JARS v63n2 - In Memoriam: Edmund L. de Rothschild

In Memoriam: Edmund L. de Rothschild
John M. Hammond

Edmund Leopold de Rothschild, Chairman of N. M. Rothschild (NMR), the City of London-based branch of the famous European banking empire, who died peacefully at Exbury House on January 17, 2009, a few days after celebrating his 93rd birthday, was an internationally renowned figure in the field of rhododendron and azalea hybridisation, having inherited his father's 200-acre Exbury garden the better part of 70 years ago.

Edmund was born in London at 46 Park Street, Mayfair, on January 2, 1916, the first son of Lionel de Rothschild and a great-great-grandson of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who established the London branch of the family, and the NMR bank, in the early years of the 19th century. He was brought up mainly at Exbury House, on the 2600-acre estate his father acquired in late 1918, bounded by the Solent, the Beaulieu River and the New Forest. Edmund's formative years were shared with those of Exbury Gardens, where up to 60 gardening staff were putting his father's wide-ranging plans into practice, whilst 30 staff were employed in Exbury House. Having been educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge, he embarked in 1937 on an 18-month world tour at his father's suggestion; and his adventures, of which there were many, were published in 1949 in Window on the World. Edmund returned to England in May 1939 and joined the family bank at New Court, in the City, as a partner until the outbreak of WWII intervened later that year. He served in the army in France, North Africa, Italy where he was wounded at Monte Cassino, Austria, Germany and Holland, by which time he had risen to the rank of Major. His greatest childhood friend was his father's head keeper, William Rattue, who wrote to him every week during the war and kept him up-to-date with what was happening at Exbury. Edmund's many exploits and experiences during these years were recounted in his biography, A Gilt-Edged Life, published in 1998.

His father, Lionel de Rothschild, died on 27th January 1942, aged 60, but shortly before his death the Admiralty had commandeered Exbury House and gardens. Edmund, who succeeded his father, hurried down from Scotland on two day's leave, being given 48 hours to completely clear the enormous house of all its valuables, furniture and fittings. On 4th May, with gate-houses for security, it became the "stone frigate" HMS Mastodon, an HQ for preparations for the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in June 1944. Shortly before D-Day, King George VI came down to inspect the ship, but he also had other enthusiasms in mind and when the inspection was over he disappeared into the woods to look at the plants. On 7th January 1946 the House became a officers training base, being renamed HMS King Alfred until June of that year and then became HMS Hawk, the origin of the name later given to one of Exbury's finest rhododendrons. In 1955 the House was de-requisitioned and returned to the family, but Edmund continued to live in Inchmery House, another property on the estate. Meanwhile, towards the end of 1946 Edmund returned to the family bank at New Court, where his uncle Anthony had been the sole partner since his father had died in 1942, and he was sent to Kuhn, Leob & Co and the Guaranty Trust Company in New York to gain experience. Whilst he was in New York his Uncle Anthony sent him a telegram informing him he had been made a partner of NMR; the telegram read, "I don't know whether to congratulate you or commiserate..." Thus, when his uncle suffered a severe stroke in 1955, Edmund became the effective head of NMR, then a senior partner in 1960, and chairman in 1970.

Although he had a strong sense of duty to the family, Edmund was always a reluctant banker and after his return from WWII, and his time in New York, he set about the restoration of Exbury Gardens. The woodland gardens created by his father Lionel in the 1920s and 1930s had been greatly neglected since his father's death in 1942, and when Edmund reopened them to the public in 1955 the queue to get in was over a mile long. Under his guiding hand the gardens were gradually restored and adapted to meet the various demands the of last half of the 20th century, as some degree of commercialism was inevitable to maintain the gardens. Queen Mary visited Exbury on August 8, 1925, which was the first of many Royal visits to the garden, including those of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who enjoyed coming down to the garden and needed no tutor in regard to the plants. Edmund was a close friend of the Queen Elizabeth II and in May of last year she named one of the engines that operate on the gardens' miniature steam railway, before climbing into the cab and taking a ride along the line.

Affectionately known as Eddy by family and close friends, and Mr. Eddy by the estate staff and other acquaintances, he followed in his father's footsteps to provide plant material to many individuals who subsequently became key rhododendron personalities on both the East and West Coasts of the U.S. as well as early enthusiasts in other parts of the world. John Henny, had met Lionel de Rothschild on a visit to England in the years prior to the formation of the ARS and the Edmund hosted many visits to Exbury by key members of the Society in its formative years. In the early 1950s John Henny accompanied Edmund on a tour of gardens in California, Oregon and Washing- ton and, as some of the Rothschild hybrids were particularly difficult to propagate, this was reciprocated by shipments of the better-known Rothschild hybrids to John Henny's nursery as a means of introducing them to West Coast enthusiasts.

Edmund also continued his father's rhododendron breeding work, raising many outstanding hybrids, and details of their collective work grace the pages of The Rothschild Rhododendrons: A Record of the Gardens at Exbury , first published in 1967. He staunchly maintained the long tradition of sending trusses up to the R.H.S. competitive London Shows at Westminster, despite several difficult winters causing widespread havoc with the flowers in most U.K. gardens. It was no surprise that he was a regular winner at the shows.

Edmund served on the councils and committees of numerous organisations, including the R.H.S. Council (1961-1965), R.H.S. Rhododendron Committee (1943-1970) and was Vice President of the Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society Council. His first wife, Elizabeth Lentner, died in 1980 and in 1982 he married Anne Harrison.

I last met Edmund and his wife Anne at the 2001 Annual Convention of the ARS held in Eugene, at which he had gladly accepted an invitation to speak, despite needing to travel long-distance at the grand old age of 85. He entertained Gordon Wylie and myself over a long lunch with stories of his exploits and adventures in WWII and tales of his many projects at Exbury. At the banquet he accepted the Pioneer Achievement Award post-humorously given by the Society to Lionel de Rothschild, and was himself the recipient of the Citation of Service Award. He received the R.H.S. Victoria Medal of Honour in 2005 and a CBE in 1997. Edmund was a man of irrepressible optimism who enjoyed a long, eventful and productive life; and the garden to which he devoted most of his life will be a fitting memorial. His wife Anne, and the four children of his first marriage survive him.