Inspired by Melanie’s wonderful talk to members about the various Rothschild gardens, Sharon & I accompanied her on a trip to see the restoration project at Gunnersbury Park. We had our volunteer project at Charlton House & Gardens firmly in mind throughout the day, and were pleased to find parallels – albeit on a much grander scale there! Gunnersbury was bought by Ealing & Acton council in 1925 (Charlton was bought by Greenwich Council in the 1920s) and used as a public park in much the same way that Charlton Park has been.
In 2018 the “Large Mansion” was restored using Heritage Lottery and other funding and opened as a Museum housing the borough archive. Major parts of the park were included in the funding, the Orangery, lake and orchards for example. The Friends of Gunnersbury Park were instrumental in the restoration effort, and volunteers clearly play a large part in the day-to-day running.
The talk was given by Melanie Aspey, a CABAHS member who has been the Rothschild archivist for 28 years. Providing photographs and documentation from the Rothschild archives, she said the Rothschilds are best known for banking, their art collections, philanthropy and wine, but many of them have also had a keen interest in horticulture reaching back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), the founder of the dynasty, who lived in the Frankfurt Jewish Ghetto.
After the defeat of Napoleon, thanks to their support for the allies, the Rothschild family was able to lobby for the retention of the right for the Jewish Community to buy real estate outside the ghetto. Mayer Amschel’s son, Amschel, considered that building a house would be too ostentatious, but a garden would better serve their needs. Instead he established a garden which he subsequently opened to visitors and for charitable purposes. He spent vast sums on plants, some of which (and Melanie showed one of the plant sale receipts from the archives) he imported from England. Later taken over by the Nazis and bombed by the allies, the garden fell into disrepair but parts have recently been renovated.
The City of London might not be the first place that you would look to understand how nature conservancy developed in this country. The Wildlife Trusts, the umbrella organisation for local groups that care for their environment, makes it clear that they owe their existence to the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, for which Charles Rothschild, a partner in the merchant bank of N M Rothschild & Sons, was the catalyst.
I thought about him during Joe Beale’s excellent talk on Zoom to the CABAHS meeting on 17 May. Members learned a lot about biodiversity in the area of Greenwich Park, Blackheath and Charlton. We also learned how important it is for people to work together. Joe didn’t just mean small groups of concerned individuals, although those are crucial. He meant engaging with local councils and other bodies to make sure everyone’s interests and concerns are understood.
This is what Charles Rothschild did. He sent out questionnaires to local natural history societies, asking for nominations for sites that could be nature reserves: sites that were ‘worthy of preservation’. On the basis of these returns, the newly-created Society for the Protection of Nature Reserves published a list – Rothschild’s List – and sought government intervention to protect the sites. Here is the list, published in 1915.
Joe also brought home the importance of keeping records over time so that measurements of improvement and, sadly, deterioration have value. In the link above The Wildlife Trusts also presents an analysis of the condition of Rothschild’s Reserves, 100 years on.
This document features a pie chart of habitats, 2% of which are pavements. I wonder if our very own Terry might well be responsible for some of that, based on what he told us he was up to at the end of his road!
Charles Rothschild was an extraordinary man by any measure of means. His collection of fleas, now the national collection of fleas in the Natural History Museum, was lovingly catalogued by his daughter, Miriam, who was herself a powerful advocate for nature, advising the Prince of Wales on the creation of his garden at Highgrove.
One of his fans is sports- and nature-writer Simon Barnes, whose book, Prophet and Loss: Time and the Rothschild List is available on Kindle for only £2.37. If members were to buy the book (profits to The Wildlife Trusts) they could buy a cake from the WI at the CABAHS community day at Charlton House on 30 May and still have change from a fiver!