About Alfred de Rothschild
More on Baron Alfred Charles de Rothschild
By William Cross, FSA Scot
Alfred Charles de Rothschild pictured as a young man
Baron Alfred Charles de Rothschild, had small feet and was Jewish. He possessed a gigantic fortune, made from his family’s banking activities. Alfred was a whimsical man of medium stature and dark complexion, with carefully curled and oiled whiskers. He often wore a scarlet carnation of a particular tint, one for the morning and one for the evening, all the year round.
As well as his country home at Halton House, near Tring, Buckinghamshire, Alfred owned a London house ( actually more a mansion ) at No 1, Seamore Place, Park Lane, Mayfair which he acquired from Mr. Christopher Sykes, the second son of Sir Tatton Sykes, the 4th Baronet. [ see footnote i] . It was bought for a sum that Mr. Sykes was unable to refuse. [ see footnote ii]. It was said there was no more popular a host in Mayfair than Alfred de Rothschild. The house had a wonderful uninterrupted views of Hyde Park and was full of important works of art. [see footnote iii]
Alfred received all kinds of 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, especially those who were sick. 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.”
In 1878 the Shah of Persia conferred the Order of the Lion and Sun upon Alfred as a token of appreciation in regard to certain financial dealings. He was an astute man of business, sometime a director of the Bank of England. His competence as an economist was recognised when he represented his country at an International Monetary Conference in Brussels in November 1892.
Alfred and his two brothers Nathan and Leopold had certain resemblances to Dickens' Cheeryble brothers.[iv] They met every day, except for a month in the year, and spent most of the day together at the N M Rothschild & Sons, Merchant Bankers at St Swithin’s Lane, New Court, London. Sadly, they all died within three years of each other during the Great War. All the Rothschilds were generous benefactors and leading participants on the world’s money markets.
Alfred regularly entertained Prince Albert, ( Bertie) the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. They met first as a young men at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Sunday concerts were a particular favourite of Bertie, the Duke of York and other male members of the Royal Family. There was no formalities, no speeches, no few remarks, nor healths to be drunk but if anybody had a good story that did not exceed three minutes he was welcome to fire it off.
There was always a brilliant supper party and artists including Lily Langtry, Madame Patti and such stars of music opera supplied the singing to which there was dancing. Madame Adelena Patti only ever appeared at Alfred’s house in a private capacity and at no other house in London.
Enchanting dinner parties were given by Alfred for all of London great theatricals, including the Bancroft, Tree, Terry, Irving and Seymour Hicks acting and management dynasties as well as visiting luminaries and impresarios. Parties in the house were never crowded in the ordinary sense of the word, there was always room to sit down and hear the music in comfort.
Alfred had a private band play during supper, which was served not only in the dining-room but in the charming apartment which gives out of the concert-room, and where all the luxuries of the season are served, turtle soup being a standing order. Alfred often personally conducted the band.
Alfred was a close personal friend of Disraeli, who lived at Seamore Place towards the end of his life when he was known as the Earl of Beaconsfield. Alfred was one of the organizers of Disraeli’s funeral through London and hence to High Wycombe in 1881. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon ( when he was Lord Porchester ) often saw Disraeli , when he accompanied Alfred or visited Highclere and he often stayed at Bretby Park with Porchester’s beloved grandmother, Anne, Countess of Chesterfield.
In January 1884 the Prince of Wales paid Alfred the great honour of visiting him at Halton House, his Estate at Tring among the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire. He inherited this in 1879 when his father Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, died.
HRH stayed two days, during which he shot on the bird-rich preserves and was guest of honour at a very grand dinner party. Alfred arranged for Mr Charles Bertram, “a prestidigitator to amuse he Prince and the distinguished company.”
Halton was Alfred’s country lair. It was built to his own personal desire for entertaining at “week-ends”, the latter was a phrase he himself rather invented. Halton had its very own fire brigade. It was a veritable museum. Among Almina’s favourite piece there was a marvelous clock made like a tree which played tunes. It was set with silver birds flying through the branches and a rivulet of flowing water.
Alfred was a thoughtful landlord, although never typically English. Algernon West [ see footnote v] records in his Diary for 1895:
“ 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”.
When Lady Batttersea ( a Rothschild before her marriage ) regaled others with the same tale she invariably turned the bread and butter into cakes.
The last time the Halton Estate saw great rejoicing was in 1914 before the horrors of the Great War gripped all. During that War Halton was given over by Alfred to the War Office. A little know fact is that Alfred personally tried to stop the War, with a personal plea to his old friend the Kaiser of Germany. [ see footnote vi]
The War was an event, together with that of the loss of friends and the many personal family losses that left my dear father confused and depressed and during which he succumbed to his final hours. How much he clung to happier memories. 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 wearing the Rothschild racing colours of dark blue and yellow. Almina remembered even in the early days of the motor car bus seeing the pheasants hung in the bonnets of buses and pieces of Rothschild ribbon tied on the lamps.
When Bertie became King, Alfred loaned his private orchestra to Whitelaw Reid, the American Ambassador in 1906 to play sweet music during the dinner at Dorchester House, Park Lane, in honour of King Edward VI. Queen Alexandra was not excluded from Alfred’s considerations. Her pet Pekinese spaniel Xerxes was given to her by him. She remarked factiously that he was almost as silly as herself about his pets.
