Lambs House, Henry James and E F Benson
The Lamb family were the greatest power in Rye for 250 years but their house is probably more famous as the home of the expatriate American writer Henry James and later, the writer E.F. Benson. It is a modest brick-fronted Georgian house completed by James Lamb in 1723, the same year in which he became Mayor for the first time.
One of the most famous stories about Lamb House concerns George I. In 1726 the King was returning from Hanover to open Parliament when he was driven ashore by a terrible storm, landing at Camber Sands. James Lamb escorted the King to his house where the family entertained him for three days though George spoke very little English and the Lambs knew no German.
On the very first night Mrs Lamb gave birth to a baby boy. The King agreed to act as godfather at the christening of the baby in St Mary’s church; the boy was named George.
The family sold the house in 1860. Some thirty years later Henry James visited Rye and was attracted to the house, not expecting he could ever acquire it. But in 1899, age 55 and already an established literary figure on both sides of the Atlantic, he was able to report ‘It has fallen’ and he bought the property for £2000. He spent most of the last 18 years of his life in Lamb House of his house and wrote some of his most highly regarded works here, including The Awkward Age, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.
In the winter he dictated his work to his secretary in the green Room on the first floor but in the summer months he preferred the Garden House which stood at the top of West Street at right angles to the main house. Unfortunately, the Garden House was destroyed by a bomb in 1940.
Henry James entertained many eminent figures of the day at Lamb House, among them H.G. Wells, A.C.and E.F. Benson, Max Beerbohm. Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Maddox Ford, Edmund Gosse, Rudyard Kipling, Hugh Walpole and Edith Wharton.
After James’ death in 1916 the house became the home of brothers, A.C. and E.F. Benson.The view from the bow window of the Garden House was to give E.F. Benson the inspiration for his Mapp and Lucia novels.
In 1950 the widow of Henry James’ nephew and heir, Mrs Henry James Jr., presented Lamb House to the National Trust. It is open to visitors two days a week April – October.
Besides the furniture, library, portraits and Jamesian memorabilia on display, visitors can stroll in the lovely walled garden.
As for E.F. Benson, regular tours are conducted which connect events and people in the Mapp and Lucia books to their Rye locations.
You can read more about him under his own name in Literary Rye on this site. Benson was not the last eminent literary person to live in Lamb House. Among those who have resided there since it became a National Trust property are Rumer Godden, Montgomery Hyde and Brian Batsford.
The current tenant is an actress who brings together some of the country’s best actors and actresses as the Lamb Players to perform critically acclaimed Shakespeare in the Lamb House garden and in winter to provide an evening of music and readings from the staircase with its twisted balusters.
Further information on the Lambs, the house and its residents is available on other parts of this website, via the Internet and in the National Trust booklet Henry James and Lamb House. Further information on writers who have lived in Rye is available in our Literary Rye section.