Being Jewish meant different things at different times. Taken together, the Jewish stories in our country houses speak to the integration of Jews into nineteenth and twentieth century British society, and the obstacles they encountered.
Jews were expelled from England in 1290. When they returned under Oliver Cromwell, they settled in urban areas. Some eighteenth century Jews made enough money to buy, develop and build grand country houses as part of their pathway to social acceptance.
This phenomenon became more pronounced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a period of social and economic change that saw the rise of great Jewish financial dynasties like the Goldsmids, the Rothschilds and the Samuels.
Town lives, Country lives
Most Jewish country houses were in the South East of England within easy reach of the City of London and its financial markets. Like the Rothschilds, many families had international family and business connections. This shaped the cosmopolitan taste we see reflected in houses like Waddesdon Manor, a neo-French château.
Country houses were also sites of assimilation, acculturation and ‘Englishness’. Jewish country house owners hunted, gardened, collected art and entertained lavishly. They supported local schools and charities, just as they tended to support traditional objects of Jewish charity, like the poor Jewish immigrants of London’s East End.
Barriers to integration
Rich City Jews found it hard to integrate into the world of the English gentry. Before 1858 only converted Jews like Benjamin Disraeli of Hughenden Manor could enter politics. Rather than face social exclusion, members of the Rothschild family built houses (including Waddesdon) in the Vale of Aylesbury where they could establish their own hunt.
Political antisemitism, the pogroms in Russia, the mass immigration of East-European Jews to Britain, and Hitler’s rise to power all touched the lives of Jewish country house owners.
Many tried to help persecuted foreign Jews. Ludwig Messels of Nymans, a convert, was active in the Anglo-Jewish Association during the 1880s. The Bearsteds of Upton House and the Rothschilds helped arrange the Kindertransport, and gave a massive free loan of £60,000 to help German Jewish refugees.
Before Hitler, Zionism was very controversial in these circles, attracting opposition from Lord Bearsted but greater support from some Rothschilds. This changed with the terrible plight of European Jews in the 1930s and the Holocaust.
Assimilation and Jewishness
Jews like Leonard Woolf of Monk’s House who ‘married out’ and led socially integrated lives could still encounter antisemitic attitudes among friends and family. Even country house owners whose parents had converted were touched by the tragedy of Jewish existence in interwar Europe. Both Leonard Messel of Nymans and Maud Russell of Mottisfont Abbey had German relatives who fled the Nazis, with their help, and some who perished in the Holocaust.