in Naples. (She was 21. However, unlike what That Hamilton Woman implies, Emma had quite a life before she came there. She was a spokesmodel for the Temple of Health, a dodgy London health clinic that sold infertile couples sessions on an electrified Celestial Bed in which the shocks were said to aid conception. She was a mistress to Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh and had a child by him before moving on to MP Charles Greville. Also, she was the favorite subject of the painter George Romney. This was all before she went to Naples where she met her future husband Sir William Hamilton.)

Beau Brummel:

George “Beau” Brummel was booted out of the British Army when he criticized Prince George about the uniforms for his Dragoons. (Brummel resigned his commission in the Hussars voluntarily most likely because he didn’t want to go to war. Yet, there are theories that he couldn’t abide the 10th Dragoons formal hairstyle {long and powdered with a pigtail} and wanted to wear his hair in the Roman Emperor style {short but brushed forward}. There’s probably an understanding why screenwriters would go with the uniforms.)

Beau Brummel and George IV were around the same age. (They were friends around George IV’s wedding to Caroline of Brunswick but Beau was 16 at the time while George IV was twice his age.)

Beau Brummel was bisexual. (There’s no record of him having romantic relationships with anyone, though he spent a lot of time with courtesans and it’s been suggested {and he’s said to have syphilis}. However, he and George IV probably didn’t have a mutually romantic friendship since George IV was exclusively straight and a womanizer. Then again, Elizabeth Taylor {which she is in his biopic} would make an appropriate love interest for him since she has male fans from all sexual orientations.)

Beau Brummel asked Lord Byron, “Who’s your fat friend?” as an insult to Prince Regent George. (It was said to be toward a guy named Lord Alvanley not, Byron. Still, Brummel never protested against Prince George in public speeches.)

Beau Brummel contracted tuberculosis while on exile to Calais. (His French medical records say he had syphilis, which you can’t put in a 1950s biopic. So he may not have been romantically involved with anyone but maybe he might’ve had a few flings.)

George IV and Beau Brummel bonded over the former’s impending and unwanted marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. (They were already friends by this point, though it’s pretty clear George IV didn’t want to marry Caroline of Brunswick and it was a miracle that he was able to sire a daughter from her {though Princess Charlotte’s death would send her uncles scrambling to produce heirs and make Queen Victoria’s existence and succession possible. If she didn’t die of childbirth, Victoria may not have never been born, let alone be queen}.)

King George IV and Beau Brummel had a tearful reconciliation at Brummel’s deathbed. (Actually King George IV died 10 years before Brummel did, so that wouldn’t happen. Also, there’s no record on them having met again after 1816. Not to mention, Brummel remained in France for the rest of his life.)

King William IV:

When King William IV insulted the Duchess of Kent, she sat several feet away from him, she left the room, and neither Princess Victoria nor anyone else reacted much. (The Duchess of Kent sat next to the king, she didn’t leave the room, and Princess Victoria cried in reaction to the king’s outburst, and the guests were aghast.)

Jane Austen:

Jane Austen had a romance with Tom Lefroy, who was the love of her life and a guy she almost married. (Yes, she and Tom Lefroy knew each other but there are plenty of scholars who are skeptical on whether the two were ever a couple. All that’s documented about her relationship with him was that they danced together in 3 Christmas balls. Lefroy may have said he was in love with Austen but at that time he was an old man who may have been willing to play up to his connection with the famous female novelist. Yet, he’s mentioned in only three of Austen’s letters that survive but her sister did burn most of the letters she sent so we’ll never know. Still, it may not have amounted to much contrary to what Becoming Jane implies. However, Austen did receive at least one marriage proposal but it was from a different guy named Harris Biggs-Wither who she turned down {maybe because she didn’t want to be Mrs. Biggs-Wither and a butt of many Monty Python jokes}.)

