When Sir Roger Cholmeley founded his Free Grammar School at Highgate in 1565, Roger Martin (afterwards Sir Roger, Lord Mayor in 1557–8), was appointed one of the foundation governors. It was his son Richard Martin, citizen and goldsmith of London, who would appear to have built the first house on the Lauderdale House site in the 1580s. This still forms much of the design and fabric of the modern house and surrounding gardens with their lovely rose brick walls and eagle-guarded steps.
Via various complicated inheritances, the property came to rest with Anne, the first wife of John Maitland, 2nd Earl of Lauderdale. Fighting on behalf of King Charles I in the civil war, the earl was taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester in 1651, and imprisoned in the Tower for nine years, until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Once released, he immediately petitioned the House of Lords for the restoration of his wife’s property which he alleged had been ‘taken possession of in 1649, by John Ireton, Alderman of London, who as Lord of the Manor would not permit Lady Lauderdaill to proceed in claiming her property, but tore up her plaint, saying ‘Her husband was a traitor to the State, and should have no lands there’…
Once the house was restored to the Lauderdales they set about ‘modernising it’; it was they who installed the fine staircase which remains today. As loyal supporters, of the Stuart cause the Lauderdales got to host Charles II – and Nell Gwynn is said to have lived there briefly in 1670. (Where didn’t she live?…) Although records are hard to find, it may also have been the Lauderdales who laid out the gardens surrounding the house and planted some of the wonderful quirky trees.
Over the next two centuries the house passed through various owners and was further altered in the late 18th century creating a long apartment on the ground floor and and an extended upper storey over a colonnaded loggia on the south west corner of the house.
It was mainly leased out to various long term occupants – such as Mr Yarrow and his wife, recorded here by his assistant:
‘I found on my first arrival in London in 1839 a profitable engagement as a literary assistant to Mr. James Yarrow, a retired Unitarian minister, an amiable elderly gentleman, and a rusty old scholar, who had devoted the latter end of his life to the compilation of a work on The Art of Weaving amongst the Ancients, a ponderous work crammed with Greek, Latin and Hebrew quotations, in which the co-operation of an ordinary amanuensis and copyist would have been unavailing. Mr. Yarrow was a wealthy man, or had married a wealthy wife; the latter, still youngish, made her hospitable home in Highgate, formerly the abode of Charles II’s Nell Gwynne, a quaint old mansion, unaltered for two centuries,—the centre of a social circle, where she delighted in bringing together the young of both sexes, trusting to the instincts of natural selection, and the power of music, dancing and champagne suppers for results in which she declared she neither ‘marred nor made.’ In spite of all disclaimers, the house at Highgate was immensely popular as a matrimonial mart of the most honourable description.’
The house’s last tenant was James Yates (1789–1871), unitarian and antiquary. ‘At Lauderdale House he had a noble library and a fine collection of works of art. His hospitality was profuse (though his own habits were of the simplest) and his conversation, aided by his marvellous memory, was full of interest. Few men of small stature had a more courtly dignity; his power of caustic remark was all the more effective from the unvarying calmness of his measured speech.’ He died at Lauderdale House on 7th May, 1871, and was buried at Highgate Cemetery.
The house and the adjoining Waterlow Park had meanwhile been acquired by Sir Sidney Waterlow, city magnate, MP and Lord Mayor of London from 1872-3. On the death of Mr Yates, instead of re-letting the house, Sir Sidney donated it to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to be used as a convalescent home for the poor, staffed by nurses supplied by Florence Nightingale. This was the first convalescent home set up by St Bartholomew’s Hospital and offered higher levels of medical care than similar hospitals of the time.
In 1889 Sir Sidney donated the surrounding park to the Corporation on London as ‘a garden for the gardenless’ – and here he is, looking down on the ‘gardenless’ enjoying it.
In non COVID Times Lauderdale House is open for events of all kinds (lots of weddings as you can imagine), concerts, exhibitions and children’s classes and has a very pleasant café giving onto the terrace overlooking the park.