History of the Halton estate
There has been a manor house at Halton since the Norman conquest, when it belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Thomas Cranmer sold the manor to Henry Bradshaw, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the mid-16th century. After remaining in the Bradshaw family for some considerable time, it was sold to Sir Francis Dashwood in 1720 and was then held in the Dashwood family for almost 150 years. The site of the old Halton House, or Manor, was west of the church in Halton village itself. It had a large park, which was later dissected by the Grand Union Canal. In June 1849 Sir George Dashwood auctioned the contents, and in 1853 the estate was sold to Baron Lionel de Rothschild, who was expanding his estate at Tring. Lionel then continued his policy of expansion. The old house was uninhabited and allowed to become derelict, and finally completely demolished. Lionel then gave the estate to his son Alfred de Rothschild. At this time the estate covered approximately 1,500 acres (6 km²) in a triangle between Wendover, Aston Clinton and Weston Turville. However, it lacked a dwelling of any significant size, at least by Rothschild standards.
After the death of his father, Alfred (a bachelor and confirmed city dweller) decided to build a country house purely for week-end entertaining. Hence he scorned the idea of building another of the huge mansions such as were built by his brother and cousins in the area. Unusually for a Rothschild House, the name of the architect is not known for certain. It is thought to be William R Rodriguez (also known as Rogers), who was an architect in the design team of William Cubbitt and Company, the firm commissioned to build and oversee the project in 1880. Amazingly, just three years later the house was finished. As had happened with other Rothschild gardens, full-grown trees and shrubs were planted and in an instant mature gardens and grounds appeared.
The Style of the House
For the style of the house Alfred was probably influenced by that of newly completed Waddesdon Manor, the home of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, his brother-in law. While not so large there is a resemblance, but other continental influences appear to have crept in: classical pediments jut from mansard roofs, spires and gables jostle for attention, and the whole is surmounted by a cupola. The front of the house features a porte-cochere. A Rothschild cousin described it as: "looking like a giant wedding cake". If the outside was extravagant, the interior was no anti-climax. The central hall (not unlike the galleried two-storey hall at Mentmore Towers) was furnished as the "grand salon". Two further drawing rooms (the east and west) continued the luxurious theme. The dining and billiards rooms too were furnished with 18th-century panelling and boiseries. The theme continued up the grand, plaster panelled staircase to the bedrooms. The whole was furnished in what became known as "Le Style Rothschild", that is, 18th-century French furniture, boulle, ebony, and ormolu, complemented by old masters and fine porcelain. A huge domed conservatory known as the winter garden was attached to the house. This was a profusion of tropical foliage and flowers.
Halton - the Rothschild House
Alfred was a superb host, and his greatest pleasure was to give pleasure to others, whether as a philanthropist to the lowest kitchen maid or host to Emperor, Tsar, or Shah. At Halton all were entertained. However, Halton's glittering life lasted less than thirty years. The last party was in 1914 at the outbreak World War I. Devastated by the carnage of the war, Alfred's health began to fail and he died in 1918. Alfred had no legitimate children, so the house was bequeathed to his nephew Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. He detested the place and sold the contents at auction in 1918. The house and by now diminished estate were purchased for the Royal Air Force by the Air Council for a bargain £115,000; a ridiculously low price even by the standards of the day.
The Officers' Mess
Shortly after the RAF acquired the Halton estate, the house became RAF Halton's officers' mess. On 1 January 1920 RAF Halton was upgraded to a command and the headquarters element moved into Halton House. Although the House no longer functions as a headquarters, it remains an officer' mess. Under the RAF the house has been conserved. As an officers' mess it has seen more entertaining and parties than under Alfred de Rothschild. To the chagrin of many people, the winter garden and its huge dome were demolished, and a new accommodation wing has been built in its place. However, with the appreciation of 19th-century architecture ascending, it is unlikely that such a travesty will occur again. A new dining room was built at the rear of the servants' wing of the house in the 1960s. The house, in addition to being the home (albeit a temporary one) to serving officers, is frequently a film set and often is seen in cinemas and on televisions around the world. It has been featured in:
- Jeeves and Wooster (Series 3, Episode 1 "Bertie Sets Sail" - 1992)
- Evita (1996 musical film based on the life of Eva Perón)
- The World Is Not Enough (1999 James Bond film)
- An Ideal Husband (1999 film based on the play by Oscar Wilde)
- What a Girl Wants (2003 film)
- Bride and Prejudice (2004 Bollywood-style film adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel)
- The Queen (2006 film)
- Flyboys (2006 film)
- Diana: Last Days of a Princess (2007 docudrama)
- The King's Speech (2010 historical drama)