Peter Condi reflects on Hamilton Mausoleum
“I’ll stand at one end of the alcove and if ‘young’ Peter there could stand at the other and someone could stand in the middle please,” said 89-year-old Peter Condie. “Now ‘young’ Peter at the other end – face into the corner and whisper to me please and I’ll do the same here and whisper back.”You’ll never believe it but from this distance we can hold a whispered conversation with each other and pick up every word without the person in between us hearing any of the conversation. The voice carries up the walls and over the archway to the other side without a sound being heard in between. This acoustic effect is why it was nicknamed the Whispering Walls or ‘Whispering Wa’s’ as it is affectionately called in Lanarkshire.
Peter was, of course, talking about the amazing claim to fame of the Hamilton Mausoleum, one of his favourite places in his home town. And, this isn’t the only fascinating fact about the building and certainly not the best known. It also has a very famous 15-second echo – the longest lasting echo of any building in the world.
The Mausoleum was built as a burial place for the Dukes of Hamilton in the grounds of their family seat, Hamilton Palace, which was, in its day, the largest non-royal palace in the western world. Unfortunately, it no longer exists as it was demolished in 1921 – due to ground subsidence, it was said.
Peter, born in May 1920 in Guthrie Street, Burnbank, knows the Mausoleum and its history very well indeed as he moved with his family to Bothwell Road in Hamilton to live in one of the four gatehouses to the Palace. This was the public entrance to the Mausoleum and Golf Course and where, in 1946, Peter’s father took up the post of gatekeeper and collector of visitors permits to the Mausoleum and golfer’s permits to the golf course. Peter continued: “In fact, my lasting memory of that time in my life was the day King George VI and Prince Philip arrived for a day at the races and father and I had to open up the big iron gates to let them through. “However, the car didn’t keep on going, it pulled over in front of our gatehouse and waited for us. To our great surprise and delight, King George leaned forward and gave my father a personal salute as a gesture of thanks. “I thought that was such a nice thing to do. I have always loved the Mausoleum, its history and, particularly, its echo.” said Peter. “And, being a bit of a singer myself, and a dab hand with the harmonica, I used to entertain visitors, friends and relatives by standing in the centre spot, singing or playing a tune. “Because of the acoustics, it sounded like a whole choir or orchestra was there to entertain and everyone loved it.”
Peter can also lay claim to another meeting with the famous from bygone days. As a youngster Peter was a very keen swimmer and, when he heard who was to present the prizes at his St John’s Grammar School Annual Swimming Gala in Hamilton Baths, he was determined to be first at the finish. “My father and two of my uncles had been swimmers for St John’s Grammar School and I was determined to make them proud of me. I was always a very keen swimmer from my very young days. My father taught me to swim when I was six and I was always up there with the winners in our school competitions”, said Peter.
“In fact, I was first to the finish most of the time so I was determined to be best in the heats and get through to this competition final. I couldn’t believe it but, my very own hero of comedy and song, Harry Lauder, was coming to our Hamilton Baths to give out the prizes. “Well, along came the big day for the heats and, I don’t know if it was because I was so desperate to win my heat and get into the final, or, if I just wasn’t good enough on the day, but the boy I usually beat got ahead of me and there was nothing I could do.
“The disappointment was unbelievably painful. I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t got through to the finals when it most mattered to me.
“On the big day of the final competition I went along to the Hamilton Baths hoping to get in as a spectator but no such luck it was already a full house. I was heartbroken and determined to hang around outside just hoping for a glimpse of my hero.
“Well, my luck was in – a big posh car drew up outside and as the big doors to the baths opened I turned around and there he was – Harry Lauder himself complete with stick. “He was quickly into the car but undaunted I ran up to the car window and the great man leaned forward to his driver for a photo which he signed and gave to me. It was my most treasured possession for the rest of my life.”
