Ashton Estate & The Rothschilds

A brief history of beauty and eccentricity

The Ashton Estate is a fascinating work of both man and nature. Created at the turn of the 19th century by a mercantile family, The Estate has an interesting socio-economic history comprising a “model settlement” superimposed on a more ancient village.

Whilst the function of many estate buildings has changed, much of the “model settlement” remains physically intact, an unlikely outcome given the dynamics of modern life. The more ancient settlement is represented by a number of Grade II Listed buildings. Several of the “Edwardian” buildings are also Listed.

It is believed that the model settlement was the master plan of the fashionable Victorian architect, William Huckvale. Construction of estate cottages was a particular interest of Huckvale and the many “Edwardian” cottages are believed to be examples of Huckvales work. The Ashton Estate is one of the few remaining “Model Farms” that exists in a form that might be recognisable to its Victorian/Edwardian creators: much of the fabric is intact. The model settlement is of interest to the economic historian as well as to admirers of period buildings and of traditional English countryside.

The Hon. Charles Rothschild (1877 – 1923) was an enthusiastic Natural Historian, and Scientist and a Merchant Banker. By repute, Charles was one of the most brilliant members of the family – and perhaps more interested in science than in banking. The Hon Charles Rothschild was in particular passionate about insects – butterflies, moths, fleas and beetles (a passion inherited by his daughter, the Hon Miriam Rothschild).

Apparently Charles was enchanted by the Ashton Woodlands, with their abundant old sallow bushes and attendant Hair-streaks – rare butterflies whose larvae feed on ancient sallow. Many other species of butterflies inhabit these magical woodlands, including Fritillaries, and, allegedly, Purple Emperors. A Lepidopterist in possession of a good fortune is in need of a natural woodland, and Charles enquired of a local inn as to the owner of the Ashton Woodlands. The “Hon NCR” was dismayed to learn that the woods were owned by a family that (so it was said) “rarely sells property and rarely needs to sell property”. The aspiring silviculturalist and beetle enthusiast was less dismayed to learn that the family in question was the Rothschild family, and that the (indirect) owner was his father, Nathaniel Mayer Rothschild (1777 – 1836).

Amongst other creations of the Hon. Charles are a castellated neo-renaissance water tower, a fire engine shed and a thatched petrol distribution store.

The Hon. Charles also helped identify (medically important) the vector that carries bubonic plague: thus the species of flea that carries the Black Death bears the name “Xenopsylla cheopis Rothschild”.

Dame Miriam Rothschild FRS

Miriam Rothschild, entomologist, parasitologist, nature conservationist and chemical ecologist was also active in a broad range of civic, social and political causes. During World War II, she joined a group of distinguished scientists working at Bletchley Park on the Enigma decryption project working as a code breaker. She received a Defence Medal from the British government for her work. She aided refugee Jewish scientists during and after the war and she also worked with several organisations dedicated to helping Jewish children escape from Germany and Austria, often housing some of these refugees in her own home at Ashton Wold which was used by the Red Cross as a convalescent hospital for military personnel.

Rothschild was moved by her sister Liberty’s illness to found the Schizophrenia Research Fund in 1962. This Fund is dedicated to promoting the understanding, treatment, and cure of schizophrenia. She also helped marshal scientific evidence on homosexuality for the Wolfenden Committee (the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution) whose resulting Report (1963) led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

She was the first woman to serve on the National Trust’s Committee for Conservation and the first woman to become a Trustee of the Natural History Museum (1967 – 1975). She also became the President of the Society for the Study of Insects, Vice-President of Fauna and Flora International and served on committees for the Royal Entomological Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Marine Biological Association.

She participated in committee work for her father’s Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, and in the vice presidency of its successor organisations, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation (1981) and at the Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts (2004). She also edited the Tring Museum Journal, Novitates Zoologicae (1938 – 1941).

Her first book, co-written with Theresa Clay, Fleas, Flukes, and Cuckoos, was published in 1952. She co-authored six volumes cataloguing her father’s collection of fleas – the largest such collection in existence. She wrote and co-authored a further six books and published 369 scientific papers.

Including those from Oxford and Cambridge she was awarded eight honorary visiting Professor of Biology at the Royal Free Hospital, where she taught first year medical students, from 1968 to 1973. In 1985 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1982, she was awarded a CBE for her services to systematics and, in 2000, a DBE for services to nature conservation and biochemical research.