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Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild

Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) was the son of Anselm and Charlotte. Ferdinand was born in Paris and educated in Vienna. England, his mother's home country became his adopted home, even after the tragic death in childbirth of his wife Evelina whom he had married on 7 July 1865. A lasting memorial to his wife was the Evelina Hospital for Sick Children in London, which he established and supported.

In Rothschild fashion, Ferdinand settled into the community around his estate at Waddesdon, representing Aylesbury as Liberal MP from 1885 and serving as JP and Deputy Lieutenant and Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. An active Freemason, he was a founder member and master of the Ferdinand de Rothschild Lodge in 1892.

Creating Waddesdon

Waddesdon Manor is perhaps the most well-known of all the great Rothschild houses in England. In 1874 Ferdinand bought “a lovely tract of land, [with] beautiful soil...and very pretty scenery” in the Vale of Aylesbury.  Inspired by the châteaux of the Valois, Ferdinand employed Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur to build him his own French-style country house, with towers and external staircases such as he had seen while in Touraine.  Destailleur submitted elaborate plans for a vast mansion, nearly twice the length of the house as built, with a ballroom and a winter garden. Ferdinand wanted the scale reduced and a new design was approved, although the architect warned him that ‘one always builds too small’ a mistake Ferdinand later rued.

Today, you come upon Waddesdon through trees, a glimpse of ornate chimneys here, a turret there. It nestles on top of its hill, surrounded by immaculate gardens and belts of mature trees giving onto open parkland. It fits its site so naturally that it is hard to picture the scene before the house was built. Here there had been a bare hilltop looking down upon the humble village of Waddesdon.

Only Ferdinand seemed to see the potential and it was a potential that needed literally earth-moving efforts to realise. There was no water here, so work began with a seven-mile pipeline to provide a supply. The soil gave no firm foundation, so thirty feet of sand had to be sliced from the hilltop - millions of tons. A railway was built up the hillside to bring stone, brick, every little thing. The grounds were landscaped to create parkland and gardens with plenty of colourful trees and shrubs, and at the end, after six years, to give the gardens an established feel, full-grown trees, their roots wrapped in massive canvas bags, were hauled into position by teams of sixteen straining horses. 

The Manor 

Waddesdon Manor took nearly seven years to complete, the first large house party being given there in 1884. Guests were amazed to find the two towers of the Chateau de Main tenon; the chimneys of Chambord.; the dormer windows of Act; two versions of the staircase of Blois. The enormous manor consisted of seventy rooms and, as a contemporary journalist put it, was 'an absolutely stunning circumvention of cosiness'. Most of the furniture came from France where it once had been in the possession of the royal family, and priceless objets d'art included Savonncrie carpets, Beauvais tapestries, Sevres porcelain. Many of the pictures were from 18th century Parisian interiors, but Ferdinand mingled these successfully with English portraits and Dutch masters. In a family of collectors of distinction, Ferdinand was pre-eminent. The Waddesdon Bequest Room at the British Museum was established to accommodate the enormous collection he left the institution in his will.

Waddesdon after Baron Ferdinand

After Ferdinand’s death in 1898, the estate passed to his sister Miss Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922). Miss Alice was closely involved with the designs of Waddesdon, having her own suite on the first floor. She also enjoyed collecting and would purchase works of art in competition with Ferdinand or other relatives. At the famous Hamilton Palace Sale of 1882, she, Ferdinand and Edmond all bought important pieces of French 18th-century furniture.

She is best remembered for her stringent housekeeping regime, known as 'Miss Alice's rules' and her almost fanatic love of the gardens. Her methods form the basis of the National Trust's own conservation policies. When the Prince of Wales, by then Edward VII, paid a visit to Waddesdon, and asked to raise the blinds to see the paintings, Miss Alice refused. Her meticulous care extended to the grounds of Waddesdon too – in 1906, she designed a drip tray to fit under her limousine so that every drop of oil or water was collected so as not to spoil the gravel of her drive, or those of any relative she happened to visit.

Miss Alice left the estate to her great-nephew, James de Rothschild (1878-1957), who bequeathed the house to the National Trust in 1957. James’ wife, Dorothy (1895-1988), made Jacob, 4th Lord Rothschild her heir in 1988.

Go to the National Trust: Waddesdon Manor »

Waddesdon and Royalty

In 1890, Queen Victoria asked Baron Ferdinand if she might pay him a visit. She was not disappointed in what she saw, and was only mildy disconcerted when Lord Hartington, the future Duke of Devonshire, absent-mindedly shook her hand instead of kissing it. However, she recovered her composure after a ride through the grounds in a Bath chair pulled by a pony. 'The host was as delightful,' she wrote in her diary, 'as the place was beautiful.'

The Prince of Wales' last visit to Waddesdon before Baron Ferdinand died did not end as satisfactorily as the Queen's. The Prince, one Monday morning in July, 1898, intent on having breakfast before catching a train to Windsor, left his bedroom and came down the West Stairs. Lord Warwick, who was also staying in the house, described what happened next in his 'Memoirs of Sixty Years'. He wrote:

"I was out early and sitting on a chair in front of the house talking to one of the guests - I can't remember to whom. Suddenly the butler came out and asked anxiously if I knew where the Baron was. I replied I had not yet seen him, and asked if anything was amiss, as the poor man was greatly agitated. ' I fear ' he replied, ' that the Prince of Wales has met with a bad accident. He slipped heavily on the spiral staircase, and is now sitting down there unable to move'. I hurried into the house, and found the Prince where the butler had left him, sitting on a step of the main circular staircase. He smiled re-assuringly at me, although I could see at a glance that he must be in great pain, and said: ' I fear I have broken something in my leg; my foot slipped, and as I fell I heard a bone crack '. Two servants came up at that moment bearing a long invalid chair, and fearing from what the Prince had said that he had split or broken his knee-cap, I tied his leg straight out onto one of the parallel carrying poles. Then the local doctor arrived, and the Prince was allowed to sit on a sofa with his leg down, to have his breakfast before leaving... The Prince was ever the kindliest of men, and his great anxiety was to reassure Baron Ferdinand, who was so grieved to think he should have met with a serious accident under his roof."

The incident had an even more disastrous ending than that recorded by Lord Warwick. It appears the Prince was placed in a carriage at Waddesdon, with the carrying-chair, and driven to Aylesbury station. The right platform from Aylesbury to Windsor could only be reached by traversing a high bridge over the rails which is approached, at either end, by steep turning stairs. The Prince, now a big heavy man of nearly sixty years of age, was safely carried from the carriage, into the station and up the stairs on to the bridge. But then his weight became too much for the carrying chair. It broke, depositing him unceremoniously and most painfully in the middle of the bridge which from time to time, was engulfed by the acrid smoke of trains passing underneath it.

A day in the life of a house guest at Waddesdon

Waddesdon was built for entertaining, and opened only between May and August for weekend house parties. No expense was spared in making the house comfortable; twenty-four indoor staff looked after the guests; the French chef and the Italian pastry chef travelled to and from London. Central heating was installed from the start, and electricity in 1889. This delighted Queen Victoria who requested to have the lights repeatedly turned on and off.

Ferdinand spared no expense to create the right atmosphere for his guests. Once Lady Warwick arrived in a thunderstorm and was dismayed to find that the masses of red geraniums had been beaten down by the storm. She happened to arise very early next morning and looked out to see an army of gardeners at work, taking out he damaged plants and putting in new ones, which had been brought from the glass-houses in pots. She recalled "after breakfast that morning I went into the grounds, the gardens had been completely transformed!"

Dorothy de Rothschild described the usual routine of a summer day when visiting Waddesdon in Baron Ferdinand's time:

“After a varied and leisurely breakfast a busy programme of inspection normally awaited [Baron Ferdinand's] guests. The house-party might first descend the hill to the stables to admire or criticize the horses, pausing, perhaps, to feed the emus in their pen and braving the perfume of a grotto in which resided a mountain goat, they would then arrive at the glass-houses. Here they would wander through house after house of flowering exotic beauty. The Dairy was the next port of call, where those who wished to do so could sample the cream temptingly displayed in great bowls set out in a room embellished with decorative tiling. The Dairy 'Curio Room' would then be inspected. This housed Kandler models of Dresden animals and birds and ancient examples of faience and other curiosities. Toiling up the hill again presumably gave the Baron's guests an appetite for luncheon.

Then, after a short rest, it would be time to go to Eythrope. [Miss Alice's adjoining property]. A long line of open landaus would draw up outside the front door; Baron Ferdinand's guests would get in and, in a flurry of parasols and panama hats, would go clip-clopping through the park, over the road, and down through Miss Alice's long avenue of chestnuts. Then, I am told, it all depended on the weather, where they would have tea. If it was overcast they would drive straight to the Pavilion, but if the sun shone, they would transfer themselves into a large electric launch, manned by boatmen in straw hats, banded with blue and yellow ribbons-the family racing colours. They would then glide up the Thame to an enchanting tea-house Miss Alice had built on the river at the farthest point of her property. But the weather can change at a moment's notice in England, as we all know.

I had an old friend at Waddesdon who had  worked for the family for many years. One day I asked him what his first job had been and he described it to me with relish and enjoyment. He said, as a boy of 12, he had been the 'cake-holder'. He explained that on cloudy days, the delectable tea provided at Eythrope for the approaching guests from Waddesdon, would be set out in the dining-room of the Pavilion. Then, just as the landaus were arriving, the weather might change, the sun would shine, and it was realised that the guests might prefer to go up river. Happily the Thame does not pursue a straight course through the meadows, but winds its way. This made it possible for the big iced cakes, the gingersnaps and wafer-thin sandwiches to be whipped off the table and packed into a pony-trap. This would be driven by a colleague straight across the fields to the tea-house at a speed which would enable the tea to beat the approaching launch by a short head. My old friend's task had been to stand in the trap, poised over the cakes, keeping them from over-setting and their fragile icing from damage, as they careered over the rough ground. Angel cakes, he remembered, had been particularly volatile and apt to bounce. As he recalled those long-gone summer afternoons he implied that those, indeed, had been the days.”

Tea, coffee or a peach off the wall

A story that has appeared in many books about the Rothschilds and has been attributed to each in turn was, in fact, first told by Prime Minister Asquith after a visit to Waddesdon. It began as soon as the curtains were drawn in the morning. A footman followed by an underling with a trolley would query politely:

'Tea, coffee or a peach off the wall, Sir?'

'Tea, please.'  

'China tea, Indian tea, or Ceylon tea, Sir?'

'China, if you please.'

'Lemon, milk or cream, Sir?'

'Milk, please.'

'Jersey, Hereford or Shorthorn, Sir?'

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