Gunnersbury Park in West London, with a Rothschild Mansion at his heart, has an incredible historical back story that stretches back almost 1,000 years. The Rothchild’s were the last of the private owners before the then Minister for Health, Neville Chamberlain declared the park open to the public in the mid-1920s. We go behind the scenes and take a trip back through the Gunnersbury Park story its former owners and guardians.
Spanning between the Parish’s of Ealing and Hounslow, Gunnersbury Park as we know it today was called Gonyldesbury, or Gunnyldsbury in old records.
The park contains 22 grade II and grade II* at risk listed buildings, across a site of 75 hectares, equivalent to 186 acres, though the purchase records in the 1920s list the estate at some 200 acres.
It is not too remote to consider the name Gunnersbury being derived from King Canute’s Scandinavian niece Gunylda, who was living in the area in the 1040s, just before the Normans took over the country. Translation perhaps ‘Manor House of a Woman called Gunnhildr’. Perhaps more research on the link between Gunylda and Gunnhildr who was the name of Queen Consort of Norway from the 10th Century (Comment below for thoughts on the origin of the name).
A park of enchanting Cedar, Elm, and Evergreen trees
Back in 2010, the owners of the park, Hounslow and Ealing borough councils, commissioned a team of arboriculturalists to inspect the parks 2,492 plus 74 groups of trees. The inspection concluded 2% of the tree stock required felling to ensure the park remained safe for all. A decade later, the ongoing conservation of the site presents an impressive glorious covering of evergreen, showed on the park map by year group; (1800-1835), (1835-1889), (1889-1925) and (1925-present).
Besides the glorious trees and plants Potomac lake, also known as the Fishpond, sets the scene off nicely, covering an area of 14.6 acres to a depth of 2.3 feet – but please do not test that!
The glory of Gunnersbury in summer is something to behold, and the winter version is not too bad either.
1000 years of Gunnersbury Park
The first owners of Gunnersbury
In the 11th Century, the Bishop of London owned the land of Gunnersbury Park. The seat of Bishop of London was that of a senior member of the Church and one of the most powerful positions in the country. They leased the land to a series of very wealthy families from the 11th century up to the 19th century. For those of us today who are leaseholders of a property on land, the terms of the lease may show the duration to expire in 99 years or 999 years, it is quite something to see this play out in British history, the land of Gunnersbury was being leased from Medieval Britain to relatively recent 19th-century Britain. This makes England’s history one enthralling journey of discovery.
The Frowyk’s at Gunnersbury – 15th Century –
The first leaseholder in the 15th Century was Sir Thomas Frowick (Frowyke) of Gunnersbury, whose son (sir) Thomas Frowyk was born there and would study at Cambridge University and become Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Sir Thomas (son) brother Sir Henry Frowyk inherited Gunnersbury which then descended to his daughter Elizabeth.
The Spelman’s at Gunnersbury – 1500s
Over a century later, Sir John Spelman, Judge of the King’s bench, who was notably present at the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533 married Elizabeth, daughter, and heiress of Sir Henry Frowyk of Gunnersbury, brother of Sir Thomas Frowyk.
The Maynard’s at Gunnersbury – 1600s-1700s
Sir John Maynard was a lawyer and politician representing Totnes in both the short parliament of 1640 and the long parliament. Prior to his time in Parliament Sir John gained a large legal practice on the Western Circuit and Westminster. Sir John during the reigns of Charles I, Charles II, James II, and William III played a prominent role in the judiciary. During Charles II reign, Maynard was the King’s Serjent at Law. Amassing a large fortune Sir John Maynard purchased Gunnersbury in 1656, using the architect John Webb to build a Palladian style house. John Webb was a pupil of the renowned architect Inigo Jones, who built amongst other things Queen’s House in Greenwich, and his greatest achievement the building of the banqueting hall on Whitehall. It was with some pedigree that John Webb came to work on building the Palladian style House at Gunnersbury.
Architect John Webb styled the Palladian house on the designs of 16th-century Italian Architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), Villa Badoer In Fratta Polesine 1556, in the Veneto region of Italy.
Sir John Maynard died at Gunnersbury in October 1690 after a 4 day illness, his widow for many years carried on at the house marrying Henry Earl of Suffolk, the Earl died at Gunnersbury in 1709. 9 years later his son and heir died, followed by Countess Dowager in 1721. Sir John Hobart who married Elizabeth, the niece of Sir John Maynard became the property owner.
