From the City & Back: Gunnersbury & the Rothschild Archive

by Melanie Aspey, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 11, 2002

This article is based on an illustrated talk given to the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society, highlighting material in The Rothschild Archive that originated at Gunnersbury and found its way to the safekeeping of the Archive.

The Rothschild Archive is doubly rich. Its basis is the collection of business records of N M Rothschild & Sons, the merchant bank founded by Nathan Mayer Rothschild, a Frankfurt man who developed his business as a textile merchant in Manchester in the decade or so leading up to 1809. In that year he became associated with New Court, St Swithin’s Lane, in the heart of the City of London, becoming a merchant banker whose descendants remained loyal to his profession and to his address. The business has remained at New Court, offering stability and security to the old records that were simply stashed away in the vault.

The second strength of the Archive is its collections of family papers and memorabilia, allowing the multi-faceted history of the Rothschild family to be studied and understood in the round. Many of these collections originated at Gunnersbury, were cared for there and were finally transferred to other family houses for safe keeping until they were passed to the Archive in recent years. The range of family material from Gunnersbury is substantial: letters, diaries, commonplace books, photographs, inventories and pictures. They provide the sources for this article.

Documentary evidence has proved immensely valuable, and not just for the history of the relationship between the Rothschilds and Gunnersbury. The Rothschild collecting gene – for pictures, books, butterflies and even fleas – has been the subject of many studies and can be traced through yet another of their great collections: their private documents. The Gunnersbury Rothschilds collected the documentary evidence of their activities, and one family member, Leopold, is a particular archival hero in this respect. The family papers he saved were rescued from Gunnersbury on its sale by his son Anthony and taken to Ascott, another family home. Anthony’s son, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, has made generous gifts of significant parts of the collection to The Rothschild Archive.

Who were the Rothschilds of Gunnersbury?

Nathan and Hannah
Nathan Rothschild (1777-1836) had made a substantial fortune thanks to his impressive business talents. He and his four brothers had served the British Government well during the allied campaign against Napoleon, bringing them to the forefront of the financial world. Nathan preferred not to accept the knighthood offered by the Government in the wake of the battle of Waterloo and, while his brothers used the titles given to all of them by Austria – the use of ‘de’ in their name, and later a barony – Nathan stuck to his guns and declared that plain Mr Rothschild was good enough for him.

By the 1820s the Rothschilds dominated the field as foreign loan contractors. They had established business houses in Paris, Vienna and Naples as well as London and the parent house in Frankfurt. They had become society figures too, but were anxious not to arouse anti-Jewish feeling through any ostentatious behaviour. In Frankfurt they family had long since moved beyond the confines of the Jewish ghetto and celebrated their post-war success by purchasing a garden – good for the health and likely to cause less resentment than a mansion. In Paris James had taken a substantial property for his business in rue Laffitte, while in Vienna, despite the significant financial services he rendered to the Empire, Salomon, as a Jew, could not buy a square inch of land in Austria for most of his life.

Nathan’s progress in the property market had been steady. When New Court became too cramped for booming business and expanding family, he moved the family out to 107 Piccadilly, subsequently choosing Clapton and then Stamford Hill as out-of-town bases. Finally, in 1835, he made a small dent in his fortune (he left estate that has been estimated at not far short of £5 million in 1836) and bought Gunnersbury Park. His wife Hannah dealt with the practicalities, receiving news of a successful bid in a letter of 1 July 1835: ‘Madam, I beg leave to inform you that Mr Copland’s executors will accept Mr Rothschild’s offer of £17,000 for the purchase of Gunnersbury Park, including Fixtures and Timber’. A collection of papers relating to the acquisition of Gunnersbury was recently donated by the family to the archive and included these particulars of the sale in 1835 (RAL 000/848)

Nathan and Hannah had every reason to think that they would enjoy Gunnersbury together in their later years, but Nathan’s death occurred just a year after the purchase. He died in Frankfurt where he was attending the wedding of his eldest son Lionel to Charlotte, daughter of his brother Carl, leaving Hannah a widow and the newly-wed Lionel as senior partner in the British family bank. Hannah took on responsibility for the development of the Gunnersbury estate, beginning in the days that she sat by her husband’s side during his final illness.

