Haunted historic houses

Five of the best houses in and around London with a spooky history
Ham House, near Richmond, Surrey
© NTPL / John Hammond
The ghost of the Duchess of Lauderdale, a highly ambitious 17th century aristocrat, is believed to roam Ham House, near Richmond

The ghostly Duchess at Ham House, Surrey

Set on the banks of the River Thames, Ham House, near Richmond, is said to be one of the National Trust’s most prolifically haunted houses. Once home to the tenacious and strong-willed Duchess of Lauderdale, a highly ambitious aristocrat, it is her ghost which is believed to roam the house to this day.

After ignoring outraged public opinion about the unseemly haste of her match to the first Earl of Lauderdale, whom she married after the convenient death of both her husband and the Earl’s wife, they set about living at Ham in luxurious style.

But when the Earl fell out of Royal favour and died in 1682, he left the Duchess increasingly hard-up; forced to sell many of her prized possessions she ended her days at Ham, writing ‘I am a prisoner now in my beloved Ham House, and I will never leave’.

The ground-floor room to which she retreated, the Duchess’s bedchamber now has a strangely oppressive atmosphere; the room emits sounds of footsteps and wafts of the Duchess’s favourite rose scent, while her looking glass with its slightly clouded appearance is often home to the reflection of a malevolent looking figure. So powerful is the atmosphere in this room that some of the staff take the precaution of murmuring ‘Good afternoon, your ladyship’ before entering.

* www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hamhouse | 020 8940 1950 | open until 31 October, 12pm – 4pm, closed Thursdays and Fridays

© National Trust
Sir Winston Churchill's home, Chartwell in Kent, where many visitors have reported a whiff of cigar smoke

Churchill’s ghostly tale at Chartwell, Kent

Few family homes can have such a powerful sense of the personality who has lived there, as Chartwell, the home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1924 until the end of his life. The rooms remain very much as he left them, with pictures, books, maps and mementoes evoking the career and interests of the great statesman.

Many people, understandably, have hoped to pick up a continuing presence of the former Prime Minister. Indeed, many visitors have reported the occasional whiff of cigar smoke emanating from the rooms as they tour the building. But in fact, the most fascinating ghost story associated with Chartwell, comes from Churchill himself.

In an article entitled ‘The Dream’, Sir Winston gives a moving account of how his father appeared to him as he was painting in his studio; he had been copying a portrait of his father when suddenly he became aware of an odd sensation and there, sitting in his red leather upright armchair, was his father, just as Winston remembered him in his prime.

Churchill goes on to describe their subsequent conversation, in which he attempts to convey to his startled father all that has happened in the years since his death including two World Wars, political upheavals and family gossip. The tale ends with Randolph expressing his disappointment that his son ‘didn’t go into politics’ where he ‘might have done a lot to help’, perhaps even making a ‘name’ for himself. With that, Randolph takes a match to light his cigarette, strikes it and then vanishes.

* www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chartwell | 01732 866368 | open until 31 October, 11am – 5pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

© NTPL / Matthew Antrobus
Queen Victoria's favourite prime minister Disreali has been glimpsed by visitors to his home from 1848, Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire

Dizzying apparitions at Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire

Most spirits can be difficult to identify, but there is no mistaking the distinctively dandyish appearance of Benjamin Disraeli. The statesmen, novelist and wit was elevated to the peerage by Queen Victoria as Earl of Beaconsfield, and he remained her favourite prime minister throughout her life.

Disraeli acquired Hughenden Manor in 1848 and lived there until his death in 1881. ‘Dizzy’ and his wife Mary Anne adored Hughenden, constantly making improvements to convert a reasonably modest Georgian manor into a colourful and comfortable mid-Victorian house at the heart of a grand estate.

There have been a number of accounts of strange experiences at Hughenden. One of the small rooms upstairs, when closed up at the end of the day, tends to exude a mysterious ‘old-fashioned perfume’, for no obvious reason. One member of staff had the unnerving experience of seeing the figure of Disraeli in the corner of his office, which used to be the Smoking Room in the premier’s time. As the member of staff re-entered his office he was shocked to see the dandyish figure dressed in black, with a walking stick, standing half-turned towards him, next to the filing cabinet.

