Jewish stories at our country houses

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

Being Jewish meant different things at different times. Taken together, the Jewish stories in our country houses speak to the integration of Jews into nineteenth and twentieth century British society, and the obstacles they encountered.

New arrivals

Jews were expelled from England in 1290. When they returned under Oliver Cromwell, they settled in urban areas. Some eighteenth century Jews made enough money to buy, develop and build grand country houses as part of their pathway to social acceptance.

This phenomenon became more pronounced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a period of social and economic change that saw the rise of great Jewish financial dynasties like the Goldsmids, the Rothschilds and the Samuels.

Town lives, Country lives

Most Jewish country houses were in the South East of England within easy reach of the City of London and its financial markets. Like the Rothschilds, many families had international family and business connections. This shaped the cosmopolitan taste we see reflected in houses like Waddesdon Manor, a neo-French château.

Country houses were also sites of assimilation, acculturation and ‘Englishness’. Jewish country house owners hunted, gardened, collected art and entertained lavishly. They supported local schools and charities, just as they tended to support traditional objects of Jewish charity, like the poor Jewish immigrants of London’s East End.

Barriers to integration

Rich City Jews found it hard to integrate into the world of the English gentry. Before 1858 only converted Jews like Benjamin Disraeli of Hughenden Manor could enter politics. Rather than face social exclusion, members of the Rothschild family built houses (including Waddesdon) in the Vale of Aylesbury where they could establish their own hunt.

Jewish politics

Political antisemitism, the pogroms in Russia, the mass immigration of East-European Jews to Britain, and Hitler’s rise to power all touched the lives of Jewish country house owners.

Many tried to help persecuted foreign Jews. Ludwig Messels of Nymans, a convert, was active in the Anglo-Jewish Association during the 1880s. The Bearsteds of Upton House and the Rothschilds helped arrange the Kindertransport, and gave a massive free loan of £60,000 to help German Jewish refugees.

Before Hitler, Zionism was very controversial in these circles, attracting opposition from Lord Bearsted but greater support from some Rothschilds. This changed with the terrible plight of European Jews in the 1930s and the Holocaust.

Assimilation and Jewishness

Jews like Leonard Woolf of Monk’s House who ‘married out’ and led socially integrated lives could still encounter antisemitic attitudes among friends and family. Even country house owners whose parents had converted were touched by the tragedy of Jewish existence in interwar Europe. Both Leonard Messel of Nymans and Maud Russell of Mottisfont Abbey had German relatives who fled the Nazis, with their help, and some who perished in the Holocaust.

Hughenden Manor

Hughenden Manor 

Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire was the former home of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He was born into an established Sephardi family but baptized as a child. His novels return repeatedly to the glories of the Jewish past, and he was accused of pursuing a ‘Jewish’ foreign policy because of his support for the Ottoman Empire at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Waddesdon Manor in the autumn

Waddesdon Manor 

Waddesdon Manor was built by Ferdinand de Rothschild, a liberal MP, in 1874. Born in Frankfurt and bred in Austria, Ferdinand belonged to the famous Jewish banking dynasty. He commissioned this French-style chateau in the Vale of Aylesbury to showcase his fabulous collection of art and antiquities, and as a venue for entertaining grand friends like Edward Prince of Wales.

The ruins in autumn

Nymans 

Nymans was home to Ludwig Messel, his son Leonard and their families. Ludwig came from a family of German ‘court Jews’ and converted when he arrived in England. The famous garden that was his passion provided a way for him to integrate socially and culturally into Sussex rural life.

The pale green sitting room at Monk's House

Monk's House 

This seventeenth century cottage was the country retreat of the writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, an innovative colonial administrator in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), leading publisher, and influential political writer and theorist. Virginia shared the conventional antisemitic prejudices of her class but Leonard maintained close ties with his large Jewish family, who were by then very well established in Britain. He himself was a confirmed atheist, who in later life supported the newly established State of Israel.

Mottisfont, Hampshire in winter

Mottisfont 

Maud Russell of Mottisfont was born Maud Nelke, the daughter of a very wealthy Berlin Jewish stockbroker. Her avant-garde European taste and connections have shaped the house and its (now lost) collection. She left for Germany after Kristallnacht to see what she could do for her relatives, and managed to bring seven back to England before war broke out.

Upton House's south facard and terrace with vegetable planting

Upton House and Gardens 

Lord and Lady Bearsted of Upton House were pillars of the Anglo-Jewish community during the mid-twentieth century. Their Jewish commitments are less obviously apparent in this relatively unassuming ‘hunting box’, which houses the oil magnate’s extraordinary great master collection, but they administered extensive Jewish philanthropy from the house and kept a holiday cottage on the estate for ‘the family rabbi’.