Many of her letters from this time survived at Gunnersbury and are now in the Archive. On 27 June she reported her satisfaction that ‘the house at Gunnersbury is getting on well’, and asks her son, ‘Could you manage, dear Nat, to let us have a good basket of fruit to be sent by the steam boat?’. And in July, ‘I long to see Gunnersbury. / I should like, dear Nat, that the fruit and other things might be properly disposed of for I should not like the gardener to have uncontrolled power to do what he likes with the things. It would be a bad commencement. I should like plenty of chicken to be reared – the butter might be salted and put in tubs, it would do for cooking, and the fruit preserved.’ She had also asked for the accounts – the workers were following plans drawn up by Sydney Smyrke (also in the Archive) – and hoped that her sons would be prompt in getting the information to her.

In her widowhood Hannah spent long periods of time out of the country, visiting relatives, especially her daughters Charlotte and Louise. The letters continued to fly back to England and document to some extent the developments on the estate. In 1842, for example, she prompts her sons to pay the rent on the nearby Manor House – eight guineas at the beginning of the month.

The gardens at Gunnersbury played an important role in the Rothschilds’ social relations. An acquaintance, Hannah reveals, on his way to Frankfurt could only carry with him a box of grapes. The pineapples he left behind were ‘so very good’ that Hannah ‘sent them to the Duchess of Gloucester; it came very opportune, she having the same day a large dinner party’ (Letter of 26 August 1844). Hannah died at Gunnersbury, supposedly after a boisterous romp down a grassy slope with her grandchildren. It was time for the next generation to make its mark.

Hannah’s children

Leonora’s wedding in 1875, to her cousin Alphonse; he holds up a wineglass which he is about to (RAL)

Charlotte’s eldest child, Leonora, was born in 1837 and the second, Evelina two years later, both on 25 August. Leonora married her cousin, Alphonse, with the marriage cele-brated at Gunnersbury. Evelina married another cousin, Ferdinand. Her premature death in childbirth had the most profound effect on the family. Ferdinand remained unmarried and devoted his life to his collections and to Waddesdon Manor. The couple had spent a honeymoon at his father’s estate Schillersdorf, in Silesia, from where Evelina commented that it was ‘not as green as our little Gunnersbury’. Local school prizes in her name were established by her parents after her death

The boys were all quite different in character: Natty, the first Lord Rothschild – and first Jewish peer – was a diffident child. He married his cousin Emma (Charlotte’s niece) and inherited 148 Piccadilly and Tring Park.Alfred was a splendidly eccentric character. In journals that she made for each of her children, Charlotte compared him favourably to Natty because he was so much at his ease in social situations. He inherited Halton in the Vale of Aylesbury from his father and rebuilt extensively. It was not to everyone’s taste: “oh but the hideousness of the thing, the showiness! The sense of lavish wealth, thrust up your nose!” cried Lady Frances Balfour, recovering from a visit.

Leopold, the great collector of family history, was the youngest and subsequent inheritor of Gunnersbury. He went to university in Cambridge in the 1860s, during which time his mother wrote to him almost every day, and these and subsequent letters from Charlotte form the core of our information about family life at Gunnersbury throughout the period.

The paterfamilias is Lionel. Thrust into a leading role in the business rather prematurely, he saw the dynamism of the family firm shift across the Channel to Paris, where his uncle James assumed the dominant role. Despite the caution under the new regime however, N M Rothschild & Sons was still a vibrant and forward-moving business and the family continued to make its presence felt in British society.

Jewish emancipation
After Nathan’s death, Lionel and his mother had continued to plan and campaign for his election as an MP, the major hurdle being, for a Jew, the requirement that all new MPs take an oath as a Christian. This obstacle meant that until the House of Lords agreed to a change in the wording of the oath, which they finally did in 1858, Lionel spent 11 years submitting himself to the electorate of the City of London as a Liberal candidate. It says much for the justice of his cause that the City voters continued to support him,
even though he was unable to represent them in Parliament during this time.

Gunnersbury was often filled with parties of visiting Rothschilds from Europe as well as friends, family and agents from all over the world. Constance, Lady Battersea (née de Rothschild) recalled: ‘At my uncle’s house distinguished political guests were constantly to be found. He and my aunt entertained enormously between the ‘fifties and ‘seventies, and were I to give a list of their frequent guests, I should mention nearly all the most remarkable men of the day, particularly those in the political world, as well as the most beautiful and fashionable women. As we grew older we were included in the invitations’.