What is Palladianism?
Characterised by Classical forms, symmetry, and strict proportion, the exteriors of Palladian buildings were often austere. Inside, however, elaborate decoration, gilding and ornamentation created a lavish, opulent environment.
National Trust created in partnership with the University of Oxford
Seen today the fine Palladian Style Garden Temple, confirming to symmetry and strict proportions
Henry Furnese at Gunnersbury – into the 1700s
Daniel Defoe the author of Robinson Crusoe and a Gunnersbury visitor wrote:
“A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain” 1724-1727, referred to Gunnersbury park, 1724. ‘the sun never shines on it after 2 pm’
The Rich merchant, MP, and Art collector, Henry Furnese purchased Gunnersbury House in 1739/40 from Sir John Hobart.
The German-born composer Handel
Handel was a frequent visitor to Gunnersbury House in the 1740s, by the invitation of Furnese, Handle in commenting on the option of going to the seaside or drinking fine wine at Gunnersbury.
Henry Furnese did not marry and died on 30th August 1756. The property remained in the hands of the family until Farnese’s sister, Elizabeth Pearce, sold it to Princess Amelia
Princess Amelia at Gunnersbury – the change begins
From around 1761 George the II’s daughter, Princess Amelia started the development of the Gunnersbury site in dramatic fashion. Improvements to the house and grounds. There is some thinking, Amelia received the residence from her father because of marriage plans had not worked out. Amelia put the drive and finances into the house, landscaping other developments over the 25 years she lived there. We believe Amelia brought changes such as the round pond, stable yard, kitchen garden, orchard, and orangery. Other significant additions were the purchase of more land in 1770 and 1785.
Rather oddly some might say, they built Princess Amelia Bathhouse in the early 19th century; they uncovered this in an archaeological and historic building investigation which uncovered foundation methods from the late 18th and 19th century.
Princess Amelia died in 1786.
For Sale 1786-88
The estate remained unsold for 2 years while they advertised it on the market before Col Gilbert Ironside bought it when it eventually sold at auction. The next 6 years saw Gunnersbury change hands through Walter Andrews Stirling (1790s. In 1794) and then onto to Henry Crawford, who then sold it to the next major chapter in Gunnersbury history, new owner John Morley.
John Morley – Demolition of Gunnersbury House and the tale of 13 plots
John Morley purchased the estate at the turn of the 1800s with big plans. The most significant was the demolition of Gunnersbury House, Webb’s mansion, the home of everyone since Sir John Maynard was to be raised to the ground.
The next phase in the development was the divide of the land into 13 plots. In 1801 the Palladian house was no more, architectural drawings are all that remain, and the land was now divided and for sale.
2 New Gunnersbury Houses – 1 Large and 1 Small
They built 2 new houses at Gunnersbury, one was large and one was small and both remain today but sadly the pre-19th-century mansion is no more because of the demolition. More twists and turns of owners followed.
Gunnersbury House, the Smaller House
A gentleman from Westminster, a timber merchant by trade, Stephen Cosser purchased Lot 1 in 1802 and built the smaller house which became known as Gunnersbury House. Cosser died in 1806 and Major Alexander Morrison purchased the house in 1807
Gunnersbury Park House, the Larger House
The Architect Alexander Copland purchased all the lots except 3 by 1802 and made developments over the next 6 years where he built the larger mansion, with the input of Architect Smirke, this became known as Gunnersbury Park House. Copeland and his wife gave elaborate functions at the house. They continued the trend of entertaining guests at the house, not too dissimilar with the parties 50 years earlier in the previous Gunnersbury House built by Webb. Alexandra Copeland started the Pinery where Pineapples where grown. Copeland died in the Summer of 1834. Smirke was one executor of Copeland’s will. In 1835 j.c Loudon, is thought to have developed and landscaped the gardens further.
Gunnersbury for Sale again 1835
When the “For Sale” advert for Gunnersbury Estate went up, 19th May 1835, it used enticing language. A wealthy German Jewish businessman, financier, and banker noticed the add:
“Most enviable property”, “it’s superior arrangement and proximity to the Metropolis” “residence for a nobleman, minister of state, or family of the first description”.
