Ham and Petersham began as ancient villages along the river Thames, between the larger settlements of Shene (now Richmond) and Kingston. The manor of Petersham was granted in the 7th century to the Abbey of St Peter in Chertsey and a church has stood here since Saxon times. Part of the 13th century chancel of St Peter’s Church 13th survive, now enlarged many times in the following centuries. The village was recorded as Piterichesham in the 1086 Domesday Book, which may mean homestead of Patricius or Patrick. Ham is not mentioned, but may derive its name from the literal meaning of a meadowland in a river bend or Hamms.
In 1637 King Charles I created a vast royal deer park called New Park (now Richmond Park). Much private and common land in the area was enclosed to form this park. At this time the leasehold of the royal manors of Ham and Petersham were granted to William Murray 1st Earl of Dysart. The Earl was a childhood friend and later adviser to the King and had resided at Ham House since 1626.
Ham House was originally built in 1610 for Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshall to James I. Then a H-shaped mansion with a formally laid out garden. The Earl’s daughter, the beautiful and ambitious Elizabeth Countess of Dysart married Sir Lionel Tollemache in 1647 and it is from this union that the subsequent Earls of Dysart of Ham House are descended. Following her second marriage to the Earl of Lauderdale (later Duke) in 1672 the country house was enlarged and remodelled in the latest classical style by William Bruce and William Samwell.
Ham House was presented by Earl Dysart to the National Trust in 1948 and much land subsequently sold off. The avenues came into the ownership of the London Borough of Richmond shortly in 1952; by this time many of the trees were in an advanced state of decay. In 1975 a large private donation enabled the restoration of the gardens back to the more formal 17th century style.
17th & 18th Centuries
The 17th and 18th centuries were a golden age for Ham and Petersham, as they were elevated to the status of a fashionable rural retreat for the rich, aristocratic and influential.
In the 18th century Horace Worpole was a frequent visit to the area, Catherine Hyde Duchess of Queensbury patronised the playwright John Gay who first rehearsed his Beggar’s Opera at Douglas House, and the maritime explorer Captain George Vancouver is said to have written his famous Voyage of Discovery at Glen Cottage on River Lane. Ham House and estate has strongly influenced the historic development and plan form of both Ham and Petersham. This location and idyllic riverside setting has resulted in the development of a remarkable number of urbane mansions within these once rural villages, in this period.
The earliest surviving work is at Rutland Lodge (left) as the road bends at River Lane, the main access point for waterborne traffic. Other 17thcentury houses are Petersham House and Montrose House
18th century houses include Gort House, the Manor House, Elm Lodge and Harrrington Lodge. The 19th century brought Petersham Lodge, Myrtle Cottage and Vine Cottage. Small cottages were built during all this time, though some were demolished or linked up to form larger properties. In 1649 there were only 21 houses; by 1801, 60 were listed. A number of titled families continued to live locally; it is reported that seven duchesses could be seen at a service in the Church. Yet the great houses do not tell the whole story; servants, gardeners and craftspeople would also have lived here. A casualty was the Sudbrook, once known as the ‘common sewer’, which ran close to the main road, and then parallel to River Lane. It was crossed by a ford at the junction with Sudbrook Lane; it now runs underground, like the Fleet River in London
Large expanses of parkland and river meadows acted to constrain the growth of the settlements of Ham and Petersham, preserving their distinctive rural character well into the 20th century. Development occurred only gradually through the 19th century. Unlike Richmond, the railways never reached these villages and they did not experience a rapid expansion during the Victorian period.
The 20th century brought a handful of small housing estates, some houses built in the grounds of the larger properties, and development by Richmond Council of a few roads as part of their plan to reduce their housing list. All the remaining land and properties owned by the Dysart family, Lords of the Manor since 1637, were sold. The shops in Sudbrook Lane, River Lane, Sandpits and Petersham Road have long gone, as has garage and Post Office.
View from Richmond Hill
In 1902 the Richmond Petersham and Ham Open Spaces Act was passed by Parliament to safeguard the open land and so preserve the famous view from Richmond Hill.
SeconD World War
During the Second World War Petersham was home to the Anti-Aircraft Command School. The Vicarage (now the Old Vicarage), All Saints Church, the Village Institute, and Elm Lodge were all requisitioned. Huts were erected in the Vicarage garden.
This secret institution concentrated on operational research. The scientists recruited to make the calculations sought to analyse the data collected on past enemy action in order to estimate where future attacks were likely. At the centre of their work was the radar set which was linked to anti-aircraft guns.
The School was also known as ‘the wireless school’ or ‘the radio location school’. Shells with time fuses could be aimed to the height at which enemy aircraft had been detected by radio. All Saints Church, which had not been consecrated, could be used as a cover for testing the elevation finding attachments of the guns.
This is a summary of an article in Richmond History 28 by Michael Lee copyright owner. Copies of the Journal are available from Houbens and Open Book at Richmond, price £4.95, or from Len Chave.