The late Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) claimed that 'before 1940, I do not believe that any Rothschild dug, planted, weeded, pruned, took cuttings, spread straw on the strawberries, or even watered their plants.' These tasks were undertaken by the vast armies of head gardeners, gardeners, under-gardeners, labouring boys and other 'outdoor' staff.
The Rothschilds exercised the same care and attention to detail in their gardens as they did their business interests and their great art collections. They planned and directed all the arrangements, from the lawns to the Japanese gardens and lily ponds, selected the plants and trees, acquired a wide knowledge and understanding of them, and took great care to procure the right soils and mixtures for their various projects.
The gardening staff
To create the perfect garden, one had to employ the best experts. At Aston Clinton, the Buckinghamshire estate of Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810-1876), Mr William Hedley Warren served as Head Gardener for over 30 years. At the Halton estate of Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918) the garden staff alone numbered over 60 in 1900. Gardens on the continent were similarly impressive; at Grasse, Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922) employed over 100 men to create her famed terraced gardens on the slopes above the town. Head gardeners were well respected and salaries at the turn of the century of £100 per annum were not uncommon; young under-gardeners earned 16 shillings a week.
An industrial enterprise
Maintaining grand formal gardens, and productive kitchen gardens to supply the house with fresh fruit and vegetables was a substantial undertaking. From Gunnersbury, surviving invoices illustrate the scale of the enterprise. One purchase includes six tonnes of fibrous loam, four tons of coconut fibre, five yards of oak and beech mould and 50 yards of leaf and peat mould. Other receipts record orders for 300 yews, 68 hollies, 50 lilacs, polars, ash, lime, pine, sycamore, plane trees and copper beech, plus vast numbers of flowering plants.
In Edwardian horticultural circles it used to be said that one could tell a man’s status by the size of his bedding list; 10,000 plants for a squire; 20,000 for a baronet, 30,000 for an earl and 50,000 for a duke.
See Mr Warren's photograph album: memories of a vanished Rothschild estate in The Rothschild Archive Annual Review 2012-2013 for a glimpse into the life of the Head Gardener on a large Rothschild estate.