And to this day, at the age of 89, Peter swims 100 lengths daily at the Hamilton Water Palace swimming pool that replaced the old Hamilton Baths.
Peter’s working life began as engineer’s assistant at Hamilton Sewerage Works, until he joined Hamilton Burgh Council and subsequently Hamilton District Council as assistant district officer until his retirement in 1894. The council was responsible for the care and promotion of the Mausoleum so his attachment to it followed him throughout his working life.
Sitting just west of the M74, the Mausoleum is one of the most remarkable monuments of its kind in the country. It has a grand history as the resting place of the Dukes of Hamilton and was built as a Chapel and burial place for Alexander 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852), a colourful character known as “El Magnifico” who travelled extensively on the Continent and beyond. The building, whose design was developed by David Hamilton, was started in 1842 and the whole structure was completed in 1858 by architects David Bryce and Alexander Richie at a cost of approximately £30,000 – a vast sum in those days. It has actually been described as “an extraordinary work of architectural sculpture” – it even had its own ducted central heating system. The Mausoleum has a remarkable Roman-style domed structure of panelled masonry standing 120 feet high, with a base covering about 110 feet in diameter and sits on a beautifully formed terrace just a little north of the site where the Hamilton Palace once stood. Exactly opposite the entrance to the Chapel is a massive pedestal of black marble.
At one time, the sarcophagus containing the embalmed body of the 10th Duke of Hamilton rested on this pedestal and the mark of the sarcophagus can still be seen on the pedestal today. Although the black marble plinth remains in the chapel, the sarcophagus was removed to Bent Cemetery in 1921. The sarcophagus was one of the relics of Memphian antiquities brought from the land of the Pharoahs and, on its lid, was the representation of an Egyptian Princess. Alexander purchased it in Paris on behalf of the British Museum for the sum of £632. 8s 2d believing it had belonged to a member of Egyptian royalty. When this was found not to be the case he purchased it on his own behalf for his own use.
The casket was six feet long and built for a woman of five feet six inches. Although the Duke would maybe have shrunk a little in old age, local legend has it that he insisted on being placed in to the casket after his death and said to his staff “Double me up ... double me up” and, according to the legend, they popped his knees and folded his legs under him. In the lower part of the building, the vaulted basement holds the entrance to the crypt. At the top of the stairs, positioned above the crypt entrance are two stone lions, one asleep and one alert, and each carved from a single piece of freestone. Three archways, each sporting a carved head show man in the three stages of his existence – life, death and immortality. It was to these vaults, early in 1852, that the Duke had some of his ancestors brought from the old churchyard of the 15th century Collegiate Church at Hamilton.
But, following flooding to the building, in 1921 the bodies, with the exception of the 11th and 12th Dukes which were taken to the Hamilton Estates on the Isle of Arran, were re-buried in Bent Cemetery, Hamilton where Sir Harry Lauder, is also buried.
“My fascination and love for Hamilton Mausoleum has remained with me throughout the years.” said Peter Condie. “And on my recent visit, I was thrilled to learn that it was another much younger Peter, Peter Kerr, who is now doing the tours of the Mausoleum.
“The name must just be fitting for the place and I’m delighted to learn from ‘young’ Peter the Mausoleum is as popular as ever.
”I was delighted to re-live some happy memories on my visit and have the opportunity once again to sing and play my harmonica in this magnificent building. Although, I have to say, that I’m certainly not the most famous musician to have played there as the famous saxophone and jazz musician, Tommy Smith, exploited some ghostly acoustics when he recorded part of his solo album, Into Silence, there. “I would urge everyone to make a visit to the Mausoleum and enjoy the tour with ‘young’ Peter Kerr – it is the must-do visit of a lifetime and something definitely not to be missed.”
If you would like to pay a visit to the Mausoleum tours are on Wed, Sat and Sun at 2pm. Places must be pre-booked so please call Low Parks Museum 01698 328232. Adults £1.15 and children 70p.