In 1835 Nathan Mayer Rothschild, Son of Amschel Rothschild who started the merchant banking empire in Frankfurt 30 years earlier, purchased 86 acres of Gunnersbury Park for the sum of £13,000. Nathan also Founder of a Merchant Bank and stock exchange member in London.
From around 1804 to 1808 Nathan’s presence in London was well established, he moved there from Manchester. His father gave him £16,000 and some surplus for marriage. He Married Hannah Cohen in 1806. To get an impression of Rothschild’s status and influence, by 1809 the Rothschild’s were loaning money to the UK Government to help finance the war against Napoleon. Then into the 1820s loaning money to other European states. There were other secret UK Government loans that involved the Rothschild’s, which provided finance for many major situations.
One thing that can be associated with the Rothschild Dynasty throughout time, was their input to charity work and connections with local tradespeople, causes and the community. The connection with the Gunnersbury area also enjoyed their tradition of reaching out.
Improvements to Gunnersbury would start before the family could move in. The plans detailed a large glass conservatory designed by Smirke. Today one can visit the Chefs office in the house which is not a room you find that often in open houses. They added the stables in 1836. They completed the North Lodge plans in early 1836. They did the Orangery plans in the spring of 1839. Smirke also designed the main Grand Staircase in the main house. Others have mentioned its stucco exterior and Inspirations from the French neoclassical style.
Interior shots from walking through the public access Museum
The Long Gallery
The Long Gallery in the main house has a painting on the ceiling E.T Parris’s “The Four Seasons” dating around 1836. They added a billiard room. The plans show the largest rooms; Drawing room, Dining Room, with a Long drawing room that joins the two. The Entrance Hall, Parlour, a conservatory in a crescent shape by the Drawing room.
Gunnersbury Park, orangery
The death of Nathan Rothschild
Nathan Rothschild sadly died on the 18th of July 1836. Leaving his wife and a son to carry on the grand renovation plans including hothouses, where they could grow exotic fruit and flowers, and the purchase of more land.
Widow Hannah Rothschild and Smirke carried on the upgrades and developments.
Mrs. H Rothschild was very keen to continue to raise the Rothchild’s family profile within the important and influential nobility and society of the times. Nathan was perhaps less indulgent, less of a showboat, he was an important financier, not to be seen as someone is frivolous with spending. The times were changing, Victorians bought fashions, fads and inventions and cosmopolitan wonderment for other countries and botanical interests. The raved about social functions which then occurred at Gunnersbury, left an impression not only at the time for the Rothschild’s and Gunnersbury but also enough to leave a trail for modern-day people to read about.
Spectacular fêtes were elaborate festivals given at Gunnersbury, whilst Hannah Rothschild managed the estate. These social gatherings were talked about and documented by her social-climbing guest list. Embellishments, decorations, music, balls, food & refreshments, garden strolls, entertainment. One such occasion in July 1838 a Breakfast Fête at Gunnersbury for some 500 guests costing £2,000. Italian music from well-known Grisi & Persiani attended, waltzing on the lawns, coffee at the temple. Ambassador’s, Dukes, Princes. In 1843 even Benjamin Disraeli attended such a Fête.
Hannah Rothschild Widow of Nathan Rothchild Dies
Hannah Rothschild died in 1850. They left the estate to her 4 sons. Lionel, Anthony, Nathaniel, and Mayer. The Other brothers gave up their shares to Lionel who then owned the Estate 1851-1879.
Lionel Rothschild, the second Gunnersbury master of the Estate 1851
Being a first in those times. Lionel Rothschild fought and became the first practicing Jewish MP without having to swear the Christian oath which was normal practice in those times. A dream he made a reality by the end of July 1858.
1855 the Gardeners Chronical raved about the Cedar trees, rare conifers at Gunnersbury.
Lionel’s eldest daughter Leonora was a striking beauty, a well-known beauty icon of that era. Queen Victoria, even had commented upon her good looks. 4/3/1857 Leonora was to marry her French cousin Alphonse de Rothschild. The British-based Rothschild males in the family had the permission to use the nobility status Von Baron, though it is fair to say some did not seem to insist on being known by that title.
