The history of Waddesdon

China collection at Waddesdon Manor

The Manor's history started as one man's vision, and became something that's enjoyed by thousands of visitors today. Created as a place to entertain Baron Ferdinand's famous Saturday to Monday house parties.

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. 

The Manor

Men at work constructing Waddesdon Manor
Men at work constructing Waddesdon Manor
Men at work constructing Waddesdon Manor

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.

" The difficulty of building a house is insignificant compared with the labour of transforming a bare wilderness into a park."
- Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild
Construction of the Manor
Construction of the Manor, a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire
Construction of the Manor

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.

World War II

Evacuees in the Dining Room at Waddesdon during WWII
Evacuees in the Dining Room at Waddesdon during WWII
Evacuees in the Dining Room at Waddesdon during WWII

During the Second World War, James and Dorothy moved into the Bachelor's Wing, leaving the main house to children evacuated from London. There were 100 children all under five, the first and last time there were children at the Manor. All but three rooms in the main house were emptied for their use, with James and Dorothy continuing to live in the Bachelors' wing once the war was over.

James's ultimate legacy was to preserve Waddesdon for future generations. Like his predecessors, he died childless.

Bequeathed to the National Trust

After the war, James was increasingly unwell and he began to consider Waddesdon's fate after his death. Having no descendants, and with the end of the era of grand country house entertaining, he decided to leave the Manor, its collections of national importance and 165 acres of of garden and park to the National Trust.

To maintain the bequest, James set up the largest endowment the National Trust has ever received and ensured the family's continued involvement by naming his wife as the chairwoman of the management committee.

Dorothy de Rothschild oversaw the complicated arrangements for opening the ground floor to the public in 1959, with additional areas added over the next 30 years. In 1984 she began the Centenary restoration with essential repairs to the Manor.

Waddesdon's restoration

The present Lord Rothschild took over the management of Waddesdon after Dorothy's death and greatly expanded the restoration programme. It closed from 1990 to 1994 for an extensive interior and exterior restoration, which updated the services and created exhibition and entertainment spaces on the first and second floors, and the Wine cellars.

The parterre at Waddesdon in 1910
The parterre at Waddesdon in 1910
The parterre at Waddesdon in 1910

The garden also received some attention. The Parterre was restored and other 19th century features were recreated. In 2003 both the aviary structure and aviary garden underwent a 2 year restoration project. With the redecoration of the Aviary in blue and gold, reference to the French and German 18th-century garden pavilions like those at Versailles and Potsdam that probably inspired its design.

 
Video

History of Waddesdon Manor

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bought the Waddesdon Estate, originally nothing but farmland, in 1874. He wanted a country retreat built in the style of a Loire châteaux and soon engaged the French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur.