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Feb 20

Erskine House

Erskine House is situated at Heath End, next door to the Spaniards Inn. Its most famous resident was Thomas Erskine (1750-1823).

In 1912, Anne Maxwell wrote the book “Hampstead, its historic houses, its literary and artistic associations”. The rest of this post is taken from the book – any reference to “now” below refers to the year 1912!

erskinehouse

Erskine House was once called Evergreen Hill, for Lord Chief Justice Erskine had a passion for gardening, and employed his leisure from legal and political life in planting and digging. One of his customary remarks, on being found by a friend at work with his spade in his kitchen garden, was : ” Here I am, enjoying my otium cum dignitate ” (diggin’ a taty). But, in addition to digging potatoes, he also delighted to chop and fell trees, and once marked nine ancient elms as the victims of his hatchet, because they obstructed the view of Windsor Castle, far away up the river. His poet friend Cowper protested, and wrote lines in which the Muses expressed their indignation, after which the lives of the trees were spared at the eleventh hour.

Many interesting visitors found their way to this witty and genial host. Of these Edmund Burke was perhaps the most frequent, until the parting of these two Liberal comrades when the French Revolution frightened Burke into Conservatism. Lord Erskine relates :

He came to see me not long before he died. ” Come, Erskine,”
he said, holding out his hand, ” let us forget all. I shall soon quit
this stage, and wish to die in peace with everybody, especially you.”
I reciprocated the sentiment, and we took a turn round the grounds.

The political dinners given here by Baron Erskine were conspicuous for their gaiety, lively spirits, and excellent tales. Sir Samuel Romilly said :

I dined there one day, at what might be called a great Opposition
dinner ; nothing could be more innocent than the conversation, the
topics were light and trifling, politics being hardly mentioned.

The Duke of Norfolk was of the party, with Lord Grenville and Lord Holland, besides many more nobles and gentlemen.

Lord Byron was also a friend ; Miss Burney, Hannah More, Miss Seward and Lady Morgan were his intimates.

His vivacity and fascination made Erskine the best of company, and his ancestry, for ten generations, ensured his courtesy and good-breeding. To one of his guests who complained of sleeplessness at night, Erskine suggested at a date when the most aged and worn-out old men were employed as night-watchmen ‘ You have nothing to do but to put on a watchman’s greatcoat, get into a watch-box, and you will be asleep in five minutes.”

Erskine’s sympathy for animals is well known, and the collection of creatures including a friendly goose which followed him about his garden, was a little unusual. One of his favourite dogs accompanied him to all his consultations when he was at the Bar. He wished to bring in a Parliamentary Bill for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. On one occasion he saw a brutal man on the Heath ill-treating his animal, and scolded him for so doing. The fellow replied surlily : ” Can’t I do what I like with my own ? ”
” Well,” exclaimed the Chief Justice, ” so also can I. This stick is my own ” ; and he laid it about the man’s shoulders in a sound thrashing.

It was no doubt this vigorous, animated and noble-hearted sense of justice and compassion, as well as the necessity which existed so acutely in his earlier days of making money for his young family, which had spurred him to the eloquent defence of Captain Baillie in the year 1779. The electric energy and success with which he opposed his father’s friend and his own legal superior, Lord Mansfield, on that occasion sent the almost briefless young barrister away from the Court carrying sixty-seven retaining fees in his pocket.

Erskine House was connected with Kenwood Place by an underground passage, now blocked up, for it existed to give entrance to the large kitchen-garden which Erskine acquired from Lord Mansfield, and where he planted the holly hedge, twelve feet broad, existing in good condition today.

Erskine House is now used as a training home for young girls, and as a home of rest for workers, in whom Canon and Mrs. Barnett, near neighbours at St. Jude’s Cottage, are interested.

It is quite possible to visit the interior of Erskine House, observing the coloured-glass window on the stairs, which bears Lord Erskine’s arms, with the baron’s coronet and the motto which he assumed : ‘ Trial by Jury.” The lofty room upstairs, with its five tall windows, which, with other improvements, he added to the previous small house, saw very many distinguished dinner-parties, including one at which King William IV. and the Duke of Wellington were present. Standing at the south windows in this room, we face the whole length of the Spaniard’s Road.

Lord Erskine was no bird of passage in Hampstead : he lived here for thirty years, and a tablet to the memory of Frances, his wife, between whom and himself there had been a lifelong devotion, and who had borne the burden of his early poverty with courage, is found on the wall of the church. The epitaph runs thus :

Near this Place lies buried the Honble. Frances Erskine, the
most faithful and the most affectionate of women. Her husband,
Thomas, Lord Erskine, an inhabitant of this parish, raised this
monument to her lamented memory. A.D. 1809.

Later in life Lord Erskine moved to another home in the south of England, but eventually died in his native Scotland in 1823, at the age of seventy-three.

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