History

The Rothschilds and Waddesdon

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wanted an estate where he could escape London in the summer months to entertain family and friends for weekend house parties. The Vale of Aylesbury was already known as ‘Rothschildshire’ for the number of the houses owned by the family in the area.

When he came into his inheritance in 1874 he purchased a bare agricultural estate with a misshapen cone at its centre. The foundation stone was laid in 1877 and six years later the land had been transformed into a beautiful landscape by planting mature trees, bringing in the water supply from Aylesbury and removing 30 feet of soil to create the impressive approach to the house.

Ferdinand wanted the exterior of the house to be in the style of the French Renaissance châteaux of the Loire valley and engaged a French architect, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. Loath to build on a palatial scale, Ferdinand, nevertheless, found that he needed to add a wing nearly half the length of the original house to the west end.

In 1883 the completion of the house was celebrated with the first of many house parties. Running water and central heating were provided from the start and electricity was introduced in 1889. Ferdinand put in a small passenger lift for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1890 (on view in the Powerhouse), but she declined to ride in it, not trusting in the magic of electricity.

Very little changed until the Second World War when the rooms were emptied to accommodate 100 children evacuated from London, the first and only time that children lived in the house.

After the war James de Rothschild became increasingly concerned about the future of Waddesdon. He decided to bequeath Waddesdon to the National Trust, with a large part of the collections and an area of garden. The Trust was not complimentary about the architecture, but considered the collections as superlative.

James also left the largest endowment the Trust has ever received, for the continued upkeep of the property. This ensured that the house remained intact as the only example of the famous ‘Rothschild style’ of the 19th century and that it could be visited by the public.

His widow, Dorothy, oversaw the opening of the house to the public in 1959 and chaired the management committee until her death in 1988.

Shortly before her death, she began a survey into the state of the roof. Lord Rothschild, her heir, expanded the project into a complete renovation of the house and its services. The house was closed and emptied in 1990 and the first floor only opened again in 1995.

During this time the Wine Cellars were created, the dilapidated Dairy was rebuilt, and the formal planting of the Parterre was restored to its extravagant 19th-century appearance.

The Rothschild Foundation continues to manage the property on behalf of the National Trust, as well as providing the majority of the funding.

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