Burgh House and Hampstead Museum: a historic house with a difference
“It is a place where one can forget the hurly-burly of London … and sense a respect for the craftsmanship, imagery and colour of a less shallow era than our own.”
Article in Antique Collector, August 1937
Walk up to the imposing gates of Burgh House just off Flask Walk in Hampstead High Street and you might expect stories of the people who have lived here and perhaps a potted history of the building. But what you get is something more refreshing, accessible and fascinating for anyone with an interest in London history.
I visit a lot of historic houses in London — I’ve even volunteered at this one. They all show you a different side of London, and Burgh House adds the history of Hampstead to the mix.
The history of Burgh House
The house itself has all the style and grace that you’d expect from an 18th-century Hampstead home. It was built in 1704 in what was then fashionable Hampstead Wells, on land that was reclaimed from Hampstead Heath. Over its 300-year history, it has been inhabited by everyone from politicians and physicians to West India merchants and the Royal East Middlesex Militia — but it’s Burgh House’s place in Hampstead’s community history that has long been its outstanding feature.
When John Keats was dying in nearby Well Walk (now Keats House), Israel Lewis — the house’s longest resident — sent fruit ‘of the nicest kind’ from the Burgh House orchard.
Frequent visitors to the house have included Samuel Wesley, the future Edward VIII and The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling — Kipling’s daughter, Elsie Bambridge, lived here with her husband. Elsie later wrote:
“Our life in the delightful old house and garden in Hampstead was a source of happiness to my father to the end of his life.”
Elsie Bambridge, daughter of Rudyard Kipling
But the residents of Burgh House were not always so renowned. The Rev. Allatson Burgh — who lived here between 1822 and 1856 — was so unpopular at his church of St. Lawrence Jewry that his parishioners tried to have him removed by petitioning Queen Victoria. Samuel Wesley’s description of Burgh is my favourite part of this story: ‘an odd fellow … and as diverting as Punch’.
Burgh House today
After Kipling’s death in 1936, the Bambridges left Burgh House and it was left to dilapidate until 1946, when Hampstead council announced plans to turn it into a museum.
After a shaky few years in the 1970s, when celebrities including Judi Dench had to be called in to help save it from developers, the house was saved by the newly-formed Burgh House Trust and restored into the beautiful house we see today.
The house and museum are now a celebration of Hampstead’s rise from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Key events in the area’s history, including its use as a Tudor hunting ground and the London Underground’s stint as an air raid shelter in the second world war, are brought to life via tiny models (the lovely kind you only see in local museums), images and a collection of 3,000 objects.
The Buttery Cafe is probably one of the best historic house cafes I’ve been to in London — as well as the usual tea, coffee and cakes you’d expect, they also have a brunch/lunch menu full of locally-sourced, homemade food. The sweet potato hash was enough to tempt even my carnivore other-half (whose chorizo version was made with free-range pork) and I’d walk over hot coals to taste their hot chocolate again.
I hear their Sunday lunches are incredible, too — but you’ll have to beat me there…
Opening times: Wednesday, Thursday Friday and Sunday: 12pm-5pm
Nearest Tube: Hampstead
More information: Visit the Burgh House and Hampstead Museum website