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Weekend: Books: How the other half lived it up; The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches. By J Mordaunt Crook (John Murray, pounds 25). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds.

They were not just rich, they were very, very rich: the Rothschilds, the Guinnesses, the Wernhers, the Tennants and the Sassoons.

They were bankers, brewers, coalmine owners, they had the rights to vast mineral resources in countries they would never have dreamed of visiting.

Native populations fell sick in their service, men working underground died from silicosis getting out their coal for them, men and women alike struggled through the long, badly paid hours of a factory working day.

And all in order that the wives of these super-rich tycoons could purchase a Rembrandt or a Turner from that nice Mr Duveen, the art dealer, or enter the ballroom on the arm of the Prince of Wales in the latest thing from Worth the dressmaker.

Great wealth was generated for the few after the Industrial Revolution and the few grew wealthier and wealthier in Europe and America.

The Lancashire cotton mills, South African diamond and gold mines, Irish beer and Anglo-German banking were some of the avenues these adventurers could stride down.

Oscar Wilde satirised this greedy aspect of Victorian society in An Ideal Husband where the priggish Sir Robert Chiltern has a past which included selling Government secrets to an unscrupulous continental speculator called Baron Arnheim.

People laughed at Wilde's comedy of manners, but for some the dart struck home.

But when they had made their money, these incredible people, what did they do with it? Where and how did they live?

Mordaunt Crook sets the whole picture before us, placing his evocative subjects gracefully (but nevertheless critically) within the social and economic context which explained their extraordinary and indefensible lifestyles.

In fact, even as this book is published, Christie's is advertising what it calls "The Glorious Rothschild Collection" which includes arms, armour, glass, silver, furniture and old masters' paintings all of which will be sold in July for around pounds 20 million.

When money gets to this dizzy height Christie's suddenly becomes "honoured" to sell these objects. The contents of the sale - a picture of the times Mordaunt Crook is discussing - were looted by the Nazis.

The Austrian Government is only restoring to the Rothschild family things that rightly belong to them.

The picture of the Rothschild Palace in Vienna (one of the lots), shows a princely house with interiors to rival Blenheim or Chatsworth and equates with photographs of houses and palaces built by the nouveaux riches in this country.

The owners of these houses, as Mordaunt Crook points out, were breeds whose dealings were international, as in the case of the Rothschilds, but whose ambitions were firmly focused on London.

A year before Edward VII came to the throne, William Waldorf Astor found himself dining at Sandringham. Around the table with the Prince of Wales were J B Robinson, known as the Kimberley Buccaneer, Col North, the Nitrates King, and the Prince himself.

All of which confirmed a social sovereignty of wealth - it was a junior court underpinned by reckless spending and presided over by the man the French press called "The First Cosmopolitan Prince of Wales".

Many of the older English aristocrats found it vulgar but unsurprising.

"After all," said Lady Paget, "he shares the same luxurious tastes as the Semites; the same love of pleasure and comfort."

There was, of course, always the risk that inter-marriage with certain ethnic types might eventually spoil the classical outline of the aristocratic English upper class nose.

But it was a risk considered of far less importance than the bulging bank balances which loomed comfortably behind the bride at her wedding breakfast.

And the money rolled in unceasingly it appeared. Park Lane was practically annexed by South American millionaires, each new resident more aggressively wealthy than his predecessor.

Far from "dropping the Semites," at his accession, the Monarch's increasing patronage reinforced the social resonances of the "Great Jews," as they were known.

And as wave upon wave of wealth flooded London society, even the Rothschilds were in danger of being upstaged, since the money in Carlton House Terrace was even more nouveaux "than the money in Park Lane".

In fact, the older aristocracy in the great houses fringing Sir James's Park - Cavendish, Lyttelton, Bruce, Churchill and Lowther - fell away sharply.

In their place came Horlicks (malted milk and proud of it) the Waterlows (printing), the Cunards (shipping), Crossley (carpets) and the Sterns (financiers).

Whether this influx of the "rich foreign element" really brought about a "new conception of life altogether, with wealth as the ultimate end of existence" is, Mordaunt Crook feels, debatable.

Lady Dorothy Nevill representing the ancien regime inveighed against what she called "the insensate avarice of the age".

Others spoke of that "frisky futility known as smartness" (Sir Robert Chiltern - how shrewd Wilde appears as you read this book) with its more perceivable aspects witnessed in the sale of titles purchased in return for political finance.

Then there were the directorships of dubious companies which could be obtained in the same manner. In the House of Lords, the roll call of peers increased by 20 per cent in almost as many years. Many of these peerages were clearly rooted in commerce.

Brewers like Guinness, Allsopp and Bass were reinvented in social terms as Iveagh (with Kenwood House in Hampstead to show for it) Hindlip and Burton.

Shipping magnates came to rejoice in such titles as Inverclyde, Nunburnholme and Inchcape. Accents were easily rearranged along with the arrogant manner which was, in these circles, de rigeur.

The British peerage was reckoned to be in crisis should the dowries of Israel or the plums of the United States ever be taken away from it.

No wonder the arrival of Consuelo Vanderbilt at Blenheim was hailed with open arms - after all, she had brought a dowry of pounds 2 million.

Sir Charles Tennant, father of the woman who became Margot Asquith after marriage, was initially Glasgow's chemical king and one of the richest men in Europe with 5,000 acres and a castle - not to mention massive funding.

Tennant's factory at St Rollocks might pollute all Glasgow with its clouds of hydrochloric acid. No matter, his sons were comfortably ensconced at Eton and although his workers might suffer poisoning, his daughters reflected the manners and mores of the new society where chaperonage had become merely a state of mind and there was no code of behaviour to speak of.

It was the heyday of the millionaire plebs, people the older aristos had always dreaded.

The houses epitomised the aspirations of the millionaires who built them.

The flashy Chateau Impney, near Droitwich, for example, a French fantasy built by John Corbett, a local salt manufacturer and a member of The Reform Club along with Courtauld (silk), Pullar (more finance), Mappin (cutlery) and a covey of weavers and clothiers. "The Reform Club on a Saturday night must have seemed like a veritable pantheon of capitalism," writes Mordaunt Crook.

Many of these men - even if they lacked acreage - had sizeable country houses. The Earl of Dudley (coal mines - thus employees suffering from silicosis) squandered what you might call "death money" on Witley Court near Stourport-on-Severn among other properties.

The decorations at Witley were inevitably Louis Seize and the fountain was awesome, roaring out jets of water like an express train in action.

Housekeepers knew the rules - especially when the king visited. An early morning bell was rung to get lovers and mistresses back to their legal spouses before the early morning tea arrived and the hot water brought in by the more naive housemaids.

Witley Court today is a skeletal ruin after the 1930s great fire. English Heritage has tamed Witley's arrogance making it cosy for coach parties and visitors.

By the 1930s the nouveaux riches (the term had become uncomplimentary by then) were outsiders incapable of assimilation into English life.

The American socialite, Chips Channon - a great mate of the Duke of Windsor and who had an eye on the peerage - had gone native here. Channon tried hard to believe that it was a "territorial aristocracy which still rules England".

But he was way off the mark. At Trent Park, Philip Sassoon entertained royally. Bernard Shaw would be found talking in an armchair with Osbert Sitwell laughing in the next room.

In 1939 an aeroplane cast a long shadow on Trent Park's lawns as Sassoon's ashes were scattered from the cockpit.

"But nobody ever embodied quite so well the dreams of the Victorian and Edwardian parvenu as Philip Sassoon who once said 'take down the Union Flag, it clashes with the sunset'."
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 12, 1999
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