Alfred also counted Lord Kitchener, a victim of the First World War, who died in 1916, as amongst his closest friends. He was so desirous of keeping alive his never-to-be-forgotten memory that he left £25,000 to the Lord Kitchener National Memorial Fund, in 1918. A neighbour of Alfred was Lord Inchcape at No 4, Seamore Place, provided a god send in finding safe passage for Lord Porchester, his wife and Almina’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, from Cairo after Lord Carnarvon’s death in 1923.
Alfred could be eccentric but always for the right reasons. For instance 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 House near Tring in Hertfordshire. This was more by way of ensuring his good health was sustained as he found London water quite horrific. Alfred always had a delicate body constitution.
Like the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, Alfred often was most comfortable in old fashioned clothes. He clung to old fashioned ways of living too. But when he travelled about he travelled in style, “ a very dapper little man”, with two valets and in his own private railway carriage.
Almina often met Alfred with her Mother in Paris and at Cannes or joined him in his private box at Covent Garden. He enjoyed the company of many other ladies. Madame Dame Nellie Melba broke the taboo of looking up at her audience. At least she always gazed at Alfred in his box. They were great chums. Dame Nellie spent some time at Halton in 1913 and before her triumphant season of 1914. Her charm was something over and above her enchanting voice.
Alfred was a generous benefactor to Art and Theatre. He was a usual figure at First Nights at Drury Lane, The Lyceum and Covent Garden. He was also – along with Henry Irving a director of the Royal General Theatrical Fund. He entertained many dignitaries. One report refers to him hosting a large party in the Royal Box at the Shaftsbury Theatre on Wednesday 28 August 1889, including Mrs Langtry. Alfred and his guests frequently enjoyed the adjoining loge to the Royal Box.
On Wednesday 19 April 1893 Alfred entertained his relation Lord Battersea 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 also regularly entertained George, Lord Carnarvon in London. They were often together at the Lyceum, or dined at the Pavilion, where Carnarvon was a major shareholder. Alfred once interested himself in training a team of zebras to work in tandem driving his carriage through the streets of London. During the summer passers-by could see almost any morning before breakfast the animals going round Hyde Park. After a time the spectacle became so much advertised that Alfred gave up driving himself in London and removed his zebras down to the Estate at Halton. Alfred kept a private zoo and circus at Halton. There were performing monkeys, ponies, dogs, gazelles and trained tumblers and acrobats. His nephew Walter, subsequently Lord Rothschild, was another animal keeper.
In 1899, the departure of the Scots Guards to South Africa was a great event in London Society. Everybody of importance from the Prince of Wales down was interested in the fate of the men. Alfred sent an unlimited supply of champagne and cigars to the Officers so that as long as they did not get shot by the Boers they had a pleasant enough time.
Alfred had a 15- horse-power Standard Phaetan motor car supplied by the Armstrong Siddeley Motor Company Car No V1689. He enjoyed life and living and he was much loved. That is not to say he was not firm at times. He could be a little autocratic and even apt to candidly evince his disapproval of anything that offended his artistic eye.
When his younger brother Leopold died in 1917 “Mister Alfred ” – the affectionate name that he was given by many was by then reduced to being a semi-invalid. Although he continued as a partner in Rothschilds he was no longer actively interested in the firm. He devoted himself to music and art, and served as a trustee of the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection.
Alfred de Rothschild was principally proud of being a fine art collector and a cultivator of friendships. He gave Almina Wombwell ( and her husband, George, Lord Carnarvon ) a great deal of money during his own lifetime. He left the Carnarvons including Almina’s two children, Henry, Lord Porchester ( later the 6th Earl ) and Lady Evelyn Herbert large additional sums of money as well as gifting to Almina personally his most beautiful Town House containing his important works of fine art at No 1, Seamore Place, Mayfair, London, which she sold off. [ see footnote vii]
[i] Christopher Sykes ( 1831-1898) Sometime MP for the East Riding. A close friend of Royalty within the “ Marlborough House ” sect of the Prince and Princess of Wales. When he owned 1, Seamore Place the Prince of Wales often dined with him there. Sykes was a contemporary of 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s uncle, George Stanhope, 7th Earl of Chesterfield (1831-1871) and he often visited at Bretby Park. In November 1871 Sykes was at Londesbrorough Lodge, Yorkshire, near Scarborough with the Prince of Wales and Stanhope during the ill-fated typhoid outbreak, the Prince contracted the disease, as did Stanhope, who died.
[ii] Alfred de Rothschild bought 1, Seamore Place, Mayfair in 1879 for £60,000. Sykes paid £35,000 for it from the Baillie family of Kingussie & Culduthel in 1863, who bought it for £16,000. [ Source : Illustrated Police News 1 June 1879.]
[iii] Alfred’s vast collection was largely sold off by Almina, Countess of Carnarvon between 1918 and 1925
[iv] Benevolent brothers in Dickens Nicholas Nickleby
[v] Sir Algernon West ( 1832-1921 ) Sometime private secretary to Gladstone- Civil Servant.
[vi] The Times of 24 December 1919 published a letter from the Wilhelmstrasse Archives containing a letter dated 1 August 1914 from Alfred to the German Emperor in Berlin in which he attempted to broker a deal to prevent war.
[vii] In 1929 Almina was forced to put 1, Seamore Place on the market with Knight, Frank & Ruitley. It was left unsold. In 1936, £43,000 was paid to Almina by Westminster City Council for the site which was required for demolition to construct a new road to connect Park Lane and Curzon Street.