Tuesday, 7 February 2017

94 Ann of Swansea

94 Ann of Swansea

On the Swansea Bay side, near the entrance to the Civic Centre, hangs a blue plaque to Ann Julia Hatton.  It is located on the west side of what was originally West Glamorgan County Hall, near where once stood the Bathing House, which Ann Hatton leased from the Corporation in 1799: this catered for gentry when sea bathing was fashionable as beneficial to health, even for those already unwell.  Before the copper smelting industry expanded in the lower Swansea Valley, the town had aspirations to be “The Brighton of Wales”.  The Bathing House was a House of Assembly on the Burrows half-a-mile from the town, providing rooms for dining and accommodation, and storing bathing machines to be wheeled onto the beach for gentry and guests to bathe shielded from public view.     

Born in Worcester in 1764, Ann Hatton was one of 12 children of the actor Roger Kemble, who had formed a company of strolling players.  Her eldest sister married a member of the company, and became famous in London as the actress Sarah Siddons.  But Ann’s life did not flow smoothly, for lameness hindered any career on the stage, and her first marriage when aged 19 turned out to be bigamous.  Amid scandal she was deserted, and left to spiral downward as an artist’s model in a notorious London house, to appeal for poor relief as the sister of Mrs Siddons in a newspaper advertisement, and even to attempt suicide in Westminster Abbey.  Yet from such a desperate situation she managed to turn her life around.

When twenty-eight she married widower William Hatton, and they sailed to New York the following year.  Ann Hatton wrote a libretto “Tammany: The Indian Chief” which was tremendously popular, being given its première on Broadway in 1794.  This was the first known libretto by a woman, and the first written in the USA on an American theme. 

Yet by 1799 the Hattons had returned to Britain, and settled at Swansea, where for a few years they leased the Bathing House from the Corporation at a rent of £34-4s-0d. 

After William Hatton died in 1806, Ann moved to Kidwelly, where notwithstanding her lameness she ran a dancing school for three years before returning to Swansea.  She wrote poems, short stories and novels under the pen name “Ann of Swansea”, living in turn in College Street, Orchard Street and Park Street, and supported by an annuity from her sister Sarah Siddons, allegedly on the condition that she lived 150 miles from London, so as not to embarrass the family after the scandals of her early life.

Ann Hatton’s fourteen novels, each of several volumes, are verbose and of dubious quality – “Cambrian Pictures” came out in three volumes, with “Chronicles of an Illustrious House” in five.  Her experience of times of poverty and having mixed precariously with various classes gave her a particular insight into social conditions.  In 1810 her play “Zaffine or the Knight of the Bloody Cross” was staged in Swansea, with Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean.

Her best-known poem contains the lines:

The restless waves that lave the shore   Joining the tide’s tumultuous roar,

In hollow murmurs seem to say –   Peace is not found at Swansea Bay.

Regarding the quality of her poetry, Dylan Thomas said she managed to keep her verses “on a nice drab level of mediocrity”: he would have felt volumes entitled “Poetic Trifles” were aptly named. 

Yet Swansea Corporation appreciated her sufficiently to commission William Watkeys to paint her portrait in 1834 when she was 71: this painting is in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, and Swansea Museum has two other portraits of her. 

Ann Hatton died aged 74, and was buried in St John’s churchyard (now St Matthew’s) in High Street. 

The blue plaque is a reminder of not only Swansea’s aspirations to cater for genteel society in the eighteenth century, but of this adaptable, indomitable woman.      

Thomas Rothwell’s view of the Bathing House 1791



  1. Hi Gary, I read your article about Ann Julia Hatton with a great deal of interest as I have composed a choral work based on Ann's poem Swansea Bay. I am currently the music director for the Phoenix Choir of Wales and we will be performing the work at the Cornwall International Male Choral Festival in April. The poem was adapted at my request by Phil Jackson who was a schools' English Adviser in Swansea some years ago. The music was originally composed for Morriston Ladies' Choir but I recently reworked it for my male voice choir so that we can premier it at Cornwall. If you are interested in hearing the work, the Phoenix Choir rehearse every Wednesday at Penlan Methodist Church from 7:00 to 9:30. Thanks once again for such an interesting article.

  2. Hi Gary. I am doing some research into Ann (I am a descendant of Frances Kemble one of her sisters) and find the twists and turns of her life so interesting. I am really interested in how the sisters could have taken such very different turns in life and whether there was any contact between them later in life. Reading your comments about the basis of Sarah's stipend it seems unlikely! I would be really interested to hear from you if you were able to recommend any places to look for information on the Kemble sisters. My email is vathebarn@gmail.com Thank you for your time. Best wishes Vicky Kemble Argyle

  3. 'Cambrian Pictures' - Ann's first novel - has now been republished in the Welsh Women's Classics series by Honno Press: https://www.honno.co.uk/cambrian-pictures/ It includes an accessible introduction by Elizabeth Edwards.