Gunnersbury, West London, England
Nathan Mayer Rothschild's country estate
Gunnersbury Park, located in west London was the first grand residence acquired by the Rothschild family in England.
The name Gunnersbury derives from Gunylda, the niece of King Canute who lived there until her banishment from England in 1044. The manor, owned by the Bishop of London, was occupied by the Frowyk family in the 15th century. In the mid-17th century, Gunnersbury was acquired by Sir John Maynard, a lawyer and politician during the time of Cromwell. He built Gunnersbury House, a Palladian mansion designed by John Webb, the pupil and son-in-law of Inigo Jones and modelled on the Villa Badoer, in around 1663 and. A map of Ealing dated 1777, shows the house in the north-east corner of the park, facing a horseshoe-shaped lake.
The house was bought in 1739 from Maynard's great-grandson John Hobart, 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire by wealthy merchant and MP Henry Furnese, who had the grounds modelled by William Kent in the 18th-century landscape style. After his death in 1756 it was sold to Princess Amelia (1711-1786), the daughter of George II in 1760 as a summer country retreat. Amelia made Gunnersbury famous with her parties and political intrigues, and continued to develop the estate, purchasing more land and building a bathhouse in the grounds.
19th century development of the estate: the creation of ‘The Small Mansion’ (Gunnersbury House) and the ‘Large Mansion’ (Gunnersbury Park)
After Princess Amelia died in 1786, the estate remained unsold for two years. In 1788 it was acquired by Colonel Gilbert Ironside, and then Walter Stirling in 1792, then rapidly in succession Henry Crawford and John Morley, who in 1801, decided to pull down Gunnersbury House and sell the land off piecemeal in 13 lots (the old house occupying Lot 2). The lots were eventually acquired by only two people, Alexander Copland, an architect and builder (10 lots in 1802 and a further two in 1806), and Stephen Cosser, a timber merchant (Lot 1 in 1802).
Two separate adjacent estates were then established, each with its own new house. Cosser built the ‘Small Mansion’ between 1802-1806, the builders evidently recognising the suitability of the position, an elevated terrace overlooking the horseshoe-lake near where the original mansion had stood. The Small Mansion and grounds were known as ‘Gunnersbury House’. Cosser died in 1806 and Gunnersbury House was sold to Major Alexander Morrison in 1807.
Around the same time, Copland, a business partner of Henry Holland, built the ‘Large Mansion’, with the input of the architect Sydney Smirke. This mansion, with its grounds, became known as ‘Gunnersbury Park’.
The arrival of the Rothschilds
Alexander Copland died in 1835, and the attention of Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), seeking a grand residence for his family, and a place to impress his business clients fell upon Gunnersbury. The Large Mansion and its estate were purchased from Copland’s executors by Hannah Rothschild (1783-1850), acting on behalf of her husband in 1835 for £17,000. It is not known why Hannah led the negotiations for the sale, possibly it was because Nathan was away, travelling on business. Nathan died in Frankfurt in 1836, and Hannah, used it as her second home and continued with the neo-Georgian alterations under the architect Sydney Smirke, adding an orangery to Smirke’s designs in 1836.
Hannah’s eldest son, Lionel (1808-1879), took over the estate at her death, enlarging the park in 1861 and adding a pleasure lake and boat house, and improving the house to give it all modern conveniences, including gas lighting and water closets. The extensive kitchens reveal the importance of entertaining here, but the comparatively few bedrooms suggest that the proximity of the house to London enabled guests to return home at night. One of the most splendid functions to be held at Gunnersbury was the marriage of his eldest daughter, Leonora (1837-1911), to her cousin Alphonse (1827-1905), in 1857.
Although not as grand as many of the Rothschild houses, Gunnersbury became much loved by the family, and when Lionel’s daughter Evelina (1839-1866) visited Ferrières, the vast mansion built by James de Rothschild (1792-1868) in Paris she wrote back affectionately that it was "not as green as our little Gunnersbury". When Lionel’s wife, Charlotte (1819-1884), died, the house passed to their youngest son, Leopold (1845-1917).
The two estates are reunited
The ‘Small Mansion’ and its grounds, Gunnersbury House, were acquired in 1889 by Leopold from the Thomas Farmer family (who had owned it since 1828), finally reuniting the original estate, as ‘Gunnersbury Park’. The Rothschilds extended Gunnersbury Park further, acquiring most of the Old Brentford Common Field to the west, as well as land to the north. An old clay-pit in the south-west, Cole’s Hole, was landscaped to become the Potomac lake, and the tile-kiln beside it modified to become a boathouse disguised as a gothic folly.
Leopold also made significant alterations to the gardens, laying out a Japanese garden, a heath garden, an ivy garden, an Italian garden, a rock garden and Victorian scattered flowerbeds. Under his management, Gunnersbury continued to be the scene of important social events. New houses were built on the estate, while local hospitals and schools benefited from Leopold’s philanthropy.
Gunnersbury after the Rothschilds
In 1925, Leopold's widow, Marie (1862-1937), and son Lionel (1882-1942) proposed the sale of Gunnersbury Park. There was some debate, as many locals wanted the land use for housing, a pressing need, but the 200-acre estate, (which was entirely contained within the Brentford Urban District), was sold to the Ealing Borough Council and Acton Borough Council for £125,000; for use as a public park, although the land lay entirely outside their boundaries. Middlesex County Council and the Ministry of Health contributed towards the cost. On 21 May 1926, the Rt Hon. Neville Chamberlain M.P., Minister for Health opened the new public Gunnersbury Park. The Large mansion was converted into an exhibition space for local history and archaeology, costume and fine art and opened as the Gunnersbury Park Museum in 1929. Evidence of the former Rothschild occupation remained in the two horse-drawn carriages on display. An adjoining area of Rothschild land just outside the Gunnersbury estate became the Gunnersbury Cemetery the same year.
The park passed to the London Borough of Hounslow in 1965 and the Gunnersbury Park Joint Committee with Ealing was set up in 1967. In 2014, Ealing and Hounslow Councils were awarded two large grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund's Parks for People programme to restore Gunnersbury Park. With Lottery Funds, and owners Ealing and Hounslow Councils, the Museum in the Large Mansion re-opened in June 2018 after a £50 million, four-year restoration.Return to Estates listing