Pix & quotes: Ham House

ham-houseI visited Ham House in 2013. I think it was a Saturday and the place was crowded. It’s well worth a visit any day of the week. Crowds don’t really matter, since you just flow through the rooms and it’s too dark for good pix inside anyway, mostly. The gardens are pleasant and hardly anybody wanders into them.

It’s right on the river Thames near the village of Ham, which is south of Richmond. I took the tube to the Richmond Train Station and walked along the Thames path, about a mile and a half and very pleasant. Big tour buses go there all the time. You could probably get on one of those from Victoria Station or a big hotel.

The cafe isn’t one of the best, but they have the basics — tea and cake, which you’ve earned if you walked the footpath!

A general overview

Robert Beddard calls this “the courtier’s house par excellence” (ref below.) The builder’s motto is carved on the door: Vivat rex! (Long live the king!)

The house was built in 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I. After Vavasour’s death in 1620, the house was granted to John Ramsay, 1st Earl of Holderness until his death in 1626.

In 1626, the house was leased to William Murray, a close friend of Charles I. William and his wife staircase-ham-houseCatherine lived there until 1641, doing lots of interior decorating. They’re the ones who added the great staircase. They were clever enough to put the house in Catherine’s name and in trust for their four daughters, which prevented it from being “sequestered” (confiscated and held for ransom) by the parliamentarians during the Civil War.

The parliamentarians sold off much of the Manors of Ham and Petersham, including Ham House. This attractive parcel was bought in 1650 for £1,131.18s by Murray’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth and her husband Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Baronet of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk.

Elizabeth bore 11 children (!!), five of whom survived to adulthood. She held the titles to these manors, not her husband. She must have been quite the Somebody.

Elizabeth and Lionel’s eldest son, Lionel, became 3rd Earl of Dysart on his mother’s death and inherited Ham House and the adjoining estates. By dint of heroic childbirthing (many children delivered, few survivors), the Tollemache women managed to maintain a male line. All told, there were nine Earls of Dysart.

hinges ham houseThe 8th one preferred to live in London and let the old place go to seed, even while still full of extraordinary treasures. Even the hinges are works of art in this house!

The 9th one, William John Manners Tollemache, took over in 1899 and spruced the place up again. He had electricity and central heating installed. He had no children, so the earldom passed to a niece, Wynefrede, and the house went to a cousin, Lyonell, then age 80. I would love to write stories about Earl Wynefrede! Alas, that’s not how it works. She just passes it on.

Lyonell lived in the house with his son Cecil, but they had trouble getting servants during the war. A nearby aircraft factory put the house at risk. Contents were moved to the country for safety, while the family papers were moved to Chancery Lane. They survived the Blitz, but were damaged by water from fire hoses. Dark days.

In 1948, good Sir Lyonell and his son donated the house and its grounds to the National Trust. Battered by the rise and fall of its owners’ fortunes through the centuries, it remains a splendid example of a seventeenth century courtier’s showplace.

Beddard says, “to study the fabric and furnishings of the house as a seventeenth-century document is to trace the transformation of royal and aristocratic ideas of polite living.” I wish I’d read his article before visiting the house.

Bacon’s time

ham house tableI visit these places to imagine how they were in my characters’ times. I love the ones that were built during Francis Bacon’s lifetime and still inhabited in Professor and Mrs. Moriarty’s. I merrily skip over all the earls in between.

The original house was built in the shape of an H, one room deep across the middle. They relied on daylight in those days, although interiors were still candlelit at the end of the 17th century, when the current Earl & Countess added a room across the midsection, achieving the near-rectangle that we see today.

Bacon was 49 when Ham House was built by Sir Thomas Vavasour. It’s impossible that they didn’t know each other; the world they lived in was not that large. Thomas’s elder sister Anne Vavasour was the notorious mistress of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Under Elizabeth, Thomas was a member of Parliament and fought in the Netherlands. James made him a Knight Marshal of the Household for life, but he sold the position for L3,000 a few years before his death in 1620. Maybe he spent some of that money on this delightful table.


View of the Thames from Richmond Park

The Knight Marshal of the Household is responsible for maintaining the good order of the court, which must have been a ticklish job with a sister like Anne in a court like James’s. Scandal city! But today I’m writing about a house, so I won’t go there.

Anyway, according to Beddard, Sir Thomas “had judicial cognisance of any transgressions that occurred with the king’s presence or verge of the court… a twelve-mile radius from the royal palace.” (That’s whichever palace the king was in.) Sir Thomas’s duties required him to be within call to take offenders into custody and to make arrangements for their detention. Way down river was “within call” in those days.

Sir Thomas would have commuted to work on the river. He would have had a comfortable barge of his own with boatmen wearing his livery and a covered area where he could review documents coming and going.Chilly on winter morning, but Sir Thomas would have had a fur-lined cloak and braziers.

Bacon might well have attended social functions at Ham House, traveling via the Thames from Yorkham house House on the Strand, his principal residence from 1616 to 1622, or his little lodge at Twickenham, a mere splish-splash away. The house in that day was much simpler than the grandly furnished place we see today. No ornately carved staircase, no clever service passage down the middle where apparently priests could hide. They were out of booklets the day I went and Beddard doesn’t mention any such thing. Still, the National Trust likes to put these cardboard cut-outs around everywhere these days and it does make a fun photograph.


Moriarty’s time

In 1886, Ham House belonged to that 8th Earl of Dysart who preferred London, Lionel William John Tollemache. He’s the one who let the place go, becoming “increasingly reclusive and eccentric.” Not the kind of guy who would host glittering parties filled with actresses and their allegedly master criminal husbands, then. Ah, well.

ham houseWikipedia tells us that Lionel’s brothers managed the estates of Ham and Petersham, but not who lived in the house. Somebody must have, if only to keep the place from being ransacked. In 2013 I was looking at stately homes with an eye toward having my characters break into them. (Burglars, but honest ones.) That’s where this photo of the basement window comes in. None of the sources about these houses ever tell you when those iron bars were put on. Without them, slipping an agile boy into the servants’ hall around three a.m. would be easy-peasy!

And now I’m out of narrative, but I have two more photos and a map, so I’m just going to plunk them on in. 

The first is the sculpture in the front garden, titled Father Thames, carved by sculptor John Bacon (1740-1799.) Well, now, isn’t that a curious coincidence! There is artistry in the Bacon line (not Francis the philosopher’s line – he had no children.) Step-brother Nicholas had a son named Nathaniel who was a good painter.

ham house father thames

Next is a view of the gardens from an upstairs window. Since my characters skulk around eavesdropping and evading people, I always make sure to check what’s outside the windows. Who can see me? What do I see? These gardens are apparently much as they were in the late seventeenth century. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans valued symmetry in design, but I can’t think Bacon would have approved of this monotony. He advocated plantings with something special to appeal to the eye in each season.

ham house



Beddard, Robert. 2013. “Ham House,” History Today. Vol. 45, Issue 1. (This article is well worth reading for its own sake.)

National Trust website, “Ham House.” (The NT’s website seems to have been specifically redesigned to prevent people from learning anything about their properties except What’s On! in the next month — on for children, not history-lovers. Uselss!! I include the link in case you want to visit the actual house.)

Wikipedia page, “Ham House”

ham house


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