Ham and Highgate

LAUDERDALE IS A NAME, which until a few days ago I used to associate solely with Highgate in north London. Lauderdale House sits on Highgate Hill close to Waterlow Park. What you see of it today is a highly restored 18th century building that dates to 1760. Prior to that date, a finer looking timber framed house built in 1582 stood on the site. Built for the goldsmith Richard Martin (died 1617), who was Mayor of London in 1589, it was one of the finest country houses in Highgate. The present version, although acceptable aesthetically, is unremarkable. In 1645, the house became the property of John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale (1616-1682), a Scot.

Originally a supporter of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, he later became a supporter of King Charles II in 1660 soon before his restoration to the throne. During the reign of Charles II, Lauderdale held several of the highest offices in the land including Secretary of State and Lord High Commissioner. He was also involved in the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa (founded 1663), which dealt much in slaves and gold.  

Lauderdale was first married to Lady Anne Home (1612-1671), a Scottish aristocrat. A year after Anne died, Lauderdale married Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart (1626-1698), who had been an active and important supporter of Charles II during and after his exile. Evelyn Pritchard in her book “Ham House and its owners through five centuries 1610-2006” reports that it was rumoured that she had been having an affair with Lauderdale while she was still married to her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache (1624-1669). Lauderdale’s second marriage brings us across London from Highgate to the River Thames at Ham near Richmond.

Elizabeth Murray was the first born of the four daughters of William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart (c 1600-1655) and his wife Catharine (née Bruce). Being the eldest, Elizabeth inherited her father’s title and the home he owned at Ham, Ham House.  Her father, William, acquired Ham House in 1626. During the Civil War, Elizabeth Dysart maintained good relations with both Oliver Cromwell and the exiled King Charles II and thus preserved her ownership of Ham House, where she and Tollemache produced eleven children.

The house that William took over had been built between 1608 and 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour (1560-1620), a naval captain who had fought the Spanish at sea in the late 16th century. He had been awarded his knighthood at sea in 1597. The basic structure of Ham House, an ‘H plan’ typical of the Jacobean style, has survived although over the years newer parts have been added to it particularly at the rear. Seen from the front, Ham House has retained its original attractive Jacobean appearance. The rear of the house (the south facing garden side) has lost two of the original arms of the ‘H’ because the space between them was filled with an extension created by the Lauderdales in the 1670s. Thus, the north (front) façade is Jacobean, the southern one is in the later baroque style with sash windows, which make it look much newer than it is actually.

Because of the restrictions caused by the covid19 pandemic we were only allowed to view the ground floor rooms. However, this was sufficient to see what a splendidly decorated and furnished place the Lauderdales created. Every room we saw from the grand Great Hall and the fine carved wooden staircase to the smallest closets is a wonder to behold. A couple of rooms had beautiful ceilings with paintings, one by the German Franz Cleyn (c1582-1658) born in Rostock (Germany) and died in London, and another by the Italian Antonio Verrio (c1636-1707), born in Lecce (Italy) and died at Hampton Court.

Ham House has wonderful gardens, which we explored briefly before walking back to Richmond via the water meadows that flank the Thames. For me, the highlight of the grounds of Ham House was the geometrically perfect, formal garden to the east of the house. This was originally ‘the Cherry Garden’ where cherries are known to have been grown in 1653, when it was leased to one Samuel Purnell. The National Trust website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden/features/the-garden-at-ham-house) informs us that:

“… the garden re-creates what historically ‘might have been’, following work in the 1970s to reinstate 17th century character previously lost.”

A statue of Bacchus, the only original piece of garden sculpture to have survived at Ham, stands in the heart of this perfectly manicured example of man’s influence on nature.

The National Trust received Ham House from Sir Lyonel Tollemache (born 1931) and his son Cecil Lyonel Newcomen Tollemache in 1948. The 9th Earl of Dysart (1859-1935), a descendant of William Murray, inherited Ham House in 1884 but died childless in 1935. The Dysart title passed on to his niece Wynefrede (1889-1973) whilst Ham House was passed on to his second cousin Sir Lyonel.

We left Ham House, thoroughly intrigued, and satisfied by what we had seen and hope to return a few more times. From now on, when the name ‘Lauderdale, springs to mind, I will not automatically think of my old ‘stomping ground’, Highgate, but also Ham will spring to mind. There is a local north London newspaper “The Ham and High” that covers what happens in Hampstead and neighbouring Highgate. Now. that paper’s name has assumed a new meaning for me having learned of Lauderdale’s connection with both Ham and HIGHgate.

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