“In the afternoon we went to Ham House — a most curious visit. No half-inhabited château of a ruined family in Normandy was ever half so dilapidated as this home of the enormously rich Tollemaches. Like a French château too is the entrance through a gateway to a desolate yard with old trees and a sundial, and a donkey feeding. All the members of the family whom I knew were absent, but I sent in my card to Mr. Algernon Tollemache, who received us. As the door at the head of the entrance-stair opened, its handle went through a priceless Sir Joshua of Louisa, Countess of Dysart: it always does go through it. We were taken through a half-ruined hall and a bedroom to an inner room in which Mr. Algernon Tollemache (unable to move from illness) was sitting. It presented the most unusual contrasts imaginable — a velvet bed in a recess backed by the most exquisite embroidery on Chinese silk; an uncarpeted floor of rough boards; a glorious Lely portrait of the Duchess of Lauderdale; a deal board by way of washing-stand, with a coarse white jug and basin upon it; a splendid mirror framed in massive silver on a hideous rough deal scullery table without a cover; and all Mr. Tollemache’s most extraordinarily huge boots and shoes ranged round the room by way of ornament.
“The vast house is like a caravansary; in one apartment lives young Lord Dysart, the real owner; in another his Roman Catholic mother, Lady Huntingtower, and her two Protestant daughters; in a third, his great-aunt, Lady Laura Grattan; in a fourth, his uncle, Mr. Frederick Tollemache, who manages the property; in a fifth, Mr. and Mrs. Algernon Tollemache, who made a great fortune in Australia.
“We were sent over the house. All was of the same character—a glorious staircase with splendid carving in deep relief; the dismal chapel in which the different members of the family, amongst them Lady Ailesbury and Lady Sudeley, have been married, with the prayer-book of Charles I, in a most wonderful cover of metallic embroidery; marvellous old rooms with lovely delicate silk hangings of exquisitely beautiful tints, though mouldering in rags; old Persian carpets of priceless designs worn to shreds; priceless Japanese screens perishing; beautiful pictures dropping to pieces for want of varnish; silver grates, tongs, and bellows; magnificent silver tables; black chandeliers which look like ebony and are solid silver; a library full of Caxtons, the finest collection in the world except two; a china closet with piles of old Chelsea, undusted and untouched for years; a lovely little room full of miniatures, of which the most beautiful of all was brought down for us to examine closer. ‘Do you see that mark?’ said Mr. Tollemache. ‘Thirty years ago a spot appeared there upon the miniature, so I opened the case and wetted my finger and rubbed it: I did not know paint came off(!). Wasn’t it fortunate I did not wipe my wet hand down over the whole picture: it would all have come off!’
“And the inhabitants of this palace, which looks like that of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, have wealth which is inexhaustible, though they have scarcely any servants, no carriage, only bread and cheese for luncheon, and never repair or restore anything.
“All the family have had their peculiarities. The late Lord Huntingtower was at one time separated from his wife, and when he was persuaded that he ought in common justice to allow her to return to Ham, he assented, but he draped the gates and portico with black cloth for her reception, and he put a band of black cloth round the left leg of every animal on the estate, the cows in the field, the horses in the stable, even the dogs and the cats. His grandfather, Lord Huntingtower, was more extraordinary still. When he bought a very nice estate with a house near Buckminster, he bought all the contents of the house at the same time. There was a very good collection of pictures, but ‘What do I want with pictures? All that rubbish shall be burnt,’ he said. ‘But, my lord, they are very good pictures.’ ‘Well, bring them all down here and make a very great fire, and I will see them burnt.’ And he did.
“There is a ghost at Ham. The old butler there had a little girl, and the Ladies Tollemache kindly asked her to come on a visit: she was then six years old. In the small hours of the morning, when dawn was making things clear, the child, waking up, saw a little old woman scratching with her fingers against the wall close to the fireplace. She was not at all frightened at first, but sat up to look at her. The noise she made in doing this caused the old woman to look round, and she came to the foot of the bed, and grasping the rail with her hands, stared at the child long and fixedly. So horrible was her stare, that the child was terrified, and screamed and hid her face under the clothes. People who were in the passage ran in, and the child told what she had seen. The wall was examined where she had seen the figure scratching, and concealed in it were found papers which proved that in that room Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, had murdered her husband to marry the Duke of Lauderdale.”
from The Story of My Life by Augustus Hare, 1900