Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Ham House

Shortly after Eel Pie Island the right hand bank opens up to give an excellent view of Ham House. This is one of the best preserved Stuart houses in Britain, and like many other houses I have passed by along the Thames Pathway it has its own history of people, ambitions and political intrigue. Ham House probably has more than most, and played a key role in the many plots that led to the restoration of the monarchy in the form of King Charles II.

Ham House was built in 1610 for Sir Thomas Vasavour who was Knight Marshall to James I. After Vasavour’s death in 1620 the house was purchased by the Earl of Holdernesse, before becoming the home of William Murray in 1626. The young William had an interesting start in life. He was the “whipping boy” for the future Charles I. And took all the punishments and beatings incurred during the young prince’s boyhood. Despite, (or maybe because of), all of this one-sided discipline, the two boys formed a strong bond and shared many interests.

During the 1630’s Murray extensively developed the interior of the house, adding the Great Staircase and Hall Gallery. The coming of the Civil War saw Murray side with his boyhood chum, and he became a staunch Royalist. As a reward for a lifetime of loyalty he was created 1st Earl of Dysart. He passed away in 1655 and then the real fun began.

The estate and the titles passed to the eldest daughter, Elizabeth. She was described as ambitious, scheming and greedy, and these were the nicer things said about her. Elizabeth was a master of political shenanigans and intrigue. In 1648 she had married Sir Lionel Tollemache, and by the time he died in 1669 she had produced eleven children. Lady Dysart spent much of her time plotting and wheeler-dealing on behalf of the exiled King, and is reputed to have been a leading activist for “The Sealed Knot”. Ham House was allegedly used as a centre for all of this activity to restore the monarchy.

Even before the death of her husband, Elizabeth was making advances to the very ambitious John Maitland, Ist Duke of Lauderdale and Secretary of State for Scotland. They married in 1672 and set about making Ham House into the palatial home that the scheming Elizabeth felt she deserved. No extravagance was spared and much of the lavish decoration can still be seen today.

The Duke died in 1682, and Lady Lauderdale continued to rule the house until her own death in 1698. It is said that Lady Lauderdale is still there, continuing her plotting and scheming as she haunts the old house.

Ham House then passed to her oldest son by her first marriage, Lionel Tollemache, 3rd Earl of Dysart. The house passed through several generations of the Tollemache family, until in 1948 Sir Lyonel Tollemache gave the house to The National Trust, who has owned it to the present day.

The gardens are well worth a visit, particularly the Cherry Garden, with its statue of Bacchus as a centre feature. The trees are also a home to a large flock of green parakeets. I thought this was a wind-up when I first heard about it, but this area of West London is full of green parakeets. There are literally thousands of them sitting in the trees. Where they originally came from is the subject of much urban myth. One popular theory is that a container was stolen from Heathrow and when the thieves realized what they had got hold of they just let them go. Another is that they escaped from a bird fancier and naturally bred over many years. Whatever the reason the local environment absolutely suits them to a “T” and since the 1990s the population has boomed.

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