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Halton, Buckinghamshire, England

Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), bought the Halton estate from Sir George Dashwood in 1853, including the manor house (no longer extant) close to the church, the grounds around it and parkland north of the Grand Union Canal. The first major event at Halton, after its purchase by Lionel, was one of the earliest Industrial Exhibitions, organised by his son Sir Anthony Nathan de Rothschild (1810-1876) and opened by Disraeli.

Alfred de Rothschild and Halton

Lionel’s second son Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918) inherited the estate and soon after began to build a house on a completely new site, previously agricultural land, 600m east of the church. On 15 January 1884 the house, designed by William Cubitt & Co., was opened in the presence of the Prince of Wales. Halton was based loosely on a French Renaissance château, but boasted various modern features including electric lighting and a hot-air heating system.  With its ornate skyline consisting of steep French pavilion roofs, pinnacles, chimney stacks, and domed Winter Garden, it was not to everyone’s taste at the time.  Judged by Lady Frances Balfour as "terribly vulgar", to Constance, Lady Battersea (née de Rothschild) (1843-1931) it was nevertheless Alfred’s "beauteous home on earth", while for Country Life it combined "classical grace and modern elegance". 

During the 1880s Alfred laid out the grounds around the House and constructed woodland rides. From the house a drive ran to the Chalet sited on the top of the plateau at the edge of a large open area, built between 1887-1888, a summerhouse/pavilion modelled on an Alpine chalet. It was built for Alfred to privately entertain his guests (including King Edward VII and Lily Langtree), and as a focus for expeditions on horseback from the House. 

Halton, along with Alfred’s Mayfair town house at 1, Seamore Place became the setting for his magnificent art collections. Alfred entertained lavishly at Halton, (where he kept his own personal orchestra, which he liked to conduct with a diamond-tipped baton, and a private zoo), although was often only in attendance for a few months each year. Alfred regularly entertained his many friends from the theatrical world. Dame Nellie Melba was a close personal friend and she spent some time at Halton in 1913 and before her triumphant season of 1914. Alfred also moved in royal circles, counting the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria as a personal friend. In 1884, the Prince paid Alfred the great honour of first visiting him at Halton House. He stayed two days, during which he shot on the bird-rich drives and was guest of honour. Alfred was a benevolent landlord. Sir Algernon West recorded in his diary for 1895 that “in the cold bitterness of winter mornings he [Alfred] sent a cart round every morning with hot coffee and bread and butter to every labourer on his estate”.

Halton and the RAF

When war broke out in 1914, Alfred offered the parklands of his glorious estate at Halton to the Army. In 1914 Halton was taken over for use as an army base. The excellent communication links at Halton made it an ideal place for billeting large numbers of men, and within a few months, the 21st Yorkshire Division were billeted at Halton, the first of many units to pass through its gates. Despite his attempts to avert war, Alfred counted Lord Kitchener amongst his closest friends, and in his will left £25,000 to the Lord Kitchener National Memorial Fund.  

In later life Alfred did not enjoy good health and he died after a short illness on 31 January 1918, aged 75. After his death, Halton and much of its domestic contents was inherited by Alfred’s nephew, Lionel de Rothschild (1882-1942); Seamore Place and its contents was left to Alfred’s illegitimate daughter Almina, later Countess Carnarvon. Lionel subsequently sold Halton House and much of the estate to the War Office and it was later occupied by the Royal Air Force, which created a training base, using the House as the Officers' Mess, demolishing the Winter Garden at the south end of the House and in 1935-1937 constructing a new south accommodation wing. Parade grounds and buildings were constructed by the RAF over the south and east park areas, retaining many estate trees. The site remains in use as part of an RAF base, although the RAF have made public their intention to leave Halton in the not too-distant future.

For further information about life at Halton, see Beechwoods and Bayonets: the Book of Halton Andrew Adam (Buckingham: Barracuda Books, 1983) and The Story of Halton House: Country Home of Alfred de Rothschild, Beryl E. Escott (Halton House, 2008, (fourth edition)).

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