Life at Lamport

Posted 13th June 2021

This month Laura Malpas offers some historial insights and a preview of what to expect
as the historic home of the Isham family opens it’s doors and gardens to the public again.

It’s so wonderful to see our world opening up again and I am enjoying revisiting some of Northamptonshire’s historic houses and gardens. This month sees Lamport Hall opening the house and gardens for the summer, I was lucky to have a sneak peak and it’s going to be a treat!

John Isham c1560

Lamport was settled well before the Domesday book was written nearly a thousand years ago. In Elizabethan times, a prosperous merchant from a local family had his eye on the location as the perfect place in which to establish his dynasty. John Isham who built Lamport Hall could claim a true Northamptonshire pedigree. His family originally came from the nearby village of Isham, which took its name from the river Ise, a tributary of the Nene. The family had flourished and grown, as John was one of twenty siblings!  Together with his brother Robert, he purchased the manor and the patronage of the parish church in 1560. He began to build his mansion in 1568, and the estate prospered for well over 400 years.

The Cabinet Room

John Isham was an ambitious merchant adventurer in the highly profitable wool trade. His star rose and by 1581 he was the High Sheriff of Northamptonshire. Thirty years later his grandson, named after him, also became High Sheriff, knighted by King James and created a baronet by King Charles I. Sir John became the first member of the family to join the aristocracy. However, being a Royalist in the 17th century was a dangerous choice. Sir John lent much of his fortune to support the King’s lost cause, and the rest was heavily taxed and fined by Cromwell’s Parliament. He died ten years before the Restoration of Charles II and Sir John’s son Justinian also had to contend with Cromwell. However, the family’s loyalty was rewarded with Royal favour after the restoration of Charles II.

The Library

Justinian’s eldest son and heir Thomas had a marvellous teenage life, spending more time on the Grand Tour of Europe than he ever did at Lamport. His many purchases of art and handsome furnishings still enrich the Hall today. But sadly, his life was cut short. He contracted smallpox and died the day before he was due to marry an heiress. This left his younger brother Justinian to inherit not just the estate but all the debts incurred by his older brother. Careful management and hard work did the job. Justinian left the estate in good order to his heir and subsequent generations looked after Lamport Hall, adding the usual architectural features seen in grand houses of their era. 

One of the most interesting characters to own Lamport Hall was Sir Charles Isham, a true Victorian eccentric. Known for his many quirks, questionable poetry, spiritualism and unusually for the time, his vegetarianism, but his most enduring claim to fame was his love for the garden gnomes he introduced into England. Travelling in Germany, Sir Charles was introduced to the ceramic figurines of dwarfs, embodying the spirits of the helpful little spirits who inhabited North European folk tales of rural life. Sir Charles loved the idea of these gnomes, bringing back twenty one figurines to decorate a specially constructed rockery in his grand classical gardens. Unimpressed, his daughters disposed of them. But fortunately for lovers of these much-mocked garden ornaments, they overlooked a single gnome who stayed hidden in the rockery for many years. He is now named “Lampy’, treasured, and is one of the most valuable garden gnomes in the world. 

After the death of Sir Charles, the estate and the title passed to a distant cousin, who preferred to remain living in his own home and to let the Hall out, beginning a sad decline. During the 20th Century it was used as a shooting box, a country club, a British and Czech Army base, as a camp for Italian prisoners of war, and eventually as a home for the Northamptonshire Records Office. 

The walled garden

In 1941, the estate passed to the dashing Sir Giles Isham, then a serving soldier in the Western Desert of Libya. Before the Second World War, Sir Giles had been a leading light at Oxford University, and a star of the Silver Screen, known for Anna Karenina, The House of the Spaniard, and Under Secret Orders. But after his discharge, he returned home to Lamport Hall, dismayed to see the same Italians he had been fighting in the Western Desert were now occupying his ancestral home. He devoted the rest of his life to its restoration, opening to the public in 1974, and establishing the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust in 1976. 

‘Lampy’, the garden gnome

Looking after the Hall is an ongoing labour of love for the Trust and its glories are now better maintained than in the last century. Lamport Hall now opens for the benefit of the public, rather than for one wealthy family. To travel through the great rooms of the house is to see the accumulation of over 450 years of history, and its collection of fine arts and furniture tells the story of a Northamptonshire family’s rise to wealth and consequence and its gentle evolution into greater equality. It’s a fascinating journey.

And the gardens are a joy. Ancient trees and manicured ‘natural’ landscapes surround the Hall, full of light and colour. The Trust provides many opportunities for the public to visit and enjoy an imaginative programme of events. On my visit, glamorous private ‘igloos’ were erected ready for weatherproof al fresco feasting and concerts, shopping opportunities, tours, talks and theatre are all in the pipeline for 2021. 

However, I love to wander through the ancient hall and gardens in my own private world, feeling the whispers of the past tell me their stories. There will be something here for you to enjoy also. Find out what it might be on their website and make a visit to Lamport Hall part of your Northamptonshire summer 2021. 

> For more information, please visit: