Alfred Charles de Rothschild (1842-1918)
Alfred de Rothschild was the fourth of five children of Lionel and Charlotte de Rothschild and was born in London on 20 July 1842. He spent his childhood in the family homes at 148 Piccadilly and Gunnersbury. As a young man, Alfred attended King's College School, and subsequently Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied Mathematics for two terms. It was at Trinity College that Alfred formed a lasting friendship with the Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII), mixing with the Prince of Wales's circle rather too much for his mother's liking. It was at Cambridge that Alfred took up acting. He left Cambridge without taking a degree.
Banker and diplomat
At the age of 21, Alfred became a partner at N M Rothschild & Sons at New Court. It was here that he learnt the business of banking from his father and made valuable contacts in European banking circles. Alfred's wide social circle formed a useful source of information, much appreciated by the Paris House in particular, and also supplied a long list of private clients, including many from the world of entertainment. The finances of Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Arthur Sullivan and Henry Irving all received a boost through the benign intervention of Alfred.
In 1868, at the age of 26, Alfred became a director of the Bank of England, the first Jew to be appointed, and after his departure from this appointment, no other Jew was on the directorate for more than fifty years. His abrupt departure from the Bank of England in 1889 came about over a slightly unorthodox situation, when Alfred was accused of investigating the private account of an art dealer who he suspected of charging him a price 'out of all proportion to decency!' However, the matter was resolved with exchanges of apologies on both sides in 1894.
Alfred served as British delegate at an international conference on bimetallism in November 1892. Before the First World War he served as Consul-General for Austria in London, following in the footsteps of previous members of the Rothschild family who had served in this role. Alfred liked to move in diplomatic circles and was keen that his voice should be heard in policy discussions. He arranged numerous meetings to promote Anglo-German relations, and facilitated a series of informal meetings between ministers and contacts at the German Embassy with a view to Anglo-German rapprochement; The Times of 24 December 1919 made public a letter from Alfred to the German Emperor in Berlin in which he attempted to broker a deal to prevent war.
With his two brothers, Alfred was an active partner in the business at New Court, although both he and his younger brother Leopold were in the shadow of their older brother, Nathaniel (‘Natty’), 1st Lord Rothschild, Senior Partner. When Lord Rothschild died in 1915, Alfred took over as head of the business, although in poor health and no longer actively interested in the firm. Ably supported by his nephews, Lionel and Charles, Alfred struggled on at New Court through the First World War which he had tried so much to prevent through his diplomatic efforts. At his insistence, the gallery at New Court was packed with sandbags to protect the Bullion Room below from zeppelin attacks, and an air raid shelter was built in the corner of the Drawn Bond Department. The Royal Mint Refinery, owned and run by the Rothschilds since 1852, was converted to munitions production, and a special system designed to relay air raid warnings to New Court. Alfred, along with many other members of the family sent parcels of food and luxuries to troops at the front.
Halton House and 1 Seamore Place
Alfred was fastidious in dress, an aesthete and connoisseur, and expansive in his hospitality. He often wore a scarlet carnation of a particular hue, one for the morning and one for the evening, all the year round, and was known as ‘a very dapper little man.’ He travelled in style, with two valets and in his own private railway carriage, and at Halton he kept a garage of the latest and most expensive automobiles. He enjoyed life and living and he was much loved, although he could be autocratic and candid in his disapproval of anything that offended his artistic eye.
Upon the death of his father in 1879, Alfred inherited a 1,400-acre estate at Halton in Buckinghamshire. As Alfred lacked a country retreat and the Halton estate did not provide one, Alfred set about building a house in the style of a French chateau. Work started around 1880 and Halton House was finished in July 1883. Alfred also possessed an imposing town house in Mayfair, at 1, Seamore Place. The house had wonderful uninterrupted views of Hyde Park. Both Alfred’s houses formed magnificent backdrops to his exquisite art collections.
