With some fifteen ghosts in residence, Ham House is one of the most haunted historic houses in England. Eager to meet at least one of them, I visited in winter, when the phantoms are less likely to be disturbed by the hordes of tourists.

I bravely entered the H shaped Stuart mansion by the main front door, on the North side. The initials over the door frame proclaim the first owners, Thomas and Mary Vavasour, and their loyalty to the king (Vivat Rex). It is said that unusually cold spots and unexpected drafts are an indication of mysterious presence, but the house is so steeped in darkness and chilliness that the spirits could be everywhere.

Positioned conveniently on the banks of the river Thames in Richmond, some ten miles from Central London, in the 17th century it took only an hour by boat to Windsor, Whitehall and Hampton Court – an important consideration and possibly the main reason for choosing this location.

A Stuart Time Capsule

Close to the Thames in the centre of all rich and verdant beauty… you think of yourself an hundred miles off and an hundred years back.’ (Horace Walpole)

The front door leads directly into the Great Hall – a grand but austere room, with an elegant black and white marble floor, a large and over-ornate chimney and a small chapel to the side. Leading to the open round gallery above is an impressive staircase, the balustrade carved with trophies of arms, probably similar to the real ones that would have been displayed in the Great Hall.

William Murray, who had the lease of Ham House for most of the 17th century, employed the services of an international interior designer, Franz Cleyn. Although the profession was not yet recognised at the time, Cleyn has already impressed King James I and was appointed director of the tapestry factory at nearby Mortlake. He advised on the interior decoration at Ham House, especially the choice of tapestries and overdoor pictures in the drawing room, as well as the ceiling paintings in the Green Closet, featuring nymphs, cupids and putti.

At Ham House I stepped for the first time into a Volury Room; the name may have been taken from the birdcages that flanked the bay windows (from the French voliere – ‘aviary’) or from the overdoor paintings of birds by wildlife illustrator Francis Barlow. It is next to the Marble Room – a dining room with no marble. The black and white marble floor that we can still see in the Great Hall was replaced by parquet sometime in the 18th century. Around the same time, the Flemish brightly coloured leather wall-hangings were replaced by stamped and gilt leather; decorative leather wall coverings were fashionable in the 17th century, a fashion imported from Spain, possibly via Spanish Netherlands.

The Lady of the House

If shee gets the reignes in her own hands, away shee will runn with it” (Sir Lionel Tollemache)

Behind every stately home there was a strong woman, and at Ham House she was Elisabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and later Countess and Duchess of Lauderdale. Her father, William, may or may not have been Charles I’s whipping boy (a boy who would receive corporal punishment instead of the prince – a tradition no longer practiced) but he was educated alongside the prince and their childhood friendship endured. The king gifted Ham House to William Murray in 1626. After the death of her father William and his wife Katherine, the management of Ham House passed to his eldest daughter Elisabeth. A formidable woman, Elisabeth managed to maintain good relations with both the exiled king and with Oliver Cromwell, during a tricky political era. She had married Sir Lionel Tollemache in 1648 and bore him eleven children. Tollemache died in 1669 and soon after (or before?) she became the mistress of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale.

Maitlands’ wife died too, allowing the two lovers to marry in 1672. The Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale made a handsome and politically powerful couple. Some speculated about the suspiciously close deaths of the couple’s respective spouses. There were suggestions of witchcraft, as well as adultery and murder. How else was she able to keep Ham House through the Civil Wars and the Interregnum period? She was rumoured to have been friendly with both Cromwell and the king – as a spy or double agent, or just ruthlessly hedging her bets.

After King Charles was restored to power, Elisabeth and Maitland settled into their life of luxury at Ham House. They enjoyed travel, and brought decoration ideas, furniture and china from their journeys abroad. No expense was spared in extending and decorating the house. The Long Gallery was enriched with pictures of the king and queen in gilt frames; the cedarwood panelled library reflected the taste and the erudition of the Duke, who was an avid reader of books on art, architecture and science. “His learning was considerable, for he not only understood Latin, but Greek and Hebrew”. (Bishop Burnet)

The Lauderdales loved to entertain ministers, ambassadors and royalty, to show off their house and to expand and strengthen their social connections.

Below stairs

The house was run by an army of servants: butlers and cooks, laundrymaids and dairymaids, grooms, footmen and coachmen, gardeners. Most of their working life was spent in the basement and they slept in garrets in the attic, icy cold in winter, stifling hot in summer. The kitchen is still in the same place, with the original 1610 elm table in the middle of it. The beer cellar is next to it - there was a lot of beer needed at a time when water was unsafe to drink, with beer an inexpensive alternative to wine. The stillroom was used by the Duchess to manufacture essential oils and medication to treat her gout.

According to the Ghost Club, the Duchess still walks through the house, and so does a young man who jumped to his death because of unrequited love, and sometimes the Duchess’ King Charles spaniel. But none of them appeared on the chilly day I visited.