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The exterior of Admiral;s House in Hampstead.


By Richard Jones

There's a delightful legend about the origins of Admiral's Walk in Hampstead, and about its most prominent residence - Admiral's House.

It is said in these parts, and in several guide books and histories of Hampstead, that the Walk and House are both named for Admiral Matthew Barton (1715 - 1795), who, so the story goes, retired to Hampstead when his promising naval career was, quite literally, wrecked.

The sign pointing to Admiral's House.


Having joined the navy in 1730, Barton enjoyed a long and distinguished career, in which he served in the War of Jenkins' Ear, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. He fought at several major battles, and commanded a number of amphibious assaults off the French coast and in the West Indies.

He rose steadily through the ranks and was given command of numerous ships, until, in he was appointed to the 50-gun HMS Lichfield, in 1755.


In November 1756, the Lichfield having joined the squadron tasked with the capture of Goree, got caught in a ferocious gale on the night 28th November, which scattered the fleet and blew Barton's ship onto the rocky, rugged coast of Masagan, in North Africa.

220 of the crew of 350 managed to scramble ashore, come the daylight, where, naked and starving, they were captured and handed over to the Emperor of Morocco, who kept them as virtual slaves for the next 18 months.

Eventually, the British Government was able to negotiate a ransom, and the prisoners were sent home, Barton arriving back in England in August 1760.

Barton was court-martialled for the loss of his ship, was acquitted, and was then given several other commands, before his health broke down and, having retired from the sea in the late 1770's, he died in 1795.


According to one version of the story, he spent his retirement in Hampstead, where he bought Admiral's House, which had been built around 1700, to which he then added a ships quarterdeck to the upper storey, and then set about ingratiating himself with the neighbours by firing salutes at dawn on Royal birthdays and anniversaries of naval victories, from two cannons which he'd lugged up to the rooftop

It is a colourful tale; but, in truth, it is a tale that is probably every bit as tall as the flagpole that surmounts the said quarterdeck.


The building actually dates from the early 18th century and was built for Charles Keys, who lived here until his death in 1753. At this time the house was known as "Golden Spikes", which seems to have been derived from the symbol of the Masonic Lodge that met here between 1730 and 1745.


In 1775 Lieutenant Fountain North took up residence and he renamed it, "The Grove", after a nearby property of that name that he had pulled down. It was North who added the quarterdeck on the roof of the house, from which he is reputed to have fired cannons to celebrate naval victories and royal birthdays, an activity that must have gone down a storm with the neighbours!

North died in 1811 and over the next half century it was occupied by a variety of residents.


However, during this period it was painted several times by the artist, and local resident, John Constable (1776 - 1837) - as in he featured it as a subject in various paintings as opposed to that he spruced up the exterior with a tin or two of whitewash.

One such painting was exhibited in 1832 and bore the delightful title "A Romantic House at Hampstead."

It seems to have been around this time that the spurious story grew up that it had been the residence of Admiral Matthew Barton, and, as a result, it became known locally, completely unofficially, as "Admiral's House."

The architect George Gilbert Scott occupied the house from 1856 to 1864 - and he is the resident who is remembered by a plaque on the exterior of the building.


From 1917 to 1926 the army historian, and King's Librarian at Windsor, the Hon John (later Sir John) Fortescue, and his wife Winifred occupied the house, and it was they who changed its name officially to "Admiral's House."

It seems to have been Mrs Fortescue who propagated many of the stories about Admiral Barton having been one of the house's former residents.

For example, in a newspaper interview, that was published in The Dundee Evening Telegraph when the Fortescues put the house on the market in 1925, she had this to say about its history:-

"Admiral Barton lived in the house in George III's reign, first coming there in 1795...At one time the house resembled a ship, but certain alterations have since been made. There are, however, two decks on the roof, the main deck and the quarter deck, and two cannon remain which he used to fire on occasions such as the King's Birthday. This must have been very annoying to the neighbours..."

No doubt quite creepy to the neighbours as well since, if he did, indeed, first come there in 1795 (the year of his death), then his subsequent visits must have been as a ghost!


However, tall tales aside, the house's best known resident is someone who never actually lived in it - nor, for that matter, ever actually lived.

For, the stories of Fountain North's escapades with rooftop cannon are said to have inspired local resident, the Australian born author P. L. Travers (1899 - 1996), to base the house of the eccentric Admiral Boom on Admiral's House in Mary Poppins, written in 1934.

'Cor Blimey, now that's interesting.