When John Tollemache started work on Helmingham in 1480, it was built in traditional half-timbered style with an overhang to the upper floor both outside and inside the courtyard. There have been a number of changes in external appearance, hut the basic form of a courtyard manor house has never altered, and many of the brick chimneys arc original, although all have had to be repaired over the last two centuries.
In about 1760 a number of exterior changes to the Hall were made. The Tudor gables, with the exception of those at the corners, were removed; and in addition to other Georgian alterations, the existing half-timbered walls were concealed, the lower walls being covered with brick and the upper ones with tiles. To the casual observer these tiles may appear to be bricks, but they are in fact only about a quarter of an inch thick and hung by wooden pegs. About 1800, the well-known Regency architect John Nash covered the whole exterior of the house with a coating of cement on the instructions of Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart, who thought that grey stucco and battlements would make Helmingham more of a castle. This stucco was fortunately removed in 1821.
Helmingham has been extremely lucky over the centuries in that whenever the Hall has been in danger of falling into disrepair, another generation of Tollemaches has come along, who by their energy and love for the place have rebuilt and restored their family home. Two in particular were both called John Tollemache. In 1840 the 1st Lord Tollemache, on his succession, found the house in a deplorable condition, and a great deal of restoration, particularly on the garden front, had to be done; the courtyard overhang was bricked in at this time. Anthony Salvin is believed to have been the architect for this work, and it was he who was made responsible by Lord Tollemache for the design and building of Peckforton Castle on his Cheshire estate. Sadly, all correspondence, estimates and bills for the work at Helmingham have been lost.
Just over a hundred years later, John, 4th Lord Tollemache, came to Helmingham in 1953 and again found the Hall sadly neglected. There was no electric light, no bathrooms and no running water - in fact, until this time, drinking water had come from the moat. There were many holes in the roof, and wall tiles and bricks were lying everywhere. Without the vigour and enthusiasm of my father and mother, Helmingham and the heritage which it brings with it would have joined the ranks of so many other family homes which have been pulled down and have disappeared forever.
The two drawbridges are pulled up every night as they have been since 1510, and the Hall thus becomes an island, protected by its wide moat which is stocked with many kinds of fish, including pike - the heaviest being just over 25 lbs.
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have come twice to Helmingham: first in 1561, and later to attend the christening of Lionel Tollemache as her godchild, one of ten consecutive generations of the family with that name. Helmingham has been privileged to receive Her Majesty The Queen and other members of the Royal Family on many occasions over the last few years.
In 1611 King James I instituted the title of Baronet and the Lionel Tollemache of the time was one of the first created. During the Civil War and before the Restoration in 1660, Helmingham was one of the headquarters of the secret Society of the Sealed Knot, which was instrumental in bringing Charles II back to the throne. In the Hall there are several letters from him, written whilst in exile in Paris, to Elizabeth Tollemache. Her father had been 'whipping boy' to James I's son, later Charles I, and had earned his Earldom of Dysart, together with the beautiful Ham House in Richmond Park, by being beaten for the misdemeanours perpetrated by the young prince. Elizabeth was a somewhat notorious lady, who on the death of her father became Countess of Dysart in her own right; whilst she and her husband were involved with the Sealed Knot, she maintained at the same time a close friendship with Cromwell. When her husband Lionel Tollemache died, she married again, her second husband being the Duke of Lauderdale, the 'L' of the 'CABAL' government. On the death of Elizabeth, Ham House was inherited by Lionel Tollemache, her son, who thus became the 3rd Earl of Dysart. He brought more property into the family by marriage with a Wilbraham heiress, who owned the Cheshire property of Woodhey and Peckforton. He was also brother to General Thomas Tollemache, the third Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, who was killed fighting the French at Brest in 1694. The last three generations of the family have also served in the Coldstream Guards.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century on the death of Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart, who had no male heir, his sister Louisa inherited the title together with Ham House and Buckminster, near Grantham. Ham House was made over to the National Trust in 1948, whilst her descendants still live at Buckminster. Her younger sister Jane inherited Helmingham and the Cheshire property, and it was her grandson, John Tollemache, who was made a peer in 1876 for his services to agriculture and the welfare of his tenants.
His great-great-grandson is the present Lord Tollemache, who, with his wife and children, continue the love of Helmingham which has been its hallmark for almost 500 years.
We hope that the previous eighteen generations of the family would be pleased to see that their home, built so long ago and protected by its sixty-foot-wide moat, still has its two drawbridges pulled up every night and lowered each morning.