Jane Austen was a frustrated and mediocre writer until a man entered her life, introduced her to Tom Jones, and taught her about love. (I’m sure she was perfectly capable of telling her own stories without the aid of any men. Becoming Jane is probably an insult to a female writer who wrote with such genius and originality like Jane Austen did. Not to mention, she was already working on her first novel before she even met him and had already read Tom Jones, too. Still, Tom Lefroy may not have been the only man in her life and there’s some reason to believe that she may have actually chose not to get married due to how many of her family members died in childbirth at the time.)

Tom Lefroy proposed to Jane Austen. (Chances are he most likely never proposed to her because he wasn’t from a well-off family and she wouldn’t be what his folks would consider appropriate marriage material. He probably led her on during many occasion and their relationship probably never really went anywhere from a mere flirtation despite any mutual feelings for each other. He more likely never saw Jane again after leaving Hampshire the first time. Lefroy would later marry a woman with a large fortune with whom he’d have seven kids and would later become Britain’s Lord Chief Justice. Nevertheless, Jane Austen had a close relationship with his aunt who was her mentor.)

Jane Austen’s brother Henry was a guy who liked to drink, party, and screw around with prostitutes. (Actually he wasn’t like that but he was adventurous. He ended up marrying a cousin ten years older than him and became a clergyman after she died.)

Jane Austen’s parents didn’t get along. (It’s implied in their letters that they certainly loved each other. Also, while finances were tight in the Austen household, they were never in dire straits.)

Jane Austen was pretty. (There aren’t many contemporary portraits of her save probably one and she doesn’t look very flattering in that. However, we’re really not sure what she really looked like.)

King George IV:

King George IV was a well-meaning and clumsy man. (Many of the people who knew him personally would’ve said otherwise according to his eulogy, “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king…If he ever had a friend – a devoted friend in any rank of life – we protest that the name of him or her never reached us.” )

William Pitt the Younger:

William Pitt the Younger was still alive after 1806. (He died that year.)

William Wilberforce’s illness caused a rift between him and William Pitt the Younger. (His illness actually strengthened their relationship.)

William Wilberforce was present at William Pitt the Younger’s deathbed. (Wilberforce didn’t make it in time.)

George Gordon, Lord Byron:

Lord Byron could walk perfectly fine on two legs. (He had a clubbed foot that plagued him throughout his life.)

Lord Byron was thin. (He wasn’t. Actually despite being a vegetarian and athletic most of his life, he was overweight since he wore several waistcoats to sweat the fat off. Still, he was an inspiration for the modern vampire. But he was no model of sexiness by our standards.)

Mary Shelley:

Mary Shelley’s only work was Frankenstein. (Wikipedia has quite a list of her works including novels, editorials, plays, short stories, and travelogues. She was a pretty busy woman. Yet, what’s she remembered for? Still, her dad was the political philosopher William Godwin and her mother was the famous philosopher and women’s rights proponent Mary Wollstonecraft. Her husband was the poet Percy Blysshe Shelley.)


Charles Fox was known as “Lord Charles Fox.” (He was in the House of Commons until the day he died which was in 1806 so he wouldn’t have been able to make comments about Wilberforce after the abolition of the slave trade. Still, he was a younger son of a baron and known as the “Honorable Charles Fox.”)

Formal birth registrations were in place in this time. (The UK didn’t have any formal birth registrations until 1837. At this time the only formal records were baptisms from parish churches.)

The Royal Lyceum Theatre was around in 1828. (It was built in 1883.)

Greyfriars Bobbby died in the 1820s. (He was alive around 1855-1872.)

Edinburgh’s law enforcement was handled by a local militia in the 1820s. (Edinburgh was one of the first cities in Great Britain to establish a police department. But they relied on local residents to bring crimes to their attention and when they weren’t solving crimes, they were arresting poor people. This is why the Burke and Hare murders lasted for 10 months free from police inquiry until a couple of lodgers reported their discovery of Mary Docherty’s dead body.)

3 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 46 – Late Georgian Great Britain

  1. Pingback: That Hamilton Woman | Meet Cute

  2. Pingback: That Hamilton Woman | Ruined for Life: Phoenix Edition

  3. Pingback: That Hamilton Woman | Mixed Media

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