The baron and Miss Alice: the real Downton Abbey

The baron and Miss Alice: the real Downton Abbey

For JC colour mag August 2022

When Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild died suddenly and unexpectedly on his 59th birthday, in December 1898, the JC devoted many columns to praising this most unusual man — an MP, a Justice of the Peace, a deputy lieutenant and High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, an ardent Freemason and a director of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.

Undoubtedly, however, Baron Ferdinand’s greatest achievement was the building of probably the greatest country house in England, Waddesdon Manor, and stocking it with the most magnificent art collection which remains, under the curation of the National Trust and the Rothschild Foundation, a major attraction today.

Baron Ferdinand’s passion for Waddesdon was continued after his death by his sister, known almost universally as “Miss Alice”, who divided her time between Waddesdon and her south of France villa, which she named in honour of Queen Victoria.

The Queen, in fact, like later members of the royal family, admired Waddesdon and paid an unprecedented visit to the house in 1890 to see for herself what all the fuss was about. Apparently, she was fascinated by the state-of-the-art electric lights and asked for them to be turned on and off repeatedly. It seems, from Michael Hall’s book, Waddesdon Manor – The Heritage of a Rothschild House, that among the household staff, there to look after only the baron and his sister, there was one servant specifically described as “attendant for the electric light”.

Hall lists the rest of the 24-strong indoor staff: “In 1891, Waddesdon Manor was home to a steward (a post usually described as a butler), a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen maid, two scullery maids, two still-room maids, an under butler, eight housemaids, two footmen, a porter, a needlewoman, an odd [job] man, and a hall boy (for carrying luggage and other minor duties)”

The hall boy, though low down the food chain, would have been very important — for once Waddesdon Manor was up and running, it became the focus of lengthy Saturday to Monday house parties, invitations to which were clamorously sought after by the social climbers of the day. “Invitations to the Waddesdon parties”, one jealous critic of the Rothschilds wrote, “means that the invited is a rising member of his profession, or is coming to the front in diplomacy or politics. Mere pretenders seldom make their way to this house, whose hospitalities can be denied by no-one to be judicious”.

The staff numbers, we are told, doubled when there were house parties, augmented by Baron Ferdinand’s French chef and Italian pastry-chef from his London house. The largest such party was of 40 people invited by Ferdinand. Alice did not entertain on such a grand scale.

Eight more staff were based at the Laundry and the Dairy and a further 16 at the Stables, including grooms and coachmen. The Dairy was home — of course — to Jersey, Hereford and Shorthorn cattle, allowing an unheard of morning beverage choice for house party guests.

As Pippa Shirley, Waddesdon’s present-day director, recounts: “Guests would spend Saturday to Monday at Waddesdon, where they would be woken by a footman who would ask if they would like tea, coffee, chocolate, or ‘a peach off the wall’ [from the conservatories]. If they chose tea, they were asked to pick from Assam, Ceylon or China tea, and then to say whether they wanted that with lemon, cream or milk.” If the answer was milk, the guest could choose which breed of cow. Decisions, decisions.

The inside luxury — because Baron Ferdinand was one of the world’s finest and most knowledgeable art collectors, housed in rooms which were made full use of by his guests — were part and parcel of the attraction of the house. Who would not want to write their letters home on a writing desk made for Marie Antoinette, or admire the 18th century wondrous mechanical elephant, still in the collection today? Fabulous china and Aubusson carpets — and 52 clocks —were complemented by the incredible gardens, which were and are a high point of Waddesdon.

Records suggest that during Baron Ferdinand’s time there were at least 66 gardeners; while once Miss Alice took over after Ferdinand’s death, “wages were paid to 53 gardeners, of whom 14 were employed in the glasshouses”. At least one guest recorded seeing an entire outside bedding area of 1,000 plants, re-planted overnight by an army of gardeners, after a hailstorm had destroyed the plants.