The scene is also set by Disraeli in his novel Endymion – unmistakably a weekend party at Gunnersbury. Gunnersbury was thus far from being simply a comfortable home for the family. The scene of so many parties, soirées and fetes, it played an important role in the struggle for Jewish emancipation and for the establishment of the Rothschild family in British society.

Gunnersbury was just one of the magnificent Rothschild properties in England and Europe. From the 1850s, building went on at a furious rate. ‘Rothschildshire’ – that area of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire in which so many Rothschild houses were found – was identified by Hannah as a good place for her sons to hunt, in the hope of controlling their weight! Family competition ensured that the public interest in their estates was maintained.

Lionel’s brother, Mayer, built Mentmore Towers, so the architect, Joseph Paxton, was summoned to Paris by James and told, ‘Build me a Mentmore, only bigger!’ Ferrières was the result. Charlotte’s brother, Adolphe, gave Paxton one further commission; Pregny, by the shore of the lake in Geneva, is still privately occupied by the Rothschild family.

Gunnersbury’s gardens
The gardens continued in their significance. As we have seen, Hannah delighted in the fact that she could present friends with fruit grown in the garden. Charlotte published a catalogue of species of orchids grown on the estate and also kept up the fruit-growing tradition, sending Gunnersbury grapes to the European agents when they fell ill. The range of gardens at Gunnersbury included a fashionable Japanese garden, the like of which, according to the visiting Japanese Ambassador in the 1890s, had never been seen in Japan!

The family chose exotic tree ferns for the Orangery; the image is from 1873.

Rothschild business agents were drafted in on the horticultural side of things. Huth Gruning, agents in Lima, despatched enormous quantities of seeds and shrubs: ‘We shall be most happy to procure the seeds etc. of shrubs, plants and trees desired by the Baron Lionel de Rothschild for his park. The Coast districts of this country are very barren without any forests at all but of these there are plenty in the interior beyond the Ucuyali river, and are hitherto in the hands of the wild tribes of Indians, ‘Indios bravos’ who carry on no intercourse with the civilised Indians on this side of the abovementioned river. However, we shall apply to correspondents of ours in the Interior as well as in Tacna and Guayaquil and hope to obtain our object, particularly in latter places.’ (Letter from Huth Gruning, Lima, 10 February 1855. RAL XI/38/149)

A family member and cousin, Benjamin Davidson, visiting in 1871 ‘admired the growth of the young San Francisco cypress trees.’ Benjamin had been the agent for the Rothschilds in San Francisco.

Rothschild collections
Then there were the collections. Gunnersbury and 148 Piccadilly, Lionel’s townhouse, formed the backdrop for his magnificent collections, the scale of which is just now being revealed by researchers. Lionel tended to acquire whole collections en bloc, sometimes from family and friends. The most important of these was the Van Loon collection from Amsterdam in the late 1870s, which consisted of more than eighty Dutch and Flemish 17th-century pictures.

His originality as a collector was reflected in the fifteen English portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Romney and others. These were purchased before portraits were collected for their interest as works of art, and the taste was taken up in the late 19th century by contemporary celebrated dealers. His purchases, somewhere in excess of 150, show that he was particularly attracted to the French eighteenth century school, and an inventory compiled at his death in 1879 lists 119 Old Masters. His collection was divided between his three sons and some of the portion of pictures inherited by his son Leopold appear on the pages of the inventory of the Gunnersbury estate made after the latter’s death in 1917.

Sèvres is also a feature of Rothschild collections. Alfred loved French eighteenth century porcelain. Over his lifetime he added to the items of Sèvres he had inherited from his father to include more than sixty vases and objects, fourteen pieces of Sèvres-mounted furniture and six services, including two from French royal provenances.

