“It is all done and you are the Lady of Hughenden”, Benjamin Disraeli told his wife in September 1848 after the purchase of their Buckinghamshire manor and estate was complete. Surrounded by woodland in the heart of the Chilterns, it was here that they would enjoy peace and quiet while he climbed the “greasy pole of politics” to become one of the country’s most influential prime ministers.
Disraeli had been elected MP for Buckingham the previous year, in 1847, and knew he needed a country estate to enable him to demonstrate his ambition as a politician. After moving into Hughenden, he did indeed move swiftly up the ranks of the Conservative party, becoming Commons leader in 1849. However the Tories were in opposition for most of the next two decades and when he finally became prime minister in 1868 it was only for nine months.
But it was during Disraeli’s second term in the top job, which he began in 1874 at the age of 70, when he made his biggest – although sometimes also controversial – political achievements. These came at home, where he passed progressive laws on public health and those to prevent labour market exploitation. And abroad, he was responsible for the triumphant Congress of Berlin in 1878, which ended conflict in the Balkans and paused Russian expansion, and presided over the acquisition of shares in the Suez canal.
During this time in high office it was, until his death in 1881, that Disraeli came to Hughenden to get away from Westminster and enjoy his beloved trees and books. Mary Anne, his wife, brought in architect Edward Buckton Lamb who removed the white stucco of the three-storey, 18th century building to uncover the original blue and red brickwork. She also supervised the redesign of the gardens, including the addition of the parterre – the ornamental gardens that can today be so wonderfully viewed from the reception rooms at the back of the house.
Since 1947 the property has been owned and managed by the National Trust, allowing visitors the chance to take a look around the place that was so important for Benjamin and Mary Anne Disraeli. And thanks to photographs taken immediately after his death, curators had a clear idea of room layouts and the furniture has therefore been arranged according to when he lived there. Although not as big as other country houses owned by Disraeli’s contemporaries, it is a joy to explore and is filled with numerous oil paintings (including those donated by Queen Victoria, who came to admire him and had made him Earl of Beaconsfield).
On the ground floor of the manor there are series of light and airy reception rooms overlooking the rear gardens, as well as the dining room and library. Moving upstairs to the study, the room he described as “My Workshop”, was where he worked on political correspondence, three novels (the fact that he was a successful author has been forgotten by many) and wrote love letters to his female friends (he was quite a ladies man). The furniture on show, including the writing slope on the desk that he used since his school days, is original.
Queen Victoria visited Hughenden once while Disraeli was alive, the table in dining room set out today for that lunch in 1877. She came again to the property after his death and asked to spend time alone in his study. “Never had I so kind and devoted a Minster, and few such devoted friends,” she wrote of the man who had consoled her after she was widowed.
Unlikely prime minister
At least two times every day volunteer National Trust guides stand outside the main entrance to manor at Hughenden and give a 10 minute talk about its most famous and greatest owner. Given his eventful life, there is a lot to pack into a short space of time.
Born in London in 1804, Disraeli’s father – Isaac – converted him to Christianity, aged 12, after a dispute with synagogue authorities. Unlike other leading politicians of the day, he went to neither public school nor university, and was regarded as quite a dandy. As a young man his dress sense was flamboyant, with a friend once noting that he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in wringlets…”.
The lifestyle that Disraeli led landed him into financial trouble, but he was adept at forming relationships with wealthy married women who hailed bail him out. Mary Anne whom he married in 1839 was the widow of Wyndham Lewis and she brought Grosvenor House (in central London) to the marriage and also helped him pay off his debts. He adored her and was devastated when she died in 1872.
Disraeli was a lover of books and inherited some 25,000 volumes from his father. While he kept some (particularly classics, history and theology), many were sold off to help settle his debts, yet if you visit the library (which was later swapped with the drawing room) at Hughenden you’ll be able to see some 4,000 items on the floor to ceiling mahogany bookcases.
But Disraeli was himself also a writer, another skill he inherited from his father. “When I want to read a novel, I write one,” he once said. He fiction often contained subtly disguised descriptions of prominent public figures (such as a trilogy attacking the policy of Tory leader Sir Robert Peel), however he also wrote political biographies and other non-fiction.
As for Disraeli’s own political career, he was initially very unsuccessful – he faced four failed election attempts before he finally became a Tory MP for Maidstone in 1837. But, as already mentioned, after being made MP for Buckingham in 1847 he made swift progress through the ranks of the Conservative party. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer three (brief) times in minority governments, before twice acting as prime minster. After a career of duelling with his rival William Gladstone, the Liberal leader (Disraeli once said he found him “rather dull, but we had a swan, very white and tender and stuffed with truffles, the best company there” at the dinner party where they first met), he ended his time in the highest position in elected office after losing to him in 1880.
Disraeli became very fond of Queen Victoria and the feeling was reciprocated, meaning that that she was moved when, in 1881, he died. As a former prime minster, his funeral could have taken place at Westminster Abbey, but he had chosen to be buried at Hughenden church (his grave next to Mary Anne’s can be visited). Victoria couldn’t attend the service itself, as was protocol, but she still made a final visit to Hughenden and walked the route of the cortege. She later arranged for a memorial to Disraeli to installed there.
“All was just the same as when, two and a half years ago, dear Lord Beaconsfield had received us there, such a sad contrast,” she wrote in her journal of Disraeli’s passing. “We went into the library and drawing room where hangs my picture, all, all is the same only he is not there! …. I seemed to hear his voice and the impassioned, eager way he descried everything.”
Hughenden remained in the hands of Disraeli’s descendants until the Second World War when it requisitioned as the secret location for a map-making base, known as Hillside. More than 100 people worked here to produce maps of Nazi occupied territory, an operation which was instrumental in helping win the war for the Allies. Free volunteer-led daily tours – and an exhibition in the basement of the manor – explain the estate’s important role during this time.
For the last seven decades however Hughenden has been in the care of the National Trust and a visit here really does make for a great day out for visitors. The house is packed with history, there are extensive woodland trails where parents can take their children to let off steam and at the walled garden fruit and vegetables are being grown once again. The stableyard buildings, which were finished in 1868, now house a restaurant, shop and a second hand book stall. But most of all, a visit to Hughenden is a chance to follow in the footsteps of one of the country’s most influential – yet unlikely – prime minsters.