Posted 6 June 2024

The Walking Doll - a Volunteer Story

This #VolunteersWeek, we interviewed one of our House hosts whose mother was given a ‘Walking Doll’ by Miss Alice de Rothschild. Made in 1862, this doll has had a long journey and is emotionally significant to this House Host's family.


Who was Alice de Rothschild? 

Alice de Rothschild (1847-1922) was the youngest child of Anselm and Charlotte von Rothschild (her father was the great-grandson of the founder of the family business). She came to live with her brother Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839 – 1898), who built the Manor in Buckinghamshire, where she witnessed the building and furnishing of Waddesdon Manor from 1874, which she was to inherit on his death in 1898. In many respects, she is a typical Rothschild, with her pan-European heritage and interests in collecting, landscape, and gardens. She has a powerful and independent personality that has left its mark on Waddesdon.


Miss Alice de Rothschild
Miss Alice de Rothschild


Tell us about the Walking Doll

The doll has moulded hair and painted facial features. The dress is a russet colour with lace elements. Possibly a brass bottom which supports the clockwork mechanism inside. The arms are perhaps leather. The doll has a small metal key, which would wind up the doll and make it walk. The doll was gifted with a decorated egg, but only half remains, which is also in disrepair. The doll is a unique item; it has so much history and emotion attached to it and has woven its history right up to the present day.

How did your family obtain the walking doll? 

Named ‘AUTOPERIPATETIKOS’ (the automatic walking one) was given to Lilian ‘Joyce’ Skinner in 1918 when she, at the age of 5, went to live with her aunties, Kate and Flo, after her father remarried. This particular doll has connections to the Rothschild family of Waddesdon Manor. Miss Alice de Rothschild gave it to our House Host’s Great Auntie Flo for Joyce, who worked as her personal maid then. Kate was working as a cook at the Manor as well. The doll was given to Flo in a large paper egg gift box & must have been an exciting gift for a young girl to receive. Many members of our House Host’s family worked at Waddesdon Manor for the Rothschild’s after their Great Grandfather (Charles Skinner) was asked to care for the Percheron Horses, who moved the mature trees up the hill when building Waddesdon Manor. The doll was passed down to our House Host, who enjoyed playing with it as their mother had.


When was the last time the Walking Doll worked? Do you know how and when the damage occurred? 

The doll was damaged during a WW2 bombing attack in 1943. As a young child, they remember it was a night fighter drone and the shaking of the houses. Luckily, their mother was moving home at the time, and most of her belongings were already in storage when the bomb fell. Moreover, the damage to the doll could have been far worse if it hadn’t been for the decorated egg it was kept in, softening the blow. The top half of the egg was damaged beyond repair, leaving the bottom half for the doll to rest in. Unfortunately, the doll’s mechanism has been broken & no longer functions as a walking doll; her head is very wobbly & needs support when lifted into a standing position. The arms seem bent backwards, and the dress’s fabric has aged and is subsequently fragile.


What would it mean to you to have the Walking Doll restored?

Both items are the only things they have to remember their mother from childhood. It would mean so much to them as they know that the doll was a great comfort and distraction to their mother, who saw little of her brother or father after he remarried. They firmly believe the doll is a piece of history that should continue and be shared with others, as it has warmed the hearts of many and brought so much joy and comfort to their mother. It would be a shame to see it deteriorate further and for the doll’s story not to be told.