Ham House (Ham, nr London): a Civil War ham sandwich – whipping boys, extravagance and booksales‏

There is a cherry garden at Ham that is filled with the most delicious lavender balls.  The cherries are long gone but the gardener here deserves a 1st prize on an annual basis.

This is the National Trust house that I’ve visited the most.  I would dearly delight in living in Ham itself, a village with a green.  Ham Fair is a bargain hunter’s dream (I actually once paid more for something than someone was asking because I didn’t think it right to just pay £1 to a rather rich lady who had never used the said item, just received it as a gift and had no need for it so was selling her “cast offs” to raise money for charity).  If you are only going to Ham House once, time it to coincide with a trip to Ham Fair.

Reason to visit: to see a good example of a 17th century house with royal connections and largely untouched since the reign of Charles II.  It is a unique survivor offering a glimpse into the intimate life of Charles II’s Court as all the royal buildings he occupied have since been altered/destroyed.

Amazing how the brain can compartmentalise a house into certain categories.  When I think back to Ham I think of:

  • the rare survival of the formal 17th century garden (now restored);
  • the leather walls in the ground floor dining room;
  • the double-height galleried hall, which is rather crude – the original 1st floor space would have been the dining room where Charles I would have dined;
  • the small green closet; and
  • the many busts that decorate the exterior, a hangover from the 16th century fashion of adorning a house with Roman or Green inspired reliefs.

What I remember most is that of all the houses I’ve visited so far in England, few (if any) fall into the same category as Ham.

Tredegar House was special because it was it is a different kind of house to the usual one that I visit.  It is a restoration house, but with a lot of Victoriana and a dash of the 1930s thrown in.  Belton House in Northamptonshire is also different to the usual interior insofar as it is clearly a restoration house.

Ham is a sandwich of a house: a house straddling either side of the Civil War and a house which literally sandwiches the rooms constructed pre-Civil War to those added after the Restoration:the rooms at the front of the property and the long gallery date from a 1630s remodel by Charles I’s former whipping boy and the rear rooms date back to the latter part of the 16th century, post-Restoration.

Originally built by a courtier of James I (yes, he who commissioned The Queen’s House and was the son of the owner of Temple Newsam) in the 1610s as a single-depth E-shaped design, it continued as the home to important courtiers during the reign of Charles I and Charles II.  It was remodelled by Charles I’s courtier and ‘whipping boy’ William Murray in the 1630s (he added the impressive wooden staircase and marble reliefs of Mars & Minerva in the entrance hall – possibly mean to represent Murray an his wife – and completed much of the decoration that remains in the green closet, the long gallery, the drawing room and on the ceiling of the once dining room.

The hole in the floor of the dining room was cut in the 1690 by William’s daughter, Elizabeth Murray, who together with her husband(s) charmed anyone who was anyone (including Cromwell during the Civil War), added the suite of the rooms at the back of the house in anticipation of her second marriage.

She spared no expense (going as far as to add a cypher into the parquet flooring),moving the marital bedrooms and dining room (if only those leather-clad walls could speak) to the ground floor and creating a Royal Suite upstairs in rooms which were added and squared the original design.  She also added the busts to the facade.  This brought both Ham’s interior decoration and garden design into line with current court fashion.

Elizabeth ultimately spent all her money and had to sell off her husband’s vast library to fund herself in her latter years.

What is a whipping boy?

 How many times have you heard someone calling someone else their ‘whipping boy’?  Depending on the kind of company you keep, perhaps more or less than I have.

The saying relates to the small boy within a childhood kings-to-be’s circle who would take the royal schoolboy’s punishments when his misbehaved.

What do you make of Ham House?

The house and its stewards are trying hard in a very South-West London type of way.

There is a very good café, a garden half-given over to wilderness (for a bit of naughty fun), dotted with huts in which to hide from the sun, a vegetable garden, shop, introductory video and lawned garden.

In the kitchen there was even some real food.

See here for a full history of the house and its inhabitants, to which I’ll return on a future visit to Ham.  See also these posts on the National Trust’s own blog about Ham House.

When visited: August 2012

House * out of 5: ***

Garden * out of 5: ***

Theme tune: Sisters are Doing it for Themselves (for Elizabeth Murray who certainly didn’t bow down to her husbands)

Website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house/

5 thoughts on “Ham House (Ham, nr London): a Civil War ham sandwich – whipping boys, extravagance and booksales‏

  1. Thank you, it’s a fabulous house. I last visited Ham in about 1986 and, aside from many unique gems the house holds, the strongest memory I have of Ham is the huge wide elm and oak floorboards upstairs.

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