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The history of Lamb House

Close-up of Henry James' desk with wallet, pocket watch and letter at Lamb House, East Sussex
Henry James' desk with wallet, pocket watch and letter at Lamb House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Tucked away down a cobbled street in the heart of Rye is Lamb House. Built in 1723 by the Lamb family, the house became the mayoral home of Rye and includes George I as one of its more distinguished guests. Its charming brick façade and walled garden have seen centuries of owners, many of whom were at the centre of Rye society and connected to the arts.

Fit for a King

Lamb House was built in 1723 by James Lamb, a wealthy wine merchant and local politician. When a storm drove King George I’s ship ashore at Camber in 1726 Lamb House was considered the most suitable accommodation for him, so James Lamb gave up his bed. In 1893, the Lambs sold the house to a wealthy local banker, Francis Bellingham.

A refuge in Sussex

Following the failure of his play Guy Domville on the London stage in 1895, the American novelist Henry James fled to Sussex to seek calm and refuge, away from the embarrassment he felt. He was on a quest for what he called a ‘lowly refuge,’ and Lamb House suited his desire for a permanent home away from the bustle of London life. He discovered the town of Rye, and Lamb House, quite by chance whilst visiting his friend, the architect Edward Warren.

Taking on Lamb House

Enchanted by the house, when the opportunity arose, he took out a 21-year lease in 1897. He bought it two years later. The lease stated that James must keep the garden 'cropped and manicured' and that the house must be repainted with three coats of 'good oil colour' at the end of the seventh and fourteenth years. In fact, it took nearly eight months to make Lamb House 'sanitary and comfortable' and James moved in during June 1898.

Henry James grew more and more attached to Lamb House, filling it with books and paintings by artists that he admired, such as Flaubert, Whistler and Burne-Jones.

An inspiring place to write

James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw from his London apartment, whilst Lamb House was being renovated. Working from Lamb House he wrote his most acclaimed novels: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.

'The Master'

It was while living and working at Lamb House that James began to be known as ‘The Master’. He usually wrote in the Green Room, but he preferred the Garden Room in summer. This was a self-contained building next to the house. Constructed in 1743 as a separate banqueting room, it was destroyed in 1940 during a bombing raid. Lamb House appeared as Mr Langdon’s home in James’s novel The Awkward Age in 1898, which was the first novel James wrote after moving in.

Order of Merit

On New Year's Day 1916, less than two months before his death, Henry James was given the Order of Merit by George V, having completed 20 novels, over a hundred short stories and three plays. He continued dictating letters to his secretary, up until his death on 28 February 1916.

1901 photograph of Henry James (1843-1916) at Lamb House
1901 photograph of Henry James at Lamb House | © © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Literary life

Henry James had many well-connected friends and literary visitors including H.G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (who in 1919 became Ford Madox Ford).

Wells called the group 'a ring of conspirators.' James was fond of keeping in close contact with all of his friends and family, particularly his brother William, and wrote over 1,000 letters during his lifetime.

Bringing the garden to life

When Henry James acquired the tenancy at Lamb House, he began a programme of improvement to the house and garden. James felt he was ‘densely ignorant’ about gardens and plants, he therefore engaged his good friend, and garden designer, Alfred Parsons to develop the colourful flower borders and paths through the garden.

Parsons planted soft fruits such as apricots, plums, pears and apples up the walls and suggested planting mulberry and walnut trees. Henry James particularly enjoyed the daffodils in his garden every spring and was delighted when white Narcissus ‘Henry James’ was created in his honour.

A home of grand literary connections

A friend of James, E.F. Benson, lived at Lamb House from 1919 until his death in 1940.

A hugely prolific writer of fiction, ghost stories and non-fiction he is now best remembered for his ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels which were set in the fictional town of Tilling, based on Rye, with Lamb House cast as the home of Miss Mapp, ‘Mallards’. E.F. Benson was Mayor of Rye from 1934-1937.

Continuing the literary tradition

Since the time of James and Benson, Lamb House has continued to attract and nurture literary and artistic personalities. Some previous National Trust tenants include the prolific author, biographer, barrister and politician H. Montgomery Hyde who lived at the house from 1963 until 1967. Hyde was an early Human Rights Campaigner and a second cousin of Henry James.

Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was the author of over 60 fiction and non-fiction books, nine of which were made into films, including Oscar-winning Black Narcissus in 1947. She also wrote many volumes of poems, short stories and children’s fiction including The Diddakoi in 1972, which was awarded the first ever Whitbread Children's Book Award. Godden lived at Lamb House from 1967 until 1974 and is buried in Rye with her second husband Laurence Foster.

Batsford Books

The painter, celebrated designer, publisher and Conservative politician Sir Brian Batsford-Cook lived at Lamb House from 1980 until 1987. He designed and illustrated the covers of the hugely collectable British Heritage series of ‘Batsford Books’ from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was chairman of Batsford Publishing from 1952 until 1974.

The National Trust

Lamb House passed to The National Trust in 1950.

‘to be preserved as an enduring symbol of the ties that unite the British and American people.’

Visitors enjoying a picnic at Morden Hall Park, London

Discover more at Lamb House

Find out when Lamb House is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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The house and garden at Lamb House, East Sussex

The garden at Lamb House 

Discover an evocative garden tucked away behind the walls at Lamb House. It has an intimate, tranquil feel with borders packed full of flowers, a vegetable garden and shady trees.

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Explore inside Lamb House 

Look behind the Georgian façade and see how this house inspired writers such as Henry James and E.F. Benson. Step inside their favourite writing room or see the bed fit for a king.

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Our work in the garden at Lamb House 

Read up on the literary inspiration that guides how we look after the garden of Lamb House in Rye. 

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

Close-up of Henry James' desk with wallet, pocket watch and letter at Lamb House, East Sussex

Lamb House's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Lamb House on the National Trust Collections website.