Edmund De Rothschild, ex-chairman N M Rothschild and Son
Horticulturalist and reluctant banker who oversaw the modernisation of the family firm has died.
Edmund de Rothschild, who died on January 17 aged 93, was senior partner and then chairman of NM Rothschild & Sons, and a figure of international renown in horticulture, especially in the field of rhododendron and azalea plant hybridisation.
Having joined the family bank at New Court, in the City, in 1939, Eddy de Rothschild became its effective head in 1955, when his uncle Anthony suffered a severe stroke. A partner from 1947, he became senior partner in 1960 and chairman of the bank in 1970, when NMR became the last London accepting house to relinquish its private partnership status.
De Rothschild presided over the bank’s transition from a highly conservative family firm to a modern institution, and over the demolition and rebuilding of New Court. He opened the partnership to non-family members, beginning with David Colville, brother of Sir John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary.
He stepped down as chairman of NMR in 1975, to be succeeded briefly by his second cousin Victor, the 3rd Lord Rothschild, and then by his first cousin Evelyn (now Sir Evelyn) de Rothschild.
After his return from the Second World War in 1946, Eddy de Rothschild set about the restoration of Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, the 260-acre woodland garden created by his father Lionel in the 1920s and 1930s. The gardens had been greatly neglected since Lionel’s death in 1942.
Over the next 50 years he replanted some three-quarters of the acreage, and produced several dozen new rhododendron hybrids. He also developed the highly successful Solent Range of Exbury deciduous azaleas, which are noted for their strength and colour. In 1955 he opened Exbury Gardens to the public.
Well into his eighties, Eddy de Rothschild would hurtle around Exbury’s network of garden paths (designed to be wide enough for his father’s Armstrong-Siddeley) in a small car with the number plate NMR 1. He would stop the car to pass the time of day with the visitors, and liked to get out to hack off dead branches and blooms with a stout rhododendron-wood stave.
Edmund Leopold de Rothschild 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 English branch of the family, and the bank, in the early years of the 19th century.
Nathan Mayer was one of the five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the prosperous Frankfurt financier who looked after the financial affairs of the immensely rich Elector of Hesse-Kassel. Four of the sons left Germany and established banks in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples.
Nathan made a fortune in the Napoleonic era, smuggling gold bullion across Europe to pay Wellington’s troops. He set up an extensive network of agents and couriers, and it was via a Rothschild courier that in 1815 the news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo first reached London. By the time of his death in 1836, Nathan was the richest man in Britain.
His eldest son, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, presided at New Court for more than 40 years. He underwrote the Irish Famine Loan and the Crimean War Loan, and in 1875 lent the British government the £4 million required to buy the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Company, in order to protect Britain’s sea route to India.
At the time of Eddy’s birth, his father was a junior partner of Rothschilds, and MP for Aylesbury. Eddy’s French-born mother, Marie-Louise Beer, was a great-great-niece of the composer Meyerbeer; her elder sister Nelly was married to Baron Robert de Rothschild, of the French branch of the family.
Young Master Eddy was brought up mostly at Exbury House, on the 2,600-acre estate his father acquired in late 1918, bounded by the New Forest, The Solent and the Beaulieu river. There were 30 indoor staff and, at one point, 60 gardeners. Eddy’s greatest childhood friend was his father’s head keeper, William Rattue, who later wrote to him every week during the war.
Butterfly collecting was an early, and enduring, passion, stimulated by de Rothschild’s kinsman Walter, the 2nd Lord Rothschild, the naturalist who schooled a team of zebra and gathered the largest collection of natural history specimens ever assembled by one man, at Tring Park, Hertfordshire.
Eddy was educated at Locker’s Park preparatory school, Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. At Locker’s Park he experienced anti-Semitism for the first time, and was so unhappy that he tried to throw himself from an upstairs window. Matron arrived in time to rescue him from the ledge.
At Harrow his school reports identified a tendency to hurry, which he was never altogether to master. At Cambridge he kept a horse – named Rosemary, after his sister – which he rode with the Cambridge drag, and steeplechasing at Cottenham races, wearing the Rothschilds’ blue and yellow silks.
He once lost a whole term’s allowance on an injudicious wager, but was bailed out by his cousin Victor with the loan of £100. He narrowly escaped being sent down when a university proctor caught him in charge of a Mercedes motor car he had been lent for the day by his friend the young Duke of Grafton.
Part of every summer holidays was spent cruising Europe’s coastline aboard his father’s ocean-going yachts, Rhodora I and II. Rhodora II, a magnificent, 800-ton vessel manned by a numerous crew, had a hold large enough to accommodate Lionel de Rothschild’s enormous Rolls-Royce.
After Cambridge, in 1937 de Rothschild was sent by his father on an 18-month tour around the world, of which he published an account as Window on the World (1949). He went big-game hunting in Africa, rode horseback over the Andes, and motored across the Northern Territories in Australia.
