Thursday, 24 October 2013

Rothschild Mausoleum, West Ham Jewish Cemetery


The young Ferdinand Rothschild
Ferdinand James Anselm Freiherr von Rothschild was born in Paris in 1839 of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family. His father was Baron Anselm von Rothschild and his mother Charlotte von Rothschild (née Rothschild). Ferdinand was devoted to his mother and was inconsolable when she died in 1859. He had always envied the relaxed and cultivated lifestyle of his English cousins so following the death of his mother he left Vienna to study at Cambridge and eventually became a naturalised British citizen. In 1865 he unquestioningly took up the family tradition of endogamy by marrying his cousin Evelina, the daughter of Baron Lionel de Rothschild and his cousin Charlotte Rothschild (née Rothschild) of the Neapolitan branch of the family. It would usually be assumed that this would have been a dynastic alliance but Ferdinand truly loved Evelina. The couple took a long honeymoon travelling in Europe and within a few weeks of their return Evelina discovered, to Ferdinand’s great joy, that she was pregnant. Eight months later, at the age of 26, she was dead. Following a railway accident she had gone into premature labour, giving birth to a stillborn child and then herself dying. Ferdinand never got over his grief. He commissioned an elaborate mausoleum where her name, Eva, is endlessly repeated as a decorative motif in English and Hebrew letters. He also endowed a hospital for sick children in Southwark in her name. When his father died in 1874 he liquidated his £2 million share in the family bank, gave up business and bought a rundown estate in Buckinghamshire from the Duke of Marlborough. On the estate he built a stately home where he lived for the rest of his life with his unmarried younger sister Alice. At first he devoted himself to collecting art, amassing an important collection which he later left to the British museum, and to compulsive socialising. Later he became the Liberal MP for Aylesbury. He never remarried and despite his famous hospitality he often dined on cold toast and water while his guests were being served lavish meals. Shortly before he died he wrote to his cousin Lord Roseberry “I am a lonely, suffering and occasionally a very miserable individual despite the gilded and marble rooms in which I live.” When he died in 1898 he was finally reunited with his young wife and was interred by her side in the mausoleum.


Baron Rothschild in his later years, photographed at Waddesdon Manor

The local Quaker philanthropist Samuel Gurney sold farmland in Forest Gate in 1855 to create the two West Ham cemeteries. The Jewish cemetery was established in 1865 by the New Synagogue then at Great St Helens Street, EC3. They were later joined by the Great Synagogue at Dukes Place, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in England (established 1690). The cemetery is no longer in use and is closed to the public following a number of desecrations which included the toppling of headstones and the daubing of swastikas. In the worst attack, in 2005, the doors of the Rothschild Mausoleum were battered in and kicked off their hinges.