Today, says Pippa Shirley, there are 12 gardeners, tasked with maintaining the Waddesdon gardens, plus a further six at the nearby Eythrope Walled Garden; but there are “just under 200” permanent and seasonal staff and around 350 volunteers, on hand to help with the vast number of visitors to the house and gardens every year. Including the servants’ quarters, there were 140 rooms in Ferdinand’s day; 50 rooms are available for public viewing today.

The baron — whose wife, Evelina, died in childbirth after they had only been married a year — never remarried. Though he was fond of social life, he seems to have been a distant and rather private figure. One guest recalled him sitting at the head of a dinner table, presiding over a lavish banquet, while his own place setting was crowded with a selection of medicine bottles. Waddesdon’s records and archives tell us that “Ferdinand’s digestion was extremely sensitive following a serious illness in 1880, and from then until his death he mostly subsisted on cold toast and water”.

Nevertheless Ferdinand went to great lengths to see to the comfort of his guests, even persuading his railway company to set up a station just down the road from the manor so that people did not have to leave their train at Aylesbury. The station itself is no longer there, though the platform remains.

In its appreciation of Ferdinand, the JC reminded its readers that despite his vast wealth, he had used it for good in the local community, giving work to hundreds of people. He was not a “selfish worldling”, the JC declared: quite the contrary. “In his personal habits he was exceedingly simple, dressing carelessly and not above lolling on the grass with a pipe in his mouth, so that he was once warned off his own grounds for contravening the regulations”. He had even, the JC reported, “been seen in a third-class carriage”.

Members of the Rothschild family have owned, lived at and managed Waddesdon since the purchase of the estate in 1874. And right from the beginning, says Pippa Shirley, “Waddesdon had central heating, with its own gas plant, with gas piped in from the bottom of the hill”. Though the wiring of the house has been updated to comply with modern standards, the actual cavities through which the pipework ran, still remain in the original positions and are in use today.

This year marks the centenary of the death of Alice de Rothschild, who took over Waddesdon after Ferdinand died. She is widely said to have been responsible for what were known as “Miss Alice’s Rules”, a set of unwritten guidelines which are thought to form the basis of the present-day National Trust approach to looking after priceless art collections.

For example, according to Dorothy Rothschild, who, with her husband James (Ferdinand and Alice’s great-nephew) took over the house after Alice’s death, Miss Alice insisted that “no female hand was allowed to dust the decorative Sèvres vases in the various sitting rooms; that was the responsibility of one particularly trusted man only”. Alice also commanded her staff: “when touching china, always use two hands and maintain complete silence”.

Women are certainly allowed to touch the china today, but, says Pippa Shirley, “the eight stewards (four part-time), who are the conservationists and look after the objects in the house, still maintain this tradition. You’ll come across a room with a sign on the door which says ‘Porcelain cleaning: please do not speak’”. The idea, she says, is that there should be no distraction while precious objects are being handled. Alice was also insistent that there should be as little light as possible in rooms where there were textiles, so that the fabrics did not fade — a practice which has become the norm in modern conservation.

The present-day administration holds very few records relating to the management of Waddesdon Manor as a house. There are no housekeepers’ or butlers’ records, very few household accounts or staffing records. Neither, unfortunately, are there any indications of Judaica acquisitions within the art collections, or records of any sort of Jewish practice by either Ferdinand or his sister.

Pippa Shirley believes both siblings were “fairly relaxed” about Jewish observance, although both of them laid the foundation stone for the North London Synagogue in 1868, while Ferdinand was treasurer of the Board of Guardians [the precursor of Jewish Care] from 1868-1875, was warden of the Central Synagogue and founded the Ferdinand de Rothschild Technical Scholarship at Stepney Jewish Schools. Both Ferdinand and Alice are buried in West Ham’s Jewish cemetery.

There is, however, a wonderful letter from Ferdinand to Lord Rosebery, dated September 29 1884 (Yom Kippur) in which Ferdinand remarked: “My co-religionists…[are] making to the dinner table after a fast of 24 hours. I have fasted today from 10-2 and again from 3. Unlike my brethren I shall not eat again until this evening.”

