Rothschild-shire: the wider fate of UK country houses mirrored in a family (1/3)

The landscape of the UK is one rich in our heritage of country houses.  Each tells a tale of wealth, ambition and family life, yet, although each was built as a home, for many of them this is no longer the case.  These houses can be grouped in many ways – by architect, region, style, size, etc – but there are very few that can be grouped together simply by family ownership.  To acquire one country house is a mark of achievement, yet for an elite group of families, their success allowed them to amass a collection of houses.  The Rothschilds were one such family and so effectively did they colonise an area of Buckinghamshire that it became known as ‘Rothschild-shire’.  In this two-part article, we can look at the fortunes of their houses, and in them, see a snapshot of the fates of country houses across the country. This first part features Gunnersbury Park, Tring Park, Champneys and Halton House.

The Rothschilds are one of the most successful family businesses in the world; financiers to companies, countries and the considerably wealthy.  Having become well-established in Frankfurt, the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild set out for five European cities – London, Paris, Frankfurt, Naples and Vienna – in 1809-10 to expand the firm.  By working closely together they flourished, creating a pan-European network which not only handled money but also information, making them the best informed and giving them a competitive advantage.  Their business achievements naturally made the family exceptionally wealthy and, as was the pattern, their success translated into property, with the family building over 40 houses in the 19th and early 20th centuries across Europe.

Gunnersbury Park (Large Mansion), Middlesex (Image: Magnus Manske / Wikipedia)
Gunnersbury Park (Large Mansion), Middlesex (Image: Magnus Manske / Wikipedia)

In the UK, the Rothschilds waited until 1835 before acquiring their first country house, Gunnersbury Park, Middlesex. The estate had been home to Princess Amelia, daughter of George II, in the first Gunnersbury Park, designed by John Webb but inspired by Palladio’s Villa Badoer.  After Amelia’s death in 1786, the house and estate were eventually bought by a speculator who demolished the house and sold the land in 13 lots. All bar two were bought by Alexander Copeland (10 lots in 1802 and a further 2 in 1806), business partner to the architect Henry Holland, who probably designed it.  Unfortunately, the remaining two lots sold were immediately to the side of the new house and a second mansion was built, leading to the houses being imaginatively labelled the Small Mansion and Large Mansion.  It was the latter which was bought by Nathan Meyer Rothschild, only a year before he died in July 1836.  The house then passed down the Rothschilds until 1925 when Maria, recently widowed wife of Nathan’s grandson, Leopold de Rothschild, decided to sell the house and now 200-acre estate to Ealing and Action Borough Councils for just £130,000, for use as a public park – far less than if sold for development.  Despite some local resistance, the park opened to great acclaim with the Large Mansion now the Gunnersbury Park Museum.

Outcome: municipal ownership; house a museum, estate a public park

Tring Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Tring Park School for the Performing Arts)
Tring Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Tring Park School for the Performing Arts)

Although Gunnersbury Park was a country house, Nathan Mayer Rothschild had also rented Tring Park, Hertfordshire from 1838 as a more rural retreat. When the owners decided to sell, it was purchased with 3,643-acres (14.74 km sq) by Lionel Rothschild,  (b. 1808 – d.1879), Nathan’s eldest son, in May 1872 for £230,000.  He promptly gave it to his son Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild (Baron Rothschild from 1885), as a belated wedding present.  The house is notable as one of the very few designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was built in c.1680 though later remodelled in 1786 by Sir Drummond Smith and again between 1874-78 by Lord Rothschild, who inserted a third story, added a new Smoking Room extension (which replaced the original conservatory and orangery) and generally gave a ‘French’ air to the house, under the plans of the architect George Devey (b.1820 – d.1886).

It was Lord Rothschild’s son, Walter (later 2nd Lord Rothschild), who perhaps made Tring Park notable through his obsession with natural history, and specifically, zoology.  The Rothschilds have often fallen into preferring either ‘arts/sciences’ or ‘business’ and Walter was the former.  Over the course of his life, he amassed one of the greatest natural history collections in the world; a vast array of specimens (including 2.5m butterflies – all mounted) which became the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, and which was eventually donated to the British Museum in 1937.  Walter’s inability to manage his finances – mainly through overspending on the museum – meant that although he inherited the title, the house and estate went to his brother, but only after the death of his mother, who Walter continued to live with at Tring until her death in 1935.  Walter died in 1937 and his nephew decided to break up the estate, but kept the house, which was used by the family bank in WWII to store documents.  After the war, Lord Rothschild decided not to live at Tring and so sold it to become a performing arts school.  Though the landscape remains, in 1975 in a particularly crass act of planning vandalism, the A41 Tring Bypass was built straight through the parkland, splitting it in two.