He was a lavish host; it was said there was no more popular a host in Mayfair than Alfred de Rothschild. Alfred received many visitors at Halton and Seamore Place. He did not confine his hospitality to his own class. Every day good food was sent from the kitchens, always the very best of his cook's efforts, to his many friends, and he sent many supplies to the poor and needy. One commentator said that Alfred kept at least “four chefs in his kitchen all ready to supply and carry out the newest and daintiest ideas.”
At Halton, Alfred kept a private zoo and circus. There were performing monkeys, ponies, dogs, gazelles and trained tumblers and acrobats, and his guests might be entertained by his personal orchestra, which Alfred liked to personally conduct, with a diamond-tipped baton. Alfred regularly entertained his many friends from the theatrical world, including Lily Langtry, Adelina Patti (who only ever appeared at Alfred’s house in a private capacity and at no other house in London), and many acting luminaries and impresarios. 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. At a very grand dinner party, Alfred arranged for a Mr Charles Bertram, a ‘prestidigitator’ to amuse the Prince and the distinguished company.
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”. At New Court Alfred was no less generous; he and his brothers would give a gift of 6000 pheasants to the employees of the London Omnibus Company at Christmas time. It was an old custom before the motor bus going back to the 1870s, when the Rothschilds used to drive into the City from their family home at Gunnersbury in a drag or phaeton. The London omnibus drivers rejoicing in such a show of horseflesh, used to give them road, so that they rarely needed to break pace and in return the brothers sent them pheasants every Christmas. The busmen acknowledged the gift by attaching the Rothschild racing colours of dark blue and yellow to the whips.
When war broke out in 1914, Alfred offered the parklands of his glorious estate at Halton to the Army. 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.
Alfred was a close personal friend of Disraeli (later the Earl of Beaconsfield), who lived at Seamore Place towards the end of his life. Alfred was one of the organisers of Disraeli’s funeral through London and hence to High Wycombe in 1881. In 1889, Alfred was appointed as the inaugural High Sheriff of the County of London. Alfred was a generous benefactor to Art and Theatre. A lifelong patron of the arts, and a discerning collector, Alfred was a trustee of the National Gallery, (he also donated money to the National Art Gallery for acquisitions and advised on purchases) and he was a founder trustee of the Wallace Collection. He was a usual figure at First Nights at Drury Lane, The Lyceum and Covent Garden. He was also a director of the Royal General Theatrical Fund. On Wednesday 19 April 1893 Alfred entertained his relation Lord Battersea (who had married Alfred’s cousin Constance de Rothschild in 1877) in his box at the Haymarket Theatre for the “brilliant” first night of Oscar’s Wilde second London play, ‘A Woman of No Importance’”. Alfred took on the Gaiety Theatre when it ran into financial difficulties and under his patronage, the theatre thrived. He was made CVO in 1902, awarded the Légion d'Honneur by the government of France and the 1st Class Order of the Crown by the Kingdom of Prussia, and made Grand Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. Alfred de Rothschild had an illegitimate child from a relationship with Mrs. Marie Boyer Wombwell. In 1895, aged 19, their daughter Almina married George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, and became Lady Carnarvon, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. Alfred provided Almina with a £500,000 dowry that allowed her husband to maintain the family estate, Highclere Castle.
Death and legacies
Alfred suffered from life-long hypochondria, which often manifested itself in seemingly eccentric behaviour. He had all the water he used in his London house brought up in special cars each day from his wells on his estate at Halton; this was perhaps a sensible option given the quality of London water at the time. At his lavish banquets he was known to eat just dry toast. In later life Alfred did not enjoy good health and he died after a short illness on 31 January 1918, aged 75. He was interred in the Willesden Jewish Cemetery in North London.
Upon Alfred’s death, Halton passed to his nephew, Lionel. It was subsequently sold to the War Office and was later occupied by the Royal Air Force; it remains in their possession today as RAF Halton. He left the Carnarvons (including Almina’s two children, Henry, Lord Porchester and Lady Evelyn Herbert), large bequests as well as gifting to Almina personally 1, Seamore Place, and its contents.
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)