Ham House, Richmond, Surrey
by Toby Farmiloe
Visitors to this website may agree that, when faced with a multitude of options, choosing which historical attraction to visit can be a seriously difficult task.
The information available about Ham House didn’t make it immediately stand out as a “MUST SEE” place to visit… until, that is, on the ‘Overview’ page for the property on the National Trust’s website, the words: “The house is reputed to be one of the most haunted in Britain” caught my eye. Never being one to turn down an opportunity to scare myself silly, I rushed to the house without further delay.
Ham House is an out-of-the-way treasure, positioned at a safe distance from the commotion of modern London in the green and villagey countryside about three miles from Richmond, Surrey.
It has always been a place of escape, a grand oasis of rural peace to retreat to from the tumult of the city along the River Thames nearby. Built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, King James I’s Knight Marshall, in 1626 the house was leased to the first Earl of Dysart, William Murray, a close childhood friend of King Charles I and groom in the king’s bedchamber.
Through extensive renovations, its successive owners used the riverside villa to show off just how rich, influential and indulgent in the latest fashions they were. Here courtiers and monarchs alike came not only to relax and preen their extravagant feathers, but also to continue the political intrigues of the day.
The first sight many visitors have of Ham is of the North Front, an imposing and symmetrical expanse of two wings built of dark brown brick which extend out from a central entrance. It remains distinctly seventeenth century in style. Stone busts stand in ovular niches above the ground floor windows – portraits of Roman emperors and of Kings Charles I and II – and above the door an oath inscribed into the stone further displays the loyalties of Ham’s past owners for posterity. “Vivat Rex”, it says, or “Long Live the King”.
The overall impression much of Ham House gives is of exquisite antique treasures preserved in a succession of dimly-lit wood-panelled galleries, chambers and private closets. The past lingers between the walls like an ever-present spirit and even if you visit in daylight, it’s easy to imagine the unnerving atmosphere that would prevail on a dark winter’s night when the rain lashes against the windows and no one’s around.
The Great Hall
Through the North Front entrance, you enter the Great Hall, with its sweeping black and white marble floor, the classical balustrade along the balcony near the ceiling and its full-length portraits of previous occupants lining the walls. Statues of Mars and Minerva on either side of the chimney piece, said to represent the Earl and Countess of Dysart, welcome and watch over visitors.
The nearby stairs are a great piece of wooden theatre, built as part of Murray’s refurbishment of Ham in 1638-1639. Carved cannons, swords and helmets mix together in the design up the grand balustrade, a boast of Murray’s social status as part of the processional route to the apartments on the upper floors. Today, they creak under the feet of visitors and ghosts alike. The colourful painting of fighting ships from the Battle of Lepanto at the bottom of the staircase adds further spectacle to this central feature of the house.
The Long Gallery
On the first floor the Long Gallery, dark with wood panelling and gilt-edged with a golden frieze design, is lined with paintings in baroque frames of kings, queens and distinguished individuals from previous centuries, including of King Charles I and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria. Here the powerful trod, dined and plotted.
Wander further and you’ll pass through rooms such as the Green Closet, in which the finely painted miniatures and oil paintings from Murray’s collection crowd the green walls and evoke the spirit of Charles I’s art-loving court, the North Drawing Room, with its hanging tapestries depicting the months of the year through farming activities in fabrics of red, green and brown, and a set of grandly furnished bedrooms, dining rooms, apartments and closets.
The Green Closet
Life at Ham for its first thirty years was comfortable and prosperous enough. But when the Civil War broke out in 1642 – that cataclysm of King versus Parliament which tore the country apart – any hopes of continuing stability were dashed. Murray, a staunch royalist, left Ham to fight for the king while his wife Catherine, aided by the eldest of their five daughters Elizabeth, remained at Ham to prevent Parliament’s forces from seizing it. After the war, when the victorious Parliament had imposed their new repressive “Protectorate” regime on the country, it fell to Elizabeth – whose parents had died and who was now married to Sir Lionel Tollemache – to protect her family home.
Elizabeth was an active member of the Sealed Knot, a covert organisation operating to restore the Stuart monarchy to England. In the candlelit secrecy of her Private Closet here at Ham, she penned coded letters to King Charles II in exile in France and arranged for their delivery. Ruthlessly ambitious and determined to secure influence regardless of who was in power, she developed good relations with important figures loyal to the Protectorate, including Oliver Cromwell himself, who visited Ham regularly during the 1650s. Which side did her loyalties really lie? We may never know.
Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart
When he was restored to the throne in 1660, Charles II rewarded Elizabeth with a pension for life. Sir Lionel had died but she now inherited her father’s title as the Countess of Dysart and the Ham estate. Her stock went up further when in 1672 she married John Maitland, the Duke of Lauderdale. The Duke was one of the most influential men in the court of King Charles II, “never far from the king’s ear nor council”. He was a difficult man, rigidly authoritarian, but extremely learned. He spent much of his time in the suite comprising the Library at Ham, the Library Closet next door and the Duke’s Closet on the floor below, working on his ambitious plans to improve the house (which he implemented between 1672 and 1674) and amassing one of the most impressive collections of books in seventeenth century Britain. Many of his original tomes were sold off after he died, but today leather-bound volumes and a few of his originals still stand on the multiple cedarwood shelves lining the Duke’s favourite rooms.
Here the Dysarts lived out the rest of their days, an autocratic and demanding couple with an opulent lifestyle. After the old Duke died in 1682, Elizabeth remained at Ham, a widow and a recluse, ultimately falling on hard times and being forced to mortgage the house, sell off books from the Library, pawn her precious jewellery and make a number of distressing sacrifices to pay the sizeable debts she and the Duke had incurred in making their home beautiful.
It’s not all baroque luxury, however, for descend again to the lower floors, and you’ll find yourself among the narrower corridors and the cool stone rooms of the servants’ quarters, where you can see and smell examples of the ingredients cooks and kitchen-hands of centuries past used to make the lavish repasts enjoyed by Ham’s distinguished residents and guests. You can even see the world’s oldest surviving bathroom, which Elizabeth installed at a time when grooming was an infrequent and ill-understood practice.
The renowned nineteenth century landscape painter John Constable wrote of Ham that “It seems as if its inmates of a century and a half back were still in existence and that on opening the doors some of them would appear.” I came half expecting to see those “inmates” as dark wraiths gliding silently from one closet to another, smell the ghoulish pipe tobacco that the Duke smoked after meals in the dining room and hear the screams of the nobleman who killed himself after falling in love with and then being rejected by a Ham House servant girl. Maybe Elizabeth Dysart herself, a figure in black visitors have claimed to see, watched me silently through the crimson curtains of her lavish four poster bed.
In visiting Ham I know I came close to stepping out of my own time and returning to the distant, smoky and wood-panelled world of Stuart England where Charles I and then his son Charles II are on the throne and things are far from certain.
It was as good as seeing a real ghost. Well, almost …
Ham House, Ham St, Richmond-upon-Thames TW10 7RS
By Toby Farmiloe. Toby Farmiloe may physically live in London, but his heart and spirit reside firmly in the countryside and, more often than not, in a past century. Born and bred in East Sussex, he has always loved history.
All photographs of Ham House by Toby Farmiloe