Charlotte played a full role in society, heading numerous charities and dedicating herself with enthusiasm to philanthropic activities. She and other members of her family were active supporters of the Jews’ Free School, then in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, where she actually took some of the lessons. She made the journey from Gunnersbury to Bell Lane and was always thankful to return to the greenery. However some parts of the neighbourhood left a little to be desired, as these comments from a letter to Leopold show.
My drive in the afternoon led me through Brentford, which notwithstanding every thing that has been done for the improvement of the people, is as disgracefully dirty, evil smelling, a county town, filled with as many disreputable brawlers as it is possible to see, and to grieve over, while Ealing presents a comforting contrast, and is really a growing, thriving and pleasant looking village. (Letter from Charlotte 6 September 1871. RAL 000/84)

She obviously derived enormous satisfaction from her involvement in the local community and told Leopold about the laying of the foundation stone for almshouses at Ealing: ‘One must not be selfish, otherwise I could tell you of this morning’s function at Ealing. You can have no idea how very cordially I was greeted and cheered, nor how well Mr. Walpole spoke of your old mother. – Of course I received a silver trowel, that you know, is customary – but what struck me as delightfully unusual was the way in which it was offered; nothing was deducted from the fund collected for the Almshouses – but the poor subscribed to give me the silver tool and only think there were nearly seven hundred subscribers; I could not help being touched. – Not wishing to give me a bible, which would have included the New Testament, the parishioners of Christ Church gave me a psalter.’ (Letter from Charlotte to Leopold, 16 May 1872. RAL 000/84)

After Lionel’s death, Charlotte remained at Gunnersbury until 1884, when she too died. Their three sons divided their inheritance between them and Leopold, the youngest child, took over Gunnersbury. Leopold had married, in 1881, Marie Perugia of Trieste and the couple had three sons – Lionel, Evelyn and Anthony. Their wedding was a glittering social occasion. The Prince of Wales was a guest, attending his first Jewish ceremony, and a toast to his health was proposed by an old family friend, Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield. The press carried extensive reports about the history of both families, the names of the wedding guests and the lists of gifts for the couple.

detail from Kretschmar’s plan of Gunnersbury 1847

Leo was, we know, a great collector, but he was also enthusiastic about new inventions and fashion – cars, photography and gardens designs. Thanks to photography, and the family’s enthusiasm for it, we have a vivid record of Rothschild properties in Leo’s time – his son inherited the passion and used the autochrome process, giving us colour images of the family and its pursuits in Edwardian times.
Leopold had been inclined to see his country seat as Ascott, another of the Buckinghamshire properties acquired by his father, and Gunnersbury was used less and less by the family. After Leopold’s death in 1917, Lionel and his brother Anthony (their brother Evelyn had been killed in the war) took on the task of settling his estate. Some records in The Rothschild Archive document the individual sales that were made in the years leading up to the final sale of Gunnersbury in the 1920s.

Leopold’s son, Lionel, made a bold move beyond the traditional boundaries of Rothschild territory. Around the time of his engagement to Marie-Louise Beer in 1912, he bought a Hampshire estate at Inchmery, later expanding it to encompass Exbury. He was able to complete the expansion thanks to an inheritance from his uncle, Alfred, who died in 1918. His home, Halton, had been used by the War office during the war, and was in need of enormous amounts of work to restore it. On inheriting it, Lionel agreed a price with the government, and Alfred’s marvellous temple of pleasure is now RAF Halton.

Hannah Rothschild or her son, Lionel, must have acquired a Burmese Bell, which you can just see in an extract from a plan of Gunnersbury made in 1847. The bell now hangs at Exbury, where in the space of a generation a whole new, erroneous legend built up around it – that it had been brought back from Burma by one of the plant hunters financed by Lionel’s grandson (‘Exbury’ Lionel) and placed at a point where it could be rung to summon him in to lunch. Undoubtedly it was used in such a way, but thanks to the keen observation of a recent visitor to the Archive, its provenance, at least partially, can be ascertained.

The Rothschild family continues to run the banking business from New Court. Until the early 1960s the family members at the Bank sat together in one room – ‘The Room’ – surrounded by pictures of their ancestors, many of them once in rooms at Gunnersbury. Three grandsons of Leopold of Gunnersbury, Edmund, Leopold and Evelyn de Rothschild, are still directing the family business. In recent years the Archive has been handed over to a group of trustees who are keen to encourage research on all aspects of Rothschild history.

Melanie Aspey is Archivist at the Rothschild Archive where she has worked for the last 8 years. All the material quoted and illustrated in this article has come from that collection. Further information about the contents of the Archive and scope for research may be found at

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