The Ghosts of Lamb House

Whenever I visit Rye, which these days is often, my spirits rise and I am transported back in time. This ancient town has been special to me for many years and I was collecting vintage Rye Pottery long before I first visited there ( Ref my article Simple Pleasures – Rye Pottery )

However, since moving to the area, I have come to appreciate the amazing atmosphere of this historic town. There is the medieval charm of Mermaid Street and the Mermaid Inn, the 12th century St. Mary’s Church at the top of Rye with its amazing view of the surrounding area from its tower, the elegant Georgian Town Hall, Rye Castle Museum and the Ypres Tower and, last but not least, Lamb House.

The town has long been home to a long line of artists, poets and novelists, but probably its most famous and distinguished inhabitant must be the American writer Henry James, who lived at Lamb House from 1897 until 1914.

The tale I am about to relate includes, of course, Henry James, but it is also about much more, it is the story of Lamb House, the numerous people who have lived there and the ghosts that permeate the house, the inhabitants and the books written there.

Unlike large portions of Rye, Lamb House is a relative newcomer in the town being built by James Lamb in 1722, who was a wine merchant and local politician. A notable incident in the early days was when King George I was driven ashore onto Camber sands in a storm in 1725 and had to stay at Lamb House. James Lamb gave up his bed to the King, even though his wife Martha was pregnant at the time and maybe because of the excitement of having Royalty in the house, she actually gave birth to a boy the same night, she named him George of course.

There is no doubt much to be written about the Lamb family in Rye, but the house’s main claim to fame today didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of Henry James, followed by a number of other fascinating literary and distinguished figures.

The Front Entrance to Lamb House
The Rear of Lamb House from the Garden

In 1897, James was reaching the height of his powers and was feted throughout America and Europe. He was a dedicated Anglophile and had a number of friends in Rye and on one of his previous visits he had been very taken with Lamb House and was delighted when the opportunity arose in 1897 to lease the house.

Over the next few years, James wrote many of his greatest novels in Lamb House, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, both in the Green Room, and during the summer months, in the Garden Room, which he loved, but which was sadly destroyed in an air raid, during the Second World War.

The Ruins of the Garden Room destroyed by a German bombe in 1940 ©National Trust / Charles Thomas
Photograph of the the Garden Room in happier times taken in the early 20th century with a figure on the steps, possibly Henry James himself

In its heyday, Lamb House became a Mecca for artists visiting the the great man, from Virginia Wolf, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Josef Conrad, John Singer Sargent, Arnold Bennett, the list is endless. What it would have been to be a fly on the wall and listen in to these great minds?

It is was during this period that James acquired his nickname “The Master” and the regal portrait below by that other master of portraiture John Singer Sargent, shows James relishing in his reputation as ‘The Great Man of Letters’.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (National Portrait Gallery)

However, as we are dealing with ghosts and the supernatural, I am returning to 1897, when Henry James wrote his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, one of the most disturbing stories ever written in this genre. James wrote this in London, as he was waiting for some alterations to be carried out in Lamb House, and it was serialised in 12 parts in Colliers Weekly, a popular Magazine of the time.

The story concerns a Governess who is caring for two children on a remote estate called Bly and becomes convinced that the children are in communication with the malign ghosts of two previous inhabitants of the house. Without giving anything away, the tension is ratcheted up very slowly, hence the title ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and much is left to the reader’s imagination. The story is full of ambiguity and one is left wondering who is really haunted, the children or the Governess.

First page of the 12-part serialisation of
The Turn of the Screw in Colliers Weekly

Having recently read the story, I can see how it caught the imagination of so many people, having been filmed many times and even being made into an opera by none other than Benjamin Britten. The horror/ghost story was by no means unique in the writing of James, who wrote many ghost stories throughout his life, but this is his masterpiece; it is indeed a classic of the genre.

The seeds for the story came from an unusual source, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Edward White Benson, who just happened to be the father of E.F. Benson, himself a good friend of James, who would himself later move into Lamb House in 1918, after the death of Henry James and who plays a large part in the history of the House.

Edward White Benson, despite his Christian Faith, was a strong believer in the supernatural and ghostly phenomenon and when he was at Cambridge University, he and a friend formed “The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry” , also known as the Cambridge Ghost Society by the students. Benson’s interest in all things ghostly was passed on to his children, as we shall come to hear.

And it is to Benson’s son, Edward Frederick Benson, better known as E.F.or Fred Benson, who next takes centre stage as the custodian of Lamb House for over 20 years until his death in 1940. Benson was in awe of Henry James and was himself a well regarded author, who later became famous for his satirical and comic “Mapp and Lucia” novels set in the fictional town of Tilling and featuring a house called Mallards, both unmistakably, Rye and Lamb House.

I have not read the novels, but saw the brilliant BBC adaptation from 2014 filmed in Rye and Lamb House, starring the wonderful Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson. It was gloriously camp, bitchy and funny and it apparently satirised real characters in Rye, it is a wonder that Benson wasn’t sued for defamation of character.

Anna Chancellor as Lucia, Steve Pemberton as Georgie and Miranda Richardson as Mapp (copyright BBC)

I was lucky to catch part of the filming for Mapp and Lucia in 2013, where Market Street, in front of Town Hall, had been transformed into a bustling 1920s street, and it was easy to imagine what Rye would have been like a hundred years ago.