An extension to the dining room happened and they decorated the house interior for the wedding with plants. They displayed wedding gifts around the skylight. We can view the skylight today. See photo.
This Wedding was a Jewish style Ceremony. The Bride wore Belgian lace, had orange blossoms, lilies of the valley, white roses, blue satin and velvet ribbons. 16 Bridesmaids. Details of this event were in the Illustrated Times and the Illustrated London News. A Banquet and Ball with many Important guests the Cream of society.
Lionel was friends with King Edward VII and took his photo in Autochrome in 1909 whilst the King was in his Highland costume whilst in Scotland. This photo is on display in Gunnersbury Museum, at Gunnersbury Park. Autochrome was the first colour photo method available. I had only discovered this Photo around 2009 by a Rothschild descendant.
Paintings, furniture, and antiques were other treasures Lionel collected.
1858 Disraeli commented upon the Rothschild’s Banquets “Splendour that couldn’t be surpassed”.
Stimulating images of Rothschild’s gardens at Gunnersbury from the 1860s
Lionel Rothschild gained 620 acres and extended the Gunnersbury estate. He bought up land 1861-1863. He even bought a clay pit, Coles Hole. This formed into Potomac Lake later on. They formed a Tile Kiln into a boathouse, in the shape of a Gothic Folly tower by the south shore of the fishpond area Potomac Lake. 1861, they bought The Gunnersbury Triangle, that was near Chiswick Park station. In 1984 this area became a nature reserve.
Gothic garden follies are the other known treasures. A Folly being an ornamental feature built in a certain, ornate, extravagant style. Follies could range from mimicking, features of Roman, Chinese /Japanese type temples, Egyptian shapes, Gothic arches, pretend ruins. Seen in English and French landscape gardens. “Folie” in French meaning something like “It’s absolute madness” but also associations to a delightful little place to be. These structures may not have had a practical use or full purpose but complimented the theme and attraction to visitors to the estate.
These retro-style structures can make it hard to determine what time period they truly came from.
Outside, the bathhouse is one such example. It was once used by Princess Amelia, an example of a Garden folly “Gothik” style. The Mystique around the bathhouse’s differing structures is because of archaeological developments on Gunnersbury Park estate. The layers around the bathhouse show both C18th and C19th evidence to structures of a bathhouse that was being enjoyed by over one generation, who lived on the estate.
When the park reopened in the summer of 2018, an actress dressed in a wonderful period costume, was in the bathhouse area. The temperature was cool in the bathhouse, offering plenty of shade from the midday. The Bathhouse was decorated with shells, a highly prized commodity in its time for decorating bathhouses and grottos with.
Greenhouse- hothouse delights
1862 the greenhouse grew exotic flowers and fruit. A hothouse built by Henry Ormton. Lionel’s wife Charlotte had a passion for Orchids, and this was another Gunnersbury specialty, that Charlotte catalogued. The Rothschild’s connection with orchids stems back to Ferdinand de Rothschild’s time born in 1839. Ferdinand knew an orchidologist Frederick Sander born in 1847. The German-born Orchid king who came to settle in England. Victorians had a fashion for various flowers like this. Other Rothschild males including Lionel, joined the RHS orchid committee. Learning about species and got involved with creating hybrids which were sometimes named after the family as were other types of flora.
It would reward tours of the gardens with a memento to take home an orchid. Often they were placed at the table at dinner, for guests.
Gunnersbury also grew Rhododendrons, Carnations, Azaleas, Kamia Latfolia, Begonias. Chrysanthemums, Myrtle, Pelargoniums, Erica’s, Rose areas, Fuchsia, Agapanthus. Was well known for its Pineapples, the Rothschild continued this legacy in developing different fantastic size, taste and shape. They also harvested fruits, Orange trees, Figs, peaches, grapes, strawberries, pineapple, melons, nectarines, pomegranates.
Enchanting and Creative Landscape Gardeners at Gunnersbury
James Pulham and Son were creative landscape designers and kept their company going for at least 4 generations. Spanning a period from around the late 1700s to the late 1950s. They had a technique of using cement, old stone bricks and remodelling. The resulting man-made rocks, which could then look like a natural stone, transformed gardens. They patented this and referred to as Pulhamite. Pulham’s work has appeared in many wells-known places In London and termed the “Pulham Legacy”. Works include; Buckingham Palace, the V&A museum, Kensal Green Cemetery, The Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, St James Park features and Gunnersbury Park. They specialised in follies, ornamental Japanese, Italian gardens terraces, rock gardens ferneries and grottos.
