The number of people who asked me if there was “ham” at Ham House was borderline shocking. I’ve discovered the true depth of love my friends have for bacon.
During my visit to Strawberry Hill House, one of the guides recommended I venture down the river to Richmond. From there, it is a lovely walk down the Thames Path to Ham House, a remarkable survivor built in 1610. The house was destined for William Murray, the 1st Earl of Dysart and a whipping boy for Charles I. Being a whipping boy was, in my book, the equivalent to drawing the short stick in life… kings could not be physically punished so if the king misbehaved, the “whipping boy” was whipped in his place. Despite all that, the two boys grew up to be friends and Charles gave Ham House to William as a present in 1626.
William was not to live there long however as Civil War broke out in 1642 and he was called away to rally for the Royalists. He transferred ownership of the house over to his wife and four daughters. The house was sequestered during the war, but Catherine managed to hold onto it by paying a fine of £500. She also shrewdly navigated Cromwell’s Commonwealth, despite having the lands officially sold off by Parliament, and the family was allowed to stay in the house. Upon her death shortly after the execution of Charles I, her daughter Elizabeth and her husband Lionel took ownership of the house. Elizabeth had 11 children – but only 5 lived to adulthood. During Elizabeth’s second marriage to powerful Duke of Lauderdale, they extensively refurbished the house, collecting items from all over the world. Unlike many historic houses, Ham House is still filled with furnishings either of the day, or those that reflect the style of the times. She built one of the first proper bathrooms in England – at time when regular bathing was only just becoming advised…
Her daughter, also named Elizabeth, eventually took over the house but her husband’s debts would diminish both her and future generations’ ability to expand and care for the house. It stayed in the family for nearly 300 years, but was rarely a principle residence for them, before being passed onto the National Trust in the 1940s.
It has since served as the set for quite a few movies (including The Young Victoria and Anna Karinina) and there is an interesting room at the end of the tour which explains how important the film industry is for such houses. The fees the film companies pay to use the houses are often indispensable for their care and upkeep. (Just ask the owners of Highclere Castle & the Downton Abbey crew…)
I personally came out of my visit to Ham House very grateful that I wasn’t around in the 1700s. The house was an interesting mix of quite dark and very overdecorated. But that also made it fascinating – a step back into the past.
Things to watch out for when you visit: the Green Room filled with miniatures (ask the guardian for the stories behind some of them), the library (not the original collection, but an amazing one none-the-less) an early English bathroom, the tiny rooms where the Duchess spent most of her time and the wood-paneled room where food was assembled once it was brought up from the kitchens.
The house is only open from 12-16:00 but spend the rest of the time wandering around the lovely Richmond area. More details here.