Outcome: house became a school

Champneys, Hertfordshire (Image: Hertfordshire Genealogy)
Champneys, Hertfordshire (Image: Hertfordshire Genealogy)

Another house related to Tring Park, though never a main family seat, was Champneys, in Wigginton, which served as the dower house for the main estate.  This sizeable house had originally been built in 1874 in a French Second Empire style by Arthur Sutton Valpy, before being bought by Walter Rothschild’s parents in 1902.  However, Walter’s mother, Emma Louise von Rothschild (b.1844 – d.1935), realising that her son wouldn’t marry, sold the house in 1925 to Stanley Lief, who created his first ‘Nature Cure Resort’, forming a brand which is still well known for its spas today.

Outcome: house became a health spa

Lionel Rothschild had also bought the Halton estate from Sir George Henry Dashwood in 1853, further extending the Rothschild domain in the Aylesbury Vale.  The first house on the estate was a smaller, Palladian affair which had latterly been little used by the Dashwoods and fell into decay. The remnants of the house were finally demolished in early 1880 after Alfred Charles (b.1842 – d.1918), middle son of Lionel, inherited the 1,400-acre Halton estate in 1879.  Over his lifetime he expanded the estate until it covered around 3,250-acres – but any aspiring landed gent requires a fine house as well as land; and the wealthy, educated Alfred was determined to live up to the family tradition.

Halton House, Buckinghamshire - detail of photo taken in 1921 (Image: Britain from Above / English Heritage)
Halton House, Buckinghamshire – detail of photo taken in 1921 (Image: Britain from Above / English Heritage) Click to see the RAF camp in the background.

A site for the new Halton House was swiftly chosen and work started in 1880.  The architect is not confirmed but Mark Girouard believes it to have been William R. Rogers, the design partner of  the builders, William Cubitt & Co. As was popular with the Rothschilds, Alfred decided that his house would be another in the French chateau-style – though perhaps more rigorously closer to the originals but with his own special additions, including a spectacular winter garden.  The house was completed by July 1883, Alfred having employed a veritable army of labour to ensure swift progress, but the final interior fittings took another year. No expense was spared to ensure visitors impressed by the grand exterior could only be equally dazzled by the interior; every room a lavish statement of his wealth and fine taste, silk wallpaper, embellished by his superb art collection – every detail thought of, even down to the door knobs emblazoned with the Rothschild family crest.

Reaction was mixed to this luxurious new home, exemplified by Algernon West who described it as “an exaggerated nightmare of gorgeousness and senseless and ill-applied magnificence” but who later admitted that “lighted up and full of well-dressed people, it appeared quite tolerable“.  Even his nephew Lionel de Rothschild described it as ‘looking like a huge wedding cake‘. Most of the objections appeared to sniff more at the lavish expense than real architectural criticism.  Mark Girouard, writing in 1979, was far more generous, describing it as ‘splendidly Louise Seize with another sumptuous winter garden…a tour de force of Rothschild extravagance‘.

Halton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Green Baron via Wikipedia)
Halton House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Green Baron via Wikipedia)

Sadly, this was a house built for the age of grand entertaining, one which WWI ended.  Alfred was deeply patriotic and having frequently used his political connections in the service of the government, wanted to help further.  He offered the Halton estate to his friend Lord Kitchener and so the house became first an infantry camp, then for the engineers, then, once created, the Royal Air Force.  With the house shuttered and neglected, the gardens and house declined, mirroring Alfred’s own failing health.  After his death in 1918, the house was inherited by his nephew, Lionel, as “he was the only Rothschild without a country house” but he didn’t like it and so sold it to the RAF for a bargain £112,000. They quickly expanded the facilities and, in 1919, Halton House became the Officers’ Mess of RAF Halton; a role it still performs today.

Outcome: house and estate taken over for military use


Part 2 of this article will appear soon…


Other links of interest:

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]