The Pulham company even manufactured, garden seating, vases, urns, fountains. A lot of the Garden Furniture at Gunnersbury during the Rothschild 1900s era was sourced locally in a lot of cases because details of what they purchased and where from still exist.
Rothschild’s 1870’s Gunnersbury Park
1872 King Leopold of Belgium II attended a Rothschild Dinner & concert. Lionel’s son is named Leopold and thought to be named after the Leopold II father Leopold I who is related to British Queen Victoria.
Gunnersbury Park Gardens in the 1870s
The Pulham design styles appear elsewhere at Gunnersbury from around 1874. Speculation that the old tile kiln building into a Gothic-inspired tower boathouse folly had some input by them. It’s uncertain but the other ornamental structures that the Pulhams may have had some part in, are; A mimicked Gothic Ruin structure, at the old stable block. A castle-style entry archway to a lodge. It is also thought a basement type fernery around the outside Bathhouse, was also the Pulham style.
- Lionel Rothschild of Gunnersbury dies June 1879
- Charlotte Rothschild Widow of Gunnersbury dies in 1884
- 1889 the Rothschild’s purchased the smaller house and land for guests and family.
Gunnersbury in the 1900s and Leopold Rothschild
Leopold took over the estate but did not get total control till 1901. He continued with plants and also had the love of horses and horse racing. He carried on the Horseracing stud was at Gunnersbury.
Reading around, it is noted, in 1900 Gunnersbury house now had electric lighting.
The Rothschild’s had plans for a Japanese inspired garden, that James Hudson is noted for in around 1900 – 1901 for Leopold Rothschild. Miniature features. Water ponds for waterlilies, In particular, it was admired for its Bluewater lilies, musk, Chinese palm, bamboo, Teahouse, lanterns lit with electricity, stepping stones, Chinese and Japanese style plants, a bamboo style bridge, inspired by perhaps Bellagio Japanese Gardens on the Lake Como
1906 Came the Heath garden behind the Japanese area, sunken walkway, rocks, ivy.
1909 Leopold carried on the tradition and gave a huge function in honour of the Chief Rabbi reaching 70. 5,000 people came many Jewish immigrants.
1912 King George the V and Queen Mary attended Leopold’s next major social function a mass garden party “League of Mercy”. Two thousand guests of nobility and importance dressed in all their finery in aid of King Edwards VII fund.
1911 Leopold Rothschild son of Charlotte who had the passion for Orchids, gave a Fabergé crystal vase of orchids to King George V for his coronation June of that year.
Gunnersbury and the Great War 1914-1918
It has not been easy to find out about what happened at Gunnersbury Estate during the War. But the Rothschild’s were busy with the war effort.
Lionel, Anthony Gustav, Evelyn were the sons of Leopold Rothschild. They played their part in active service that took different forms.
The King persuaded Lionel to serve his country and remain running finances at New Court London. Gold Bullion and the Mint were under the Rothschild’s care. Lionel also set up a recruiting office in 1915, and established a pathway for Jewish men to join up, also providing Chaplains, welfare, lodging. The Rothschild’s sent aid to the troops on the front and provided funds for the Red Cross Hospital.
Evelyn Rothschild Was wounded on the western front as he went straight to action, he recovered went back to service, died for his country in south Palestine 1917.
Gustav Anthony although wounded Gallipoli was decorated and survived the war with the title of Major of General staff.
The Last Rothschild at Gunnersbury
Nathan’s Grandson, Son of Charlotte, Leopold de Rothschild died in 1917. The Estate eventually after that, was sold by the family to the Local Authority. It has been written that the Widow Rothschild wanted the house to be in memorial to her husband and that the sale was on the condition it is used for leisure and a certain amount of land kept as the park open land for the public.
Land For sale at Gunnersbury, it’s a knockout, sale of the century
In 1925 Queen Mary and King George the V opened the Great West Road. The travel route to the West of the Country to places like Bath had to pass through Brentford, which then became congested. This road was going to bypass the town to ease bottleneck jams. The Great West Road was 8 miles long and went from Chiswick High road near Kew Bridge area, at the back of the park. It went through Isleworth and then Bath road was joined again, past Hounslow Barracks station. The price of the land then went up because it was seen as a development area, so became an opportunity.