In French Indo-China, his friend and travelling companion Nicholas Fitzgerald died in his arms after a shooting accident (in which de Rothschild himself was not involved) when going after gaur. He pressed on to Burma, India and Afghanistan, calling, en route, on the Viceroy, Mahatma Gandhi and the great Parsee merchant Sir Byramjee Jeejeebhoy, of Readymoney Mansion, Bombay.
De Rothschild returned to England in May 1939, and worked at New Court until the outbreak of war in September, exclusively on German-Jewish refugee matters. In 1935 he had joined the Royal Bucks Yeomanry, a territorial regiment with which his family – several of whom had houses, including Mentmore, Waddesdon and Ascott, in the Vale of Aylesbury – had strong links. His father’s younger brother Evelyn had died from wounds sustained in the Bucks’ cavalry charge against the Turks at El-Mughar in Palestine in 1917.
In January 1940 the Bucks was among the first territorial regiments to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. De Rothschild, by then a first lieutenant, went with them, but due to recurring bouts of Staphylococcus aureus, a near-fatal blood infection in those days, he was not involved in the action.
As a battery-captain in the 77th Highland Field Regiment (RA), de Rothschild went to North Africa with 4 Division, in the First Army. He saw action at Oued Zarga, Banana Ridge and Peter’s Corner. At Cap Bon, after the Allied rout of Axis forces, he had to find supplies to feed 10,000 PoWs.
In early 1944 the regiment sailed to Italy, and took part in the battles of Monte Cassino. Slightly wounded, de Rothschild declined to be treated at a First Aid post when he found that it was full of more urgent cases; as he walked away, the station was wiped out by a mortar.
Some months later, near Udine, he witnessed the handing over of Cossack soldiers to the Soviet army. They had to cross a humpbacked bridge to reach the Soviet sector, and he heard them being shot as they reached the other side.
By now a major in the newly-formed Jewish Infantry Brigade, de Rothschild drove up through Austria and Germany in a truck with the Star of David painted on its side, a cause of bewilderment and unease to the Germans. At Mannheim, starving Jews in concentration-camp garb came up to him out of the crowd.
He ended the war at Venlo, in Holland, guarding a huge supply dump and supervising minefield-clearance by German PoWs. He ensured that the Germans walked well ahead of his own men during the operations.
Towards the end of 1946, de Rothschild returned to New Court, where, since his father’s death, his uncle Anthony had been the sole partner. “My knowledge of banking was non-existent,” he recalled, “and whenever I said to Tony ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand this’, Tony would reply, ‘No. You wouldn’t’.”
In 1947 he went to New York to gain experience at Kuhn, Loeb & Co and the Guaranty Trust Company. At Kuhn, Loeb he received a telegram from his uncle informing him that he had been made a partner of NMR. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or to commiserate,” his uncle said.
The nitty-gritty of banking was not to de Rothschild’s taste, and in later life he reflected that he might rather have been a doctor than a banker. But after the war he was the only young Rothschild eligible and willing to join the partnership at New Court, and he had strong sense of duty to the family. He was given responsibility for monitoring the activities of the Royal Mint Refinery (RMR), then in Royal Mint Street near the Tower of London.
From 1952, de Rothschild’s chief preoccupation was with what was then the most costly project ever undertaken by private enterprise: the development of the vast hydroelectric potential of the Hamilton (later Churchill) Falls in Labrador. Rothschilds led the consortium, and de Rothschild crossed the Atlantic more than 400 times over the 20 years the project took to complete.
Like his philanthropic grandfather Leopold (once described as “an angel with a revenue”), Eddy de Rothschild took a genuine, practical interest in the welfare of his staff at New Court. For many years he gave an annual garden party for the pensioners at Exbury, at the height of the rhododendron flowering season in May.
He also worked hard for charitable causes, in particular the Queen’s Nursing Institute, of which he was a trustee, the Not Forgotten Association, and the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, of which he was for many years president. He was a vice-president of the Council of Christians and Jews. He was a man of irrepressible optimism and good nature and saw only the best in others. He was trusting and generous to a fault. After he had handed over the chairmanship of NMR to Victor Rothschild, his cousin remarked: “D’you know Eddy, I’d no idea how much you were loved at New Court.”
He held the Territorial Decoration, and was appointed CBE in the New Year’s Honours, 1997. In 2005 he received the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest award, the Victoria Medal of Honour.
His autobiography, A Gilt-Edged Life, written with George Ireland, was published in 1998.
Edmund de Rothschild married first, in 1948, Elizabeth Lentner, who died in 1980. They had two sons and two daughters. He married secondly, in 1982, Anne Harrison (née Kitching), the widow of one of his oldest friends.