E.F. Benson was also a prolific writer of ghost stories and wrote dozens of them, many of them set in Rye. What is perhaps more surprising is that both of his brothers A.C.Benson and R.H. Benson, who were also published novelists, were enthusiastic writers of ghost stories. It seems as if the whole family were obsessed, or should I say were possessed with the supernatural.

But the ghosts in Lamb House did not stay confined to the page and the house itself seemed to have had its own ghostly visitors. Of course, this is hardly surprising, as an ancient town like Rye has its fair share of ghosts with the 14th century Mermaid Inn, just round the corner from Lamb House, having the reputation as being one of the most haunted hotels in the Country.

This particular ghost appeared one hot summer’s day in Lamb House, when Benson and the local vicar were sitting in the garden, which was recounted by Benson in his autobiography, written in 1940, where they saw:

…the figure of a man walk past this open doorway. He was dressed in black and he wore a cape the right wing of which, as he passed, he threw across his chest, over his left shoulder. His head was turned away and I did not see his face. The glimpse I got of him was very short, for two steps took him past the open doorway … Simultaneously the Vicar jumped out of his chair, exclaiming: “Who on earth was that?” It was only a step to the open door, and there, beyond, the garden lay, basking in sun and empty of any human presence. He told me what he had seen: it was exactly what I had seen, except that our visitor had worn hose, which I had not noticed.

This appears to be the only sighting recorded of this ghostly figure, during Benson’s time at the house, although later tenants were also convinced of a ghostly presence. The Bensons were an extraordinary and talented family, with the spectre of bipolar disorder always a constant presence in their lives, and they deserve a story all to themselves.

Is this the doorway where the ghost appeared?

The literary presence in Lamb House continued when another writer moved there in 1967. Rumer Godden is a name perhaps not so familiar with many people and I freely admit that she was unknown to me prior to researching this article. She was however a prolific author and during her career she wrote over 60 books for both children and adults, many featuring her earlier life in Bangladesh, Calcutta and Kashmir. She also, surprise surprise, wrote a number of ghost stories; it appears to have been an obligatory part of living in Lamb House. She certainly felt, at times, that there was a ghostly presence around, when she was alone in the house.

If Rumer Godden is unfamiliar, then one of her most famous novels “Black Narcissus” is probably not, as it became a cult film in 1947, starring Deborah Kerr and directed by Powell and Pressburger the two doyens of the British Film industry at the time. This film, a psychological drama about a group of Anglican Nuns in the Himalayas, was full of repressed sexuality and emotions and was groundbreaking in its treatment of female sexual desire.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947)

By the time Rumer Godden moved into Lamb House in 1968, as a tenant, Lamb House had been owned and run by the National Trust since 1950, when it was bequested to the Trust by a relative of James. They continued to rent out the top floor of the house until 2018, when the last tenant left and it is only now that the house can be enjoyed in its entirety.

By coincidence, I have recently learnt that St Leonard’s A Town Explores a Book Festival has chosen for its 2022 book ‘The Diddakoi’, a novel for young adults about the Romany Community, which won the 1972 Whitbread Prize for Godden. So it appears that this long forgotten author is on the verge of a long overdue renaissance.

To bring together all the myths surrounding ghostly visitations in Lamb House, it was left to another one time resident of Rye, Joan Aiken, who published ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ in 1991, mixing truth and fiction over the life of Lamb House and spanning nearly three centuries.

Joan Aiken, the daughter of American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Conrad Aitken, was born just around the corner in Mermaid Street. Her novel was divided into three parts, the first set during the time of the original Lamb family, then moving on to the Henry James era and finally in the third part to the time of Fred Benson, all different stories but all linked by a ghostly visitation, mixing fact and fantasy to great effect.

The Cover of ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ by Joan Aiken 1991, now sadly out of print

Other Tenants of note at Lamb House were the MP and writer H. Montgomery Hyde, who lived here between 1963 and 1967, and who was best known for his tireless campaigning in respect of Homosexual reform and Brian Batsford, an artist, publisher, designer and politician, who became best known for his illustrations, in particular his brightly coloured posters and for the cover to the travel guide ‘The Villages of England’.

And what of Lamb House today? I can state, from personal experience, that it is thriving in the excellent hands of the National Trust. Now that it no longer has tenants, the upstairs has been opened up to visitors and a complete restoration of the rooms has taken place to reflect the glory days when Henry James held court to a constant stream of literary visitors.

There is not much trace of the other writers that spent so much productive time here, but I am sure that they would not mind, after all, they all acknowledged that Henry James was ‘The Master’.

The Garden is a wonderful space and is reputed to be the largest garden on Rye. Although, James confessed that he was no gardener, he employed a close friend Alfred Parsons to design the layout and planting and in time he took great delight in the garden. The Trust admits that the garden is still a work in progress and the aim is to restore the garden to its original design as envisaged by Parsons.

But what of the ghosts? On the warm spring day that we visited, there wasn’t much of a ghostly feel, at least not of the clanking chains and wailing variety. However, I did feel the spirit of the place. My belief is that certain buildings and places carry the residue of the people who have lived and passed through there. That is why great churches and cathedrals give off a certain aura.

Lamb House is certainly in that category and, although I am sceptical about the physical manifestations of the dead, I am convinced that Lamb House is permeated by all of the great writers and artists who have passed through its doors, and in that respect, it truly is a haunted house.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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