Sasha Handley and the Ghosts of Ham House


Current Research: Sasha Handley

Dr Sasha Handley is joining us as one of our new Lecturers in Early Modern History from this September. It is great to welcome her back (Sasha had been in Manchester previously as Teaching Fellow and Simon Research Fellow), and a great opportunity to learn about her exciting research and activities, such as her involvement with the Out of Hours event at the National Trust’s Ham House in Richmond.

Out of Hours was held on 19 August and brought together artists, musicians, poets, academics and performers of all kinds with an interest in Ham House and in the concept of time. Out of Hours was organised by a group known as the Garden of Reason Young Curators, a project supported by the Arts Council of England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames. The project will put on a season of contemporary art in the unique grounds of Ham House and to explore the social, political and historical context of the house since it was built in 1610.

At her talk in Out of Hours Sasha explored the theme of time in the Age of Reason: the period that historians associate with the European enlightenments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that marked the golden age of Ham House. She spoke about the vitality of ghost beliefs in these years to show how the idea of ghosts was able to navigate its way through a period that placed heavy emphasis on the guiding light of human reason and rationality. Ghost beliefs may on the surface have appeared ‘irrational’ but reports of their appearance persisted for a number of important reasons. Ghosts were strongly tied to the teachings of the Church and clergymen were some of the most prominent supporters of their existence and value. Many ghosts returned to help the living by warning sinners to repent before it was too late and to lead good Christian lives. More importantly, ghosts offered dramatic evidence of the soul’s immortality and of the existence of life after death. This was, and remains, one of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith, but it was a principle that was attacked by radical religious groups and by some materialist philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, who challenged the authority of the Church of England and dismissed ghosts as fancies of the imagination or as vain superstitions of the ignorant and uneducated. Not all natural philosophers however were opposed to the idea of ghosts. Many of the earliest natural philosophers and fellows of the Royal Society like Joseph Glanvill and Henry More robustly defended their existence. They investigated reports of their appearance and tested the reliability of witnesses according to their social status, learning and piety. They questioned the rationale for the ghost’s appearance and the motives of those who claimed to have seen it to discount episodes of fraud. Many of these philosophers were men of God, who viewed ghosts as unrivalled evidence of the soul’s immortality.

Ghosts thus served very useful purposes on the public stage during these years of crisis. Reports of their appearance were nonetheless closely tied to the emotional lives, values and preoccupations of everyday life in the early modern period. Ghosts were believed to be the returning souls of restless spirits who were unable to rest because of sins that they had committed whilst alive. They were also thought to return to reveal secrets and crimes that had not yet been discovered. Ham’s most notorious ghost provides an excellent example of this. The ghost of Elizabeth Dysart, later Duchess of Lauderdale has been reported to haunt Ham since her death in 1698. Elizabeth spent most of her life at Ham reports of her ghost keep alive suspicions that she poisoned her first husband, Lionel Tollemarche, so that she could marry the Duke of Lauderdale. Visitors describe the Duchess’s bedchamber as ‘chilling and unwelcoming’: this was the room in which she died. In 2003 a set of ‘ghostly’ footprints was reportedly seen in this room and the attic flats at the top of the house have been exorcised in recent years. It seems entirely in keeping with the experience of touring the house to at least admit the possibility that her shadowy figure might cross our path. Visitors might also contemplate the possibility that creaks heard on the staircase might not be made by human feet. Horace Walpole, pioneer of Gothic fiction in the eighteenth century, put it best when he visited Ham in 1770: ‘Every minute I expected to see ghosts sweeping by’

Sasha will return to Ham House on 15 and 16 September to give free-guided tours of the sleeping quarters for members of the public. The tours, entitled Forty Winks: Sleeping Habits Throughout the Ages are available as part of the general admission price at Ham. Click here for further information.

For more on Sasha’s otherworldly research, see her book Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth Century England.

Editors Note: This is an archived blog post from 25-8-2012.



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