Exbury Gardens was the inspiration of Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. It was his vision, his dedication and his resources which have created one of the finest woodland gardens in the country. Lionel was born in 1882 into the famous banking family. By the mid-19th century, the Rothschilds were at the peak of their financial power and prestige throughout Europe. As was expected of Lionel, he took up a career in the family bank. In 1912 he married Marie-Louise Beer by whom he had four children, Rosemary, Edmund, Naomi and Leopold.
He bought the Exbury Estate in the New Forest in 1919 from Lord Forster. It was an isolated hamlet on the northern edge of the Solent which had a unique micro-climate ideally suited for growing rhododendrons. William Mitford, whose family owned the Estate in the nineteenth century, described it as an ‘earthly paradise’.
Lionel made his garden during the era when plant hunters and explorers such as Frank Kingdom-Ward, George Forrest and Joseph Rock were bringing back seeds of hitherto unseen plants from the remoter areas of the Himalayas and South-East Asia.
Some 250 men were employed to clear out the woodland so that the gardens
could be laid out. Paths were set out and the soil enriched and prepared for Lionel’s new plantings. A borehole was sunk and an irrigation system spread out from the water tower to reach all parts of the garden through some 22 miles of underground piping.
The onset of war in 1939 brought the development to a standstill. In January 1942, Lionel died; later that year in May, Exbury House was requisitioned by the Admiralty and Mrs Lionel and her son, Edmund, were asked to clear it in 48 hours.
The House was then commissioned as a ‘stone frigate’, HMS Mastadon, and was later to become HMS King Alfred and HMS Hawke. She acted as a headquarters responsible for the administration of the victualling, arming and training of the crews of many of the types of landing craft that were moored in the Beaulieu River before use in the planning of the assaults against occupied Europe on D-Day.
When Lionel returned home after the war from active service in Africa and Italy, he began the enormous task of restoring the gardens to their former glory, and when he had achieved this, he decided to open them to the public.