England's Haunted Ham House: The Complete Guide

Ham House
••• Haunted Ham House. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

There's something about the way Ham House looms darkly over visitors that can turn the most rational person just a little bit uneasy. Looked at from a certain angle, even under sunny blue skies, and you might just accept all the ghost stories associated with this 17th-century manor as the gospel truth.

In his book, The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, author Peter Ackroyd suggests that there are more reports of ghosts and hauntings, and more ghost stories altogether, in England than anywhere else in the world.

And Ham House, sitting on a gloomy, somewhat swampy corner of the Thames, upriver from Richmond Hill, is among the most haunted in the country. Ghosts have been startling visitors there since the 19th century.

According to the National Trust, who now own and look after Ham House, "cold spots, the sound of footsteps, inexplicable scents of roses and glimpses of mysterious characters" are typical surprises in England's most complete and original 17th-century manor house. Overnight ghost watchers, the Trust reports, think at least 15 different ghosts float around the place — even the ghost of a dog.

A History of Hauntings

Here are just a few of the spookiest reported ghost sightings:

  • The Duchess on the Stairs: Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale ( who some think may have murdered her first husband to marry the Duke) walked with a cane in her later years. There are many reports of the tapping of her cane on the upper floor and in particular on the grand staircase at Ham House.
  • The Lady in the Mirror: The Duchess, who seems to enjoy causing a stir, has also been known to loom up menacingly behind visitors who look into the mirror in her bedchamber.
  • The Secrets in the Wall: This is one of many undocumented legends that float around this house but it is spooky anyway. The butler (which butler? when?) had a six-year-old daughter who complained that an old hag was entering her room at night and scaring her by scratching on the wall. Eventually, the wall was investigated and documents were found behind a panel that proved the Duchess had murdered her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache — mere baronet — in order to marry John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale. Maybe.
  • The Suicidal Lover: In 1790, a servant named John MacFarlane fell in love with a kitchen maid. She spurned his advances and he threw himself to his death from an upstairs window. They say he scratched his name on a window pane before jumping (but we can't report we've seen it or him). He's been seen prowling around the terrace ever since.
  • The Happy Countess: Charlotte Walpole, Countess of Dysart, was a contented resident of Ham House. Some say she can be seen waving happily at visitors from her upstairs chamber. Seeing her is supposed to be a good omen. But not everyone shared her opinion of the house. Her uncle, Horace Walpole, who lived just up the road in his fantasy Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill, visited in Ham in 1770 and said, "At every step one’s spirits sink."

A Right Royal Ghost or A Shade of the King

It's reported that Charles II, who was a frequent visitor in his lifetime, still haunts Ham House. It all goes back to a family connection and the owners Royalist sympathies during and after the English Civil War. 

Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale (she who haunts the stairs and the bedroom mirror), inherited the house from her father, William Murray, later the Earl of Dysart. He had been Charles I's boyhood friend and as a schoolmate, he served as the young prince's "whipping boy." (Yes there really was someone who took physical punishment in the place of the heir to the throne).

They remained friends and in 1626 the King gave him the lease for Ham House.

The Murray family, along with Elizabeth's two husbands, were avowed Royalists who somehow managed to hold onto their estates during the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I.   

During the rule of Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, they were members of a secret society, known as the Sealed Knot, which supported King Charles II in exile. When he was restored to the throne he awarded the Duchess an annual pension for her loyalty. Many people believe they have seen Charles II's ghost in the gardens or smelled his pipe tobacco in the hall.

Inhuman Ghosts and Manifestations.

Family fortunes — or lack of them as the case may be — meant that the descendants of the Murrays, Dysarts and Launderdales could not afford to change much over the years.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 1948 so much of the original fabric was left, so many examples of 17th-century lifestyle and fashion remained that the house is now considered the best example of the period in Europe.

The Trust decided to conserve and protect Ham House's 400-year-old treasures rather than repair and replace them. To do that, they keep the house relatively dark. And if you visit on an overcast day, the atmosphere is eerily dismal. So it's easy to imagine all kinds of spooks and spirits gathering in the dark corners, to imagine the eyes of the portraits — which are everywhere — staring out at you from their stern faces.

Besides ghosts of former inhabitants, ghostly pets, pieces of furniture, even the dust creates ghostly manifestations. Mysterious footprints regularly appear in the dust on the staircase and upstairs floors when no one has been aboutAnd a woman in black kneels by the altar in the chapel where the 1st Duke of Lauderdale was laid out for a week. Her handprints have been spotted in the dust on the Duchess's pew!

Then there's Ham's resident pet. If you hear scrabbling, scratching and sliding overhead while you are exploring rooms on the ground floor, it's probably the Duchess's pet King Charles Spaniel. The breed was a favorite of King Charles II and was named for him. If you were a human favorite of the King (as the Duchess of Lauderdale was) you might get a puppy yourself. The ghostly dog has been heard sliding and scrabbling on the polished wood floors followed by the pitter-patter of his little feet scampering down the grand staircase.

A popular story told by guides to the house relates how a visitor complained that she was not allowed to bring her dog into Ham House when clearly there was a little dog running around in the upstairs rooms. In fact, she said, she had seen it.

Another ghost is a completely inanimate object: a wheelchair is said to move about and change position (when no one is looking of course) all by itself. You can actually see this wheelchair, kept in one of the servants' rooms at the top of the house. 

How to Visit Ham House

Ham House is easy to reach by public transportation from Central London and can be visited throughout the year, though winter and early spring openings are limited:

  • Where: Ham House, Ham, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 7RS
  • When: The house is now open to visitors every day, except Christmas and Boxing Day, from noon to 4 p.m.
  • Admission: Standard adult admission in 2017 is £10.80. Child, family and group tickets are available.
  • How to Get There: Richmond Station is easy to reach on the District Line of the London Underground from stops in Central London. The house is 1.5 miles by footpath along the Thames or two miles by road. From Richmond Station, take the #371 or the #65 bus. Get off at Ham Street and ask the driver for directions to the entrance. The walk is about 3/4 of a mile. By car: Ham House is on the south bank of the River Thames, west of the A307, between Richmond and Kingston. Setting a GPS to the Ham House post code will deliver you to stables on Ham Street. Continue past them to free parking in the riverside car park. If you use the car park be careful not to park in the row of spaces closest to the river. At high tide, that part of the parking lot regularly floods.

Ghostly Tours of Ham House

The National Trust knows when it's onto something good — with so many reports of ghosts at Ham House it's a no-brainer to host ghost hunting tours there. The tours change annually, but in 2017 they are offering spook hunting family oriented Terrible Terror Tours... in the dark! The tours run from 5 to 6 p.m. October 23 to 27. During the tours, guides relate the history of Ham House and some of the ghostly doings there. Ghostly visitors, including past owners and their pets just might make an appearance. In 2017, the Terrible Terror Tours cost £10 per person with children receiving a special goody bag. They can be booked online.

Other Tours

Daily visitors to Ham House can take advantage of a range of special interest tours free with the price of admission. Architecture tours of the exterior of the property are available daily as are Garden History tours. Kitchen Garden tours are offered on Wednesdays. Most tours are run midday to early afternoon. Check at reception for times and meeting places for the tour you are interested in when you arrive.