Here’s a strange place. Once the country home of Alfred de Rothschild, Halton House is now owned by the Royal Air Force and has made many a film and television appearance. Today, its mellow sandstone facings offer a warm welcome for junior officers during the day as they make their trek from the main camp accommodation a few hundred metres away.
Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918) took over the Halton estate in 1880 with hopes of providing himself with a grand residence to match those of his brothers, brother-in-law and uncles elsewhere in Buckinghamshire (see the links below for more on the Rothschild family). A powerful and wealthy family which had made its mark in the world of high finance and international banking in the late eighteenth century, the Rothschilds were ambitious, discerning and driven. Attracting the attention of European royalty, the family soon gained important patrons in several countries where the males of the family could strengthen the family ties as well as the private purse. Alfred was the grandson of the first ‘English’ Rothschild – Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) and was set to continue in the family business from an early age. His own personal connections with royalty were cemented when studying for a degree in mathematics at Cambridge as he would meet lifelong friend the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (later Edward VII).
The Halton estate had the usual mixed history of ownership; the land belonged to the Monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury, after the dissolution it was bought by the Bradshawe family, then the Winchcombes and Fermors, eventually passing by purchase to the Dashwood family. By the early 1700s there was reportedly a fine Palladian style house on the estate, but by the end of the century it had deteriorated whilst the Dashwoods enjoyed their house at West Wycombe. By the mid-nineteenth century, the estate had been sold to Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879) – Alfred’s father. Upon inheriting his father’s estates, Alfred set to work improving where he could, but his desire for his own residence was great, and the Halton estate provided the answer with its sweeping vistas and command over the Chilterns.
The architect employed by Alfred may well have been William R. Rogers who was the design partner in the banking
firm. Yet, Alfred wanted something to mirror the style adopted by his brother-in-law who was completing Waddesdon Manor, a French inspired luxury. At Halton, the French chateaux style was clearly the dominant feature, but Alfred incorporated elements of Italianate, Scottish, and Moorish architectural styles. The result was a large house made up of four floors with an adjoining servants’ wing and winter garden. Inside, architectural flourish was and still is, everywhere; silk damask wall-hangings, parquet flooring, ornate plaster ceilings, gilded swags, frescoes and elaborate skylights.
It is the layout of Halton House that is so intriguing however, and it is possible to be misled by the size of the rooms simply by looking at the exterior of the building. The central salon, which rises through two floors to 31 feet, is about 48 feet long and 38 feet wide. To the north and south side of the salon are entrances to the garden and drive respectively with adjoining smoking room, boudoir, library and private sitting room spaces. To the west there is an ante room which once led to the winter garden (the latter was demolished in the 1930s to make way for RAF single officers’ accommodation), and to the east, the grand staircase. In each corner, there are large rooms designed as drawing rooms and dining spaces, each measuring about 45 feet long by 26 feet wide (see the billiard room, above).
The floor above contains the principal bedrooms which are smaller in size to the corresponding rooms below due to the balcony which surrounds the upper edge of the salon. Alfred ensured these rooms were the height of comfort and the four main ‘apartments’ consisted of a bedroom, dressing room and plumbed bathroom – each with radiator. On the second floor, there are extra bedrooms once known as the Bachelors’ Floor also with bathrooms, toilets and dressing rooms. On the third floor (barely visible from the outside) are the attic bedrooms once intended to be used by the servants of visitors to Halton.
Alfred de Rothschild died in 1918 after a short illness. He had continued working in the family business until he grew ill, but had admitted to growing tired and isolated after the death of his brothers in 1915 and 1917. In his will he left a vast number of objects from Halton House to friends and family. The house and estate passed to Alfred’s nephew Mr. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, because ‘he was the only Rothschild without a country house’, but it was rejected on the grounds that it was not suitable as a residence.
After emptying the house of its remaining contents, Lionel simply sold the whole estate for a nominal sum. Yet, it was not mere chance that the Royal Air Force came to purchase the Halton estate, since its military connection had already been established when Alfred was still alive. During the First World War, many of the staff at Halton left to aid the war effort, while Alfred attempted to support his friends in political and military circles by offering open areas of the estate for use by training engineering personnel. The house and grounds grew ever more decrepit due to a lack of daily care and attention. Worse still, Alfred offered the use of timber from the estate for the trenches in Europe. The old days of entertaining were over, and Halton House was changing. Eventually the training camps changed too and merged with the training schools supporting the Royal Flying Corps. By April 1918, this would be known as the Royal Air Force. It was only a matter of time before the RAF needed to incorporate the remaining facilities under Lord Trenchard’s desire for reorganisation.
Today, Halton House sits awkwardly between these two eras. Modern faces pass through, and yet the old grandeur has not really faded. The winter gardens were removed, some of the fireplaces were blocked up, and the plasterwork needs freshening up. However the house is suffering under great financial restraint. Many will see Halton House as a victim of previous financial mishaps and ‘disagreeable’ social changes, but for those visiting or training today, this kind of building must appear deeply attractive compared to the prefabricated huts and chalets more prevalent on military bases. Certainly, the house has been the backdrop as a television and film set of which the big names include The World is Not Enough, The Duchess, and The Queen but this money goes towards the big MOD pot, and only a small sum goes towards the actual station at Halton. Many rooms are in need of renovation, including the Salon which had its gilding covered in white paint during the 1970s!
I visited on a miserable wet weekend and made several dashes through the grounds in search of the old artificial lake. I was in good company however, as the point of my visit was to cheer on some friends who had completed their RAF training. With some waiting/standing around time, I took my opportunity to disappear on other occasions and sought out an impression of the house and its grounds. We all may prefer the country house museum, since we don’t have to think much about how the house functioned when it was fully habitable for a large family. At Halton however, there is a lot of leg work to be done. I poked my nose into places where I should not have been, and got my guidebook damp as I charged about the parkland! Needless to say, the Ministry of Defence often open up Halton House as part of Heritage Open Days in September. This is one for the more curious!
Beryl E Escott, The Story of Halton House. 4th Edition. (2008)
Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House. (1979)
The Rothschild family, their origins and the growth of high finance, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_family and the English branch of the Rothschilds with a list of key family members http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_banking_family_of_England
Other Rothschild properties in the Home Counties with links to those including Halton, Waddesdon, Mentmore and Tring http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothschild_properties_in_England
And for a bit of fun – MOD film locations archive http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.films.mod.uk/south_east/halton_1.htm