On numerous occasions Dizzy has been glimpsed by visitors near the portrait at the foot of stairs. People assume he is an actor in costume, or one of the house staff impersonating the former premier, only to realise the figure has dissolved.

* www.nationatrust.org.uk/hughendenmanor | 01494 755565 | open until 31 October, 11am – 5pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

The George Inn
© NTPL / Andrew Salter
Members of staff have seen a misty female form at the George Inn in Southwark

The crusading ghost at the George Inn, London

Sir Osbert Sitwell’s claim that ‘ghosts went out when electricity came in’ is contradicted by the strange behaviour of the distrustful female ghost still believed to be in residence at the George Inn in Southwark, close to London Bridge. The George is the last galleried inn to survive in London. Shakespeare is said to have acted in the courtyard of the old hostelry, and Charles Dickens wrote of it as a busy and popular coaching inn in Little Dorrit.

The George Inn’s ghost is believed to be that of either Amelia Murray or her daughter, Agnes. Amelia arrived in 1878 and together they ran the inn for more than fifty years. Both were formidable women with a growing dislike of the modern world and the trappings of progress - no bathroom was installed until after Agnes’s death in 1934. The expansion of the railways ruined the trade of many old coaching inns and the George itself was under threat, with three of the four galleries demolished before a public outcry succeeded in saving what remained. Perhaps, as a result Ms Murray remains a passionate vendetta against the trappings of modernity - electricity supplies, labour-saving gadgets and especially computers.

A previous landlord commented wearily on how any new-fangled device acquired for the George inevitably went wrong for no perceptible reason as soon as it was plugged in. A number of members of staff living on the premises have been awakened over the years to the sight of a misty female form in their room. Perhaps Amelia or Agnes is still keeping a baleful eye on the running of ‘her’ establishment.

* www.nationaltrust.org.uk/georgeinn | 020 7407 2056 | open all year, closed Sundays

Sutton House
© NTPL / Rupert Truman
Objects like candles have been seen flying across rooms unaided at Sutton House in Hackney

A house divided by ghosts: Sutton House, London

This Tudor building in the centre of Hackney in East London appears to have a lively night-life. At night, dogs have been heard wailing inside Sutton House. These are thought to be the dogs of John Machell, a wealthy wool merchant and Master of the Clothworkers company who lived in Sutton House from 1550 to 1558. The dogs can be seen in the coat of arms found in the fireplace in the Little Chamber.

While Sutton House was being restored in the early 1990s, an architectural student living in the house reported waking up one night in the room that is now the exhibition room and seeing a lady, dressed in blue, hovering above his bed. It is thought this could be the ghost of Mary Tooke, who died there in 1750.

A séance was held at the house by local spiritualists; they claimed to find many spirits in residence, most of them benevolent, except for two known as Tim and George, between whom there appeared to be a great deal of bad feeling. By coincidence a local historian, Mike Gray, had been examining public records relating to the house, and only a few days before the séance (but before he had time to tell anyone of his findings) he had discovered that in 1752 - when Sutton House was divided into two parts - one half was rented to a Timothy Ravenhill, and the other to a George Garrett. Timothy and George were both silk weavers and Huguenots, French Protestants, a number of whom have lived at Sutton House through the ages. According to the spiritualists, Tim and George were an unhappy pair, prone to bickering and arguments, and each may have regarded the other as ‘the neighbour from hell’.

Perhaps reports by staff and volunteers of occasional poltergeist-type activity at the house, such as sudden drops in temperature, the doors of cabinets opening of their own accord, or objects like candles and notice boards flying across rooms unaided, are a manifestation of the long-standing enmity between the pair.

* www.nationaltrust.org.uk/suttonhouse | 020 8986 2264 | open until 19 December, 12.30 - 4.30pm, closed Mondays-Wednesdays

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