Secrets of Halton House
As you enter the magnificent main door of Halton House, on your left is a small glass case which holds a facsimile of the Visitors Book for the house – a record of all the guests either, family, the famous, the politically or economically useful or just there because Alfred de Rothschild, (who built the house & held his weekend house parties here) knew and or liked them.
The Visitors Book covers the period that Alfred owned the house between 1883, when the House was finished, and 1918 when the house and the whole estate was sold to the fledgling Royal Air Force to become the Officers’ Mess for Royal Air Force Halton.
The Visitors Book although a facsimile, looks real and holds some fascinating names. The enthralling exercise (not nearly finished) of researching these names and finding out who the guests were and what they did – and in some cases why Alfred de Rothschild asked them to his weekend parties is shared in part below.
The first signature on page one is that of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales later to become King Edward VII. He was a friend of Alfred’s from their days at Cambridge together. The first entries are for what we would call nowadays a House Warming Party. There are 23 names listed for the 15th January 1884. An Archivist from the Rothschild family has kindly deciphered many of the unreadable names from the book; however there are still some blanks. Very unhelpfully, some regular guests seem to change their names! One gentleman signs himself with ‘L’, or Luiz or just his surname. The surname is the same; can one presume it is the same person, a father and son or another relative?
Apart from Albert Edward at the first party, there was the brother of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame attended the first party. Would Alfred have taken up the baton to conduct his own orchestra for one of the Gilbert & Sullivan melodies?
At later weekends, Randolph S Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill was a guest at the House in June 1885. Lord Randolph died in 1895. Jennie, his wife went on to marry George Cornwallis-West in 1900, divorcing him in 1913, both were frequent visitors at the house. Before his mother’s remarriage, Winston S Churchill accompanied his mother to the House on the 7th June 1897.
Alice de Rothschild, the sister of Ferdinand de Rothschild (the builder of Waddesdon Manor) was there on the 26th December 1885. It would be interesting to find out how she compared Halton to Waddesdon Manor. Speaking of family a regular visitor to the House was Almina Wombwell, Alfred’s illegitimate daughter who went on to marry the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Alfred arranged a £500,000 marriage settlement and paid off the Earl’s debts. The Earl subsequently financed Howard Carter’s work in the Valley of the Kings and on 26 November 1922 they found Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The famous singer Nellie Melba was a guest on 1st August 1898, 20th July 1902, on 26th July 1906 and again in May 1913. Did she sing for the guests? The records do not tell us! Alfred obviously liked having singers at his Weekend Parties, Adelina Patti, born in Spain in 1843 to Italian opera singing parents, was another frequent visitor. Her lover, later her husband, Ernest Nicolini, another opera singer, partnered her in many duets. Did they sing at Halton?
The signatures for the 23rd July 1907 and 28th June 1909 include King Edward VII, and Alice Keppel. Alice Keppel was there again on July 1912 two years after Edward’s death. Alice Keppel was the most famous of the mistresses of King Edward VII. It has been said that when Edward VII was on his death bed, and he asked for Alice’s presence, Queen Alexandra reluctantly allowed her to be present.
In October 1908 and again in June 1909 Lionel de Rothschild was a guest at the House. Lionel was Alfred’s nephew and upon Alfred’s death in 1918, Lionel was left the Halton Estate. He did not like the place, a letter in the Halton House Archives states that ‘he found Halton cold’. Lionel went on to sell the House and the whole estate to the Royal Air Force for the sum of £112,000 and was able to grow his beloved Rhododendrons at what is now Exbury Gardens, in Hampshire.
A regular guest was Mischa Elman, a Russian Violinist, who first appeared in Berlin in 1904, and London in 1905 and can have been only 21 when he was first a guest in 1912 then again in 1913. Was he persuaded to give a recital? He died in 1967, and it would have been amazing to have met him and find out what it was like to attend a weekend party at Halton House.
The listing includes European names, which are proving slightly difficult to trace, even with the wonders of the Internet. However a gentleman named ‘Staal’ is listed as a visitor on 9th July 1889, and 25th October 1896. He is Baron de Staal, and was the Russian Ambassador to London between 1884 and 1902. According to ‘Who Was Who’ a well travelled man, he served in Athens, Constantinople, Poland and Bucharest and was attached to the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army during the Crimean War. There must have been some interesting conversations.
Another frequent visitor was Sir Milsom Rees. His entry in ‘Who was Who’ is extensive – a snapshot of his life shows that he was the Laryngologist to King George V and Queen Mary and their household between 1910 and 1936, and to Queen Alexandra (the widow of Edward VII) and a Trustee of the Alfred de Rothschild Estate.
More fascinating research is needed to trace other guests and find out more about them. I do wonder how many visitors for whatever reason failed to sign the Visitors Book and who else was there. Trixie Brabner – Archivist for Halton House.