It was not, almost needless to say, a kosher household: when Queen Victoria visited Waddesdon on May 14 1890, the full-scale banquet included soup (Windsor, naturally), followed by Norwegian trout, and then stuffed quails and fillets of beef (the Queen had seconds, according to Ferdinand). There was also a now illegal, but then wildly popular, dish of ortolans, which apparently were songbirds drowned in alcohol. And after this massive lunch the Queen, who had only come for the day, retired to the State Bedroom for a rest before heading out into the gardens, to plant a tree in honour of her visit.

There is much for the present-day visitor to enjoy and understand about the Rothschild connection with the land of Israel. In 2018 Lord Sacks put up a mezuzah in the doorway of what has been renamed the James and Dorothy Rothschild room. On display are treasures such as exquisite embroideries — probably made in Italy in the early 18th century for a private synagogue — which depict the First and Second Temples, made with untarnished gold and silver threads.

There’s a copy of the Balfour Declaration there, too, the 1917 document which was part of the British government pledge to support the founding of the Jewish state — in the collection because, of course, it was written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to the Lord Rothschild of the day.

Pippa Shirley arrived at Waddesdon 22 years ago, rising to head of collections at the house, becoming director earlier this year. Waddesdon is part of a four-year research project on Jewish Country Houses, a collaboration with Oxford, Durham and Cardiff universities, the National Trust and Strawberry Hill House. A mostly 19th century phenomenon, the Jewish country house traces the integration of upper class Anglo-Jews into mainstream society — and the Rothschilds were at the forefront. Baron Ferdinand and his sister Alice were not just accepted into English aristocracy, but were actively pursued for their style and influence.

Today, thanks to Lord Rothschild, the fourth family member to look after Waddesdon, the house is in better shape than ever. There are restaurants in what were the 19th century kitchens and the Stables, glorious gardens and fountains, and enviable wine cellars, established by Lord Rothschild in an effort to bring together the world class wines produced by his family’s Chateau Lafitte.

And, of course, film-makers and tv companies queue up to reflect Waddesdon in their programmes. It’s stood in as Cinderella’s castle in a recent Disney film, and featured, inevitably, in some early Downton Abbey episodes — only the outside because as Pippa Shirley explains, filming interiors is a rare, because major, undertaking. (It would necessitate the wholesale removal of vulnerable and fragile collections from various rooms).


She adds: “I think Waddesdon is unique because it represents the lifestyle and the collecting at this very elevated level, which the Rothschilds became famous for. It’s the only one of the 14 Rothschild houses built across Europe which showcases that style, and how they lived their lives. There are other Rothschild houses with art collections, but not on the same scale as Waddesdon, which is really on another level. We have objects which are the best they can be of their type”. The renowned mechanical elephant, for example, was in the house when Ferdinand played host to the Shah of Persia, whose visit — and the workings of the elephant — were written up in vast detail by the local paper, the Bucks Herald.

From Miss Alice’s letters to her head gardener, George Johnson, we know that Waddesdon went into hibernation during the First World War. Alice had retreated to Bournemouth and since large numbers of the male staff had joined the army, it wasn’t possible to run Waddesdon in the same way. But the remaining staff were asked to help the war effort by growing potatoes on the parterre and turning over one of the aviaries to breed rabbits.

During the Second World War, when James and Dorothy were in charge, the house was originally offered as a convalescent hospital, but that did not happen. Instead — in the only time that children lived at Waddesdon —James and Dorothy took in evacuees from two Croydon schools. There were about 100 children living at Waddesdon between 1940 and 1942. Fortunately all the precious art and china was packed away in the basement, though Dorothy noted wryly after the war that an intensive cleaning operation was mounted in order to rid the wooden panelling of chalk marks and fingerprints.

Perhaps the last word should go to that same jealous critic of Waddesdon, back in the 1890s. “No considerable Jew, certainly no Rothschild, today waits in the ante-room of peers, cabinet ministers or princes. These have become the persons who wait for the honour of the invitations from the Jews”. Someone who was clearly desperate to visit the supreme country house — and never made it.

  • 15 August, 2022