The Rise & Decline of 'Rothschildshire'
Halton House constructed by William Cubbitt and Co. for Alfred de Rothschild.
Photo 1892.
About 3 miles to the South-West of Tring lies the village of Halton.

In the latter part of the 10th century the manor of Halton appears to have been in the possession of the monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury.  Following the Norman Conquest it passed through a variety of owners including the Crown, the Church, and several notable families.  By the 18th century it was owned by the Fermors who, in 1720, sold it to Francis Dashwood (later the 1st Baronet).

The manor remained in the Dashwood family until 1853, when the 5th Baronet sold it to Lionel de Rothschild.  Its contents having been auctioned in 1849 to clear Dashwood family debts, the 1853 sales comprised the manor house, the grounds around it, and parkland and woodland to the north of the Wendover Arm Canal.  Lionel did nothing of significance with the estate which, following his death in 1879, was inherited by his second eldest son, Alfred.
Alfred was well educated, having attended Trinity College, Cambridge where he formed a lasting friendship with the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).  He was also a competent performer on the piano and violin as well as a connoisseur of fine art, which led him becoming a Trustee of the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection.  At the age of 21 he took up employment at the Rothschild Bank in London, where he learnt the business of banking from his father and made valuable contacts in European banking circles.  For twenty years he also served as a director of the Bank of England.

On inheriting the Halton estate Alfred commissioned William Cubitt & Co. [10] to design and build a new house, and oversee the project.  Alfred, a confirmed bachelor and committed city dweller, intended Halton House to be a country retreat where he could undertake weekend entertaining on what most mortals would consider a ‘lavish’ scale.  The old Dashwood house lay in Halton to the west of St. Michael’s Church.
Alfred Charles Freiherr de Rothschild, CVO.
It was demolished and the village transformed, with attractive properties (probably to designs by George Devey) built in the ‘Rothschild style’ to house Alfred’s tenants and servants.

Work on the new house was completed in July 1883.  What emerged was a house in the style of a French chateau, perhaps influenced by his cousin’s design for nearby Waddesdon Manor; it did not meet with universal acclaim.  One of Gladstone’s private secretaries, for instance, described it thus;
“an exaggerated nightmare of gorgeousness and senseless and ill-applied magnificence” although he admitted later that “lighted up and full of well-dressed people, it appeared quite tolerable”.  However, the Scottish architect Eustace Balfour was scathing:

I have never seen anything more terribly ugly.  Outside it is a combination of a French chateau and a gambling house.  Inside it is badly planned and gaudily decorated.  Oh! but the hideousness of everything, the showiness, the sense of lavish wealth thrust up your nose!  The coarse mouldings, the heavy gilding always in the wrong place, the colours of the silk hangings.  Eye hath not seen nor pen can write the ghastly coarseness of the sight.”
Bucks Herald, 19th January 1884.
The imposing mansion in white stone, which stands on a commanding eminence under the shadow of the Chilton Hills, on the road from Aston Clinton to Wendover, has this week been the scene of a series of brilliant gathering and festivities on the occasion of the visit of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the newly-built residence of Mr. Alfred de Rothschild in this county.

“Halton Mansion, the residence in question, adds another to the many palatial homes of the Rothschilds in Bucks, and must now be numbered as one of the most imposing of them.  It was begun about three years ago and finished only in July last, a vast expenditure having been made with regard to the furniture and appointments, in addition to a lavish outlay on the building itself.  The mansion and its surroundings are truly of a princely character, and this week science has lent its aid to art and nature to make them still more attractive.  The various apartments at night have been lit by the electric light, softened down in incandescent lamps to a state in which many people thought it never could be brought when Mr. Edison first gave the result of his researches in lighting by electricity to an astonished world.  The country for a great way round Hilton has been lit up by the electric light, which shed its many lustrous rays from arc lamps on the Mansion towers.  The charming grounds, laid out with faultless taste, to the north-west of the house, and encircling amidst their wealth of trees a magnificent fountain, were after dusk ablaze with light.  The flower beds, the grass plats, the many brilliant objects around, and the waters of the fountain throwing up the Prince of Wales’s Feathers, in liquid form, above the trees which formed the background, could all be seen as though the light of day were upon them.

“This was how the Heir Apparent found Halton on Tuesday, and that he was pleased with all he saw was not to be wondered at, even in the case of one such as he, whose eyes so often rest upon sights and sounds of dazzling brilliancy.”

Lavish entertainment continued at Halton until July 1914, when it ceased with one last big house party.  In the following month Britain declared war on the Central Powers, thereby estranging Continental branches of the Rothschild family.

Following the commencement of hostilities, Alfred offered the military the use of his house and it was turned into an officer’s mess with an army training camp set up in the grounds.  The 21st Yorkshire Division was the first to be billeted at Halton and it was followed by many others.  Initially the troops were housed in tents, but later in purpose-built buildings.

In 1916 the newly-formed “Royal Flying Corps” transferred to Halton where an airfield was later established.  This was to be the seed of the future Royal Air Force occupation of the estate, which continues at the time of writing.

In 1917, Alfred learned that the allies were short of pit props for the trenches and in response he offered his trees at Halton for the purpose.  “I am not an expert,” he wrote to the Prime Minister on 28th February 1917, “as regards what sort of timber would be suitable for pit props, but I cannot help thinking that, as there are so many pine trees in my woods at Halton, some of them at least would be suitable for the purpose.  May I ask you very kindly to send down your expert who would very easily be able to report fully on the subject, and I should indeed be proud if my offer should lead to any practical result.”  It did, and very many fine mature trees were felled and carried away.

In later life, Alfred suffered poor health and he died after a short illness on the 31st January 1918, aged 75.  Having no legitimate children he bequeathed the house to his nephew Lionel Nathan de Rothschild.  Lionel, who detested the place, sold its contents at auction in 1918 and the house and estate - the latter by then much damaged by the activities of the military - to the Air Ministry in the following year to create an RAF training base.  Following its sale, Halton House became the base’s Officers’ Mess.  The elaborate domed Winter Garden attached to the south end of the House when it was built, with radiating flights of steps down to the gardens, was demolished in 1935 and replaced by an accommodation block.  Parade grounds and buildings were constructed over the south and east park areas, retaining many estate trees.
The Winter Garden, Halton House.
In 2016 the MOD announced the base was to close as part of a wider programme to reduce the size of the defence estate.  Initially closure was scheduled by 2022, however it was announced in February 2019 that there will now be a phased closure, drawdown and development from 2022, with closure by 2025.