Brentford’s Golden Mile saw art deco buildings being created, as trade and interest grew in the area. The councils wanted the Rothschild’s land for different reasons, a public park, with Acton and Ealing. In opposition to Brentford, who wanted the park estate land for housing developments. Along Popes lane and Lionel road, were sold off so that the councils could repay loans they had to take out to be able to afford the parkland.
They then sold part of the estate off. In 1926 the London Boroughs of Acton and Ealing purchased both houses and 186 acres of land.
Gunnersbury park museum
In 1929, they turned The house into a museum. Local history, history of the house, archaeology, social history, topography, transport, artefacts about the house and area, stories. Special small collections, costume & childhood. A collection of artifacts from Entertainment, BBC and Ealing film studios. The Ealing studios production “The Lavender Hill Mob”, is on Location around Gunnersbury, the park gates, and the Gilette building on the golden mile, show a glimpse in 1951.
A Shop, Staircase, ground floor galleries, Drawing room, Dining room, Long Gallery, upper floor galleries, Kitchen areas
The Blue Room where King Edward the VII slept.
The Museum is also a learning space for schools, groups, events and activities
When the London Boroughs reformed around 1965 it was moved over to the ownership of Ealing and Hounslow Borough councils.1967 They set the Gunnersbury park joint committee up
1980s Gunnersbury Park & Museum
I give here a timeline of the fundraising, and efforts that the Friends of Gunnersbury Park & Museum have made from the early 1980s to the present day.
Renovations the untold story of preservation
The council of Ealing and Acton who manage the park welcomed visitors back in the summer of 2018, to Gunnersbury Park Museum. The Heritage Lottery Fund provided a significant amount of cash alongside the Parks for People Fund, also being a major contributor with a working budget of £50 million. More restorations and upgrades are being planned.
The Aims of the Heritage Lottery Fund renovations project
To reconnect the house with the park and make more of it open to the public. To renovate and restore historic rooms of the large mansion house, to house a museum and temp museum that includes history about the area the people and diversity. To open parts of the park estate that were not open before. To conserve wildlife and biodiversity.
Other Associations of Gunnersbury Park
Annual Mela festival Asian culture.
Museum & shop, WC
Lake, pond and water fountain
Film location for “The Lavender Mob”, 1951, with Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway, was filmed in certain scenes, at Gunnersbury Park.
The 22 Listed buildings in Gunnersbury Park
- Gunnersbury Park House (Large Mansion )
- Gunnersbury House (Small Mansion)
- EAST/ West Stables
- Gothic Ruins
- Lamp Stands
- North Lodge
- East Lodge
- West Lodge
- East Lodge Archway
- South East Archway
- South West Archway
- East Archway
- Bathhouse and Gothic Screen
- Potomac Tower
- Boundary Wall
- Pope’s Lane Entrance Gates
- Kitchen Garden wall
- Water Features:
- Potomac Lake
- Horseshoe Lake
Where is Gunnersbury Park
Gunnersbury park is located in West London, in the London borough of Hounslow, near to Acton Central station on the Piccadilly line, South Ealing tube station, Gunnersbury Mainline Station and Kew Bridge on the M4/A4 North Circular.
The 10 public entrances into the park, how to get into Gunnersbury Park,
The Main entrance, North Gateway on Popes Lane, two lantern structures appear on the posts, with its ornate iron gate also Grade II listed.
There is another entrance, also on Popes Lane, not very far from the main entrance is a drive-in entrance to the carpark. It’s closer to the bus stop 65 that came from the direction of Acton Central. Walk back toward the direction you came with on Popes road as the bus will pass the main entrance first. This is more suitable if on foot. The Car park entrance is closer to the playground area.
There is an entrance also further round on Popes Lane B4491 opposite Elderberry Rd
There is an entrance on the corner of the park further down the B4491 where it meets the corner of Lionel Road
There is an entrance/exit in the stone wall onto the North Circular road
There is an entrance on the Lionel Rd N. BY the Bridge Great West Rd M4 / A4 where Lionel Rd S. Meets Lionel Rd N.