Leopold de Rothschild and Ealing

By Dr Jonathan Oates

This year marks the centenary of the death of Leopold de Rothschild, who owned Gunnersbury Park and was known as a great benefactor to the locality. It seems apt to have a short article about his local interests.

                                         Above: Leopold de Rothschild

Leopold was born on 22 November 1845 and was the youngest of three sons of Baron Lionel de Rothschild, a wealthy Jewish banker. He owned four houses in or near London. The one that we are interested in is Gunnersbury Park, bought by his grandfather Nathan, but never lived in by him. Although he worked in international banking alongside his brothers, he had various other interests. Prime among these was being an enthusiastic horse breeder and racer (his horses won the Derby twice) and a friend of the then Prince of Wales. He became a member of the Jockey Club and once when he wanted to be anonymous referred to himself as Mr Acton. He was also a keen card player and it is said that when there was an assassination attempt on him in 1912 his life was saved by the bullet being deflected by the pack of playing cards he had in his jacket pocket!

Leopold Rothschild drawingDrawing of Baron Lionel de Rothschild

       Above Left: Nathan Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild dynasty and Leopold’s  
​                          grandfather

​        Above Right: Baron Lionel de Rothschild, Leopold’s father

Gunnersbury Park was in the lower part of old parish of Ealing that was Brentford, though the Rothschild estate included land to the north of Pope’s Lane and around Ealing Common. The Park itself consisted of two mansions and nearly 200 acres of parkland, and had been once a summer residence of George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia from 1761-1786

Photo of Gunnersbury Park, 1900s

                                              Above: Gunnersbury Park, 1900s

On 19 January 1881 he married Marie Perugia, nearly half his age, and they had subsequently three sons and one daughter, Lionel, Marie, Evelyn and Anthony. 

Photo of Marie Perugia, wife of Leopold

                                        Above: Marie Perugia, Mrs Rothschild,
​                                                    Leopold’s wife

 He was also the most generous of the three brothers. He often gave his horse winnings away to the needy as well as helping his friends. He also gave to good causes locally.

To mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria it was mooted in Acton that there should be a cottage hospital titled the Victoria Cottage Hospital and Nurses’ Home. Rothschild provided an acre of land on Bollo Lane which backed onto the District line, to be used as the hospital site. He became a trustee of the hospital. He also subscribed £20 per year to Ealing Hospital. When this hospital was to be rebuilt and to expand as the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Ealing’s surveyor, Charles Jones and a Mr Box visited him at Gunnersbury. He gave them a donation of £250 immediately. Other gifts were later given to the hospital and he encouraged others to do so, as well as speaking in its favour. He also gave, in 1902, an official mace to Ealing Council. He also contributed £500 to the Victoria Hall in Ealing in 1888.

Photo of Acton Hospital

                         Above: Acton Hospital

In the 1890s Ealing Council and Rothschild came to an arrangement in which he would allow the council would make a road across the Common and they would add a corner of the Elm Grove estate near to the Grove Hotel to Ealing Common. Although agreed to in 1896 it was still fenced off and closed to the public three years later. When this was brought to Rothschild’s attention he instructed his solicitors to contact the council. Jones explained that work on the garden had not been given priority and so it was slow progress. It was opened as a public garden in 1899. On the edge of the Common there is a thoroughfare named in about 1898 after Rothschild, Leopold Road. There is a Rothschild Road in Acton.

The park was private land, of course, but Rothschild held an annual open day for the Acton Tradesmen. They were always happy to accept his hospitality and enjoyed refreshments and lunch before a team of their members played cricket with a team of park employees. The tradesmen’s representative was suitably grateful and told Rothschild that they looked forward to this event every year. In 1909 a garden party was held at Gunnersbury to mark the 70th birthday of the Chief Rabbi. Rothschild took his Jewish faith very seriously and though there were no local synagogues, he was president of a Jewish school in the East End and presumably took an interest in the Great Ealing School which was a Jewish school by the late nineteenth century.

Rothschild took an interest in the gardens of Gunnersbury. Flowers and fruits from Gunnersbury were exhibited in many horticultural exhibitions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Water lilies from there were displayed at the Royal Horticultural Society’s exhibition at Westminster in 1901 where they were praised for their beauty and their variety, winning a gold medal. He also received a first-class certificate for his entry of Japanese flowers. The Japanese garden was written about in 1905 for a national newspaper.

Photo of Gunnersbury Park Mansion

                        Above: Gunnersbury Park, Small Mansion

In 1912 the Rothschilds were called upon to officially open the new school in Acton that was on Rothschild Road and so became the Rothschild Road School. His wife opened the school and Rothschild said a few words after speeches by various councillors present there, praising their public spirit and generosity. In the same year Rothschild allowed the Unionist Party to hold a rally in the park grounds. In 1909 Henry Vivian MP had been allowed to lecture at the house about co-operative housing (he had been influential in the establishment of the co-operative housing suburb in Brentham, Ealing, which was then in the process of being built).

All three Rothschild sons became army officers in the First World War. Lieutenant Anthony was wounded at the Dardanelles in 1915 but recovered. Major Evelyn, though, was killed in Palestine in 1917, a few months after his father’s death.

Rothschild celebrated his 70th birthday in 1915. Messages of congratulation were sent to him via Gunnersbury Park. He died on 29 May 1917 and was buried with full Jewish rites at Willesden Cemetery. Messages of condolence were sent to his widow by the Acton Hospital Committee and Acton Urban District Council, ‘expressing their high appreciation of his great benevolence to the district and tendering to his relatives sincere sympathy and condolence’. A local newspaper noted that Rothschild was not only generous with his money, but in spirit too. He took trouble, thought and interest in those less well off, rather than merely showering gifts at them.

He was last of the Rothschilds to live at Gunnersbury Park. After his death the estate land north of Pope’s Lane was sold for housing and the park was sold to the councils of Brentford, Acton, Ealing and Middlesex and it was open to the public in 1926 as a great open space, with the house becoming a museum a few years later. It is currently owned by the London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.

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