When John Tollemache first started work on Helmingham in 1480, it was built in traditional half-timbered style with an overhang to the upper floor both out and inside the courtyard. Since then there have been a number of changes in external appearance, but the basic form of a courtyard manor house still remains, as do many of the original brick chimneys (although all have had to be repaired over the last two centuries!).
In about 1760 a number of exterior changes to Helmingham Hall were made. The Tudor gables, with the exception of those at the corners, were all removed, and the existing half-timbered walls were concealed with the lower walls being covered in 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 are held in place by wooden pegs. The well-known Regency architect John Nash covered the whole exterior of the house with a coating of cement in about 1800, following the instructions of Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart, who thought that grey stucco and battlements would make Helmingham look more like a castle – fortunately this stucco was removed in 1821.
The two drawbridges have been pulled up every night since 1510, making Helmingham Hall an island by night, protected by a wide moat that is home to many kinds of fish, including pike – the heaviest of which weighing just over 25 lbs! We like to think 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.
Repair & Recovery
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 home. In 1840 the 1st Lord Tollemache, found the house in a deplorable condition upon his inheritance, with a great deal of restoration – particularly on the garden front – needing to be done. At this time, the courtyard overhang was bricked in. It is believed that Anthony Salvin was the architect responsible for the changes, and he was also 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 since been lost.
Just over a hundred years later in 1953, John the 4th Lord Tollemache came to Helmingham and again found the Hall sadly neglected, with no electric light, no bathrooms and no running water – until this time, drinking water had come from the moat! The roof was full of holes and there were wall tiles and bricks lying everywhere. Without the vigour and enthusiasm of John and his wife, Helmingham and its rich heritage would have joined the ranks of so many other family homes which have fallen into irreparable disrepair.
The Royals at Helmingham
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have twice visited Helmingham: first in 1561, and later to attend the christening of Lionel Tollemache as her godchild. Lional Tollemache marked the first of ten consecutive generations of the family with that name. Futhermore, Helmingham has been privileged to receive Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family on many occasions over the last few years.
In 1611 King James I established the title of Baronet, and the contemporary Lionel Tollemache was one of the very first to be titled thus. 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 restoring Charles II back on the throne. In the Hall there are several letters written in exile in Paris from him to Elizabeth Tollemache. Her father had been ‘whipping boy’ to James I’s son – later Charles I – and had earned his Earldom of Dysart and the beautiful Ham House in Richmond Park by taking a beating for the young prince for his misdemeanours.
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 still maintained 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 through marriage with a Wilbraham heiress, who owned the Cheshire properties of Woodhey and Peckforton. Lionel’s brother, General Thomas Tollemache, was killed fighting the French at Brest in 1694. The last three generations of the family have served in the Coldstream Guards.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Wilbraham Tollemache, 6th Earl of Dysart, died without a male heir, leaving his sister Louisa to inherit his title together with Ham House and Buckminster near Grantham. Ham House was turned over to the National Trust in 1948, whilst her descendants still live today at Buckminster. Louisa’s 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.