Walter Rothschild was born in London as the eldest son and heir of Nathan Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild, an immensely-wealthy financier of the international Rothschild financial dynasty and the first Jewish peer in England.
The eldest of three children, Walter was deemed to have delicate health and was educated at home. As a young man, he traveled in Europe, attending the university at Bonn for a year before entering Magdalene College at Cambridge. In 1889, leaving Cambridge after two years, he was required to go into the family banking business to study finance.
At the age of seven, he declared that he would run a zoological museum. As a child, he collected insects, butterflies, and other animals. Among his pets at the family home in Tring Park were kangaroos and exotic birds. As a boy, Rothschild was once dragged off his horse and assaulted by workmen while on a hunting ride near Tring, an experience that he personally attributed to Anti-Semitism.
At 21, he reluctantly went to work at the family bank, N M Rothschild & Sons in London. He worked there from 1889 to 1908. Нe evidently lacked any interest or ability in the financial profession, but it was not until 1908 that he was finally allowed to give it up. However, his parents established a zoological museum as a compensation, and footed the bill for expeditions all over the world to seek out animals.
Rothschild was 6' 3" tall, suffered from a speech impediment and was very shy, but he had his photograph taken riding on a giant tortoise, and drove a carriage harnessed to six zebras to Buckingham Palace to prove that zebras could be tamed.
Though he never married, Rothschild had two mistresses, one of whom bore him a daughter.
Rothschild studied zoology at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Meeting Albert Günther sparked his interest in the taxonomy of birds and butterflies.
Although Rothschild himself travelled and collected in Europe and North Africa for many years, his work and health concerns limited his range, and beginning while at Cambridge he employed others - explorers, professional collectors, and residents - to collect for him in remote and little-known parts of the world. He also hired taxidermists, a librarian, and, most importantly, professional scientists to work with him to curate and write up the resulting collections: Ernst Hartert, for birds, from 1892 until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1930; and Karl Jordan for entomology, from 1893 until Rothschild's death in 1937.
At its largest, Rothschild's collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies, and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles, and fishes. They formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual.
The Rothschild giraffe (Giraffa camelopardis rothschildi), a subspecies with five horns instead of two, was named after him. Another 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, three fish, three spiders, two reptiles, one millipede, and one worm also carry his name.
Rothschild opened his private museum in 1892. It housed one of the largest natural history collections in the world, and was open to the public. In 1932 he was forced to sell the vast majority of his bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History after being blackmailed by a former mistress. On his death in 1937, the museum and all its contents were given in his will to the British Museum (of which the Natural History Museum, London was then a part), the greatest accession which that institution has ever received. The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum at Tring is now a division of the Natural History Museum.
Rothschild was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Giessen in 1898, was elected a Trustee of the British Museum in 1899, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1911.
Walter Rothschild: The man, the museum and the menagerie
by Miriam Rothschild, Natural History Museum, UK, 2008. 432 pp. ISBN: 9780565092283 (pbk).
review by Nicholas Drayson
The first thing many people think of when they hear the name Rothschild is not museums but wealth, riches, great sacks of gold. The small bank started in Frankfurt by Mayer Amschel Bauer in the late eighteenth century (he changed his name to Rothschild after the 'red shield' that was the firm's logo) grew over the next hundred years to become the pre-eminent banking firm throughout Europe. His great-grandson Nathan Mayer Rothschild (known to family and friends as Natty) eventually took over the English branch of the firm to become one of the most influential men in Britain. He continued the family tradition of banking and philanthropy and in 1885 was created the first Baron Rothschild — so becoming the first Jew to sit in the House of Lords.
Natty had great hopes that his elder son Walter would follow in his footsteps but Walter was not cut out for banking. From childhood he had been fascinated by animals. He began collecting insects at an early age, then birds. He was interested in living animals — accompanying him to university at Cambridge in 1887 was a small flock of kiwis, and he had a life-long obsession with giant tortoises — but what he loved above all was taxonomy. For his 21st birthday his parents gave him just what he had always wanted: his very own museum, built in the grounds of the family home at Tring, just north of London. If they hoped this would assuage their son's ardour for dull taxonomy and help turn his thoughts towards the heady thrills of banking they were disappointed. Though Walter tried hard to fulfil his family obligations — he joined the firm for a while and became the local member of parliament — he spent more and more time with his collections. In 1894 he started publishing his own journal, Novitates Zoologicae, and his collectors scoured the globe for specimens. In 1915 he inherited the title Baron Rothschild from his father. Walter himself had no children, and the title passed on through his brother Charles's family. Charles was a much better banker than his brother but also fascinated by natural history — especially fleas. He in turn passed on his interest to his daughter Miriam who became one of the most famous entomologists in England. It is she who decided to write a book about her Uncle Walter (Miriam died in 2005 — this book is a reissue of one originally published in 1983).
Though hampered by a surprising dearth of existing records, Miriam Rothschild has amassed an impressive collection of facts. Not only do we have a thorough account of Walter's childhood and the development of the museum, we meet many of his associates, professional and personal. Though he never married nor had children, during his adult life Walter had at least two mistresses. He had a more murky association with a peeress of the realm who for many years blackmailed him. Although Miriam Rothschild claims to know the identity of the blackmailer, she does not reveal it, nor exactly what were the grounds of the blackmail. She hints that it was something sexual, and that Walter kept paying up for fear the truth would be revealed to his mother.
Walter's relationship with his mother was odd — he was always quiet in her company and lived with her until her death. But then Walter was odd. He found it difficult to speak, apparently managing only complete silence or loud bellowing. Though shy and gauche in company, he had a truly phenomenal memory. He knew the identity and location of each and every specimen in the museum. Though he found banking impossible and life outside the museum trying, he managed to fulfil his expected duties as a member of the Rothschild clan. As well as being the local MP for many years he was on the boards of various scientific bodies. As second Baron Rothschild he became de facto head of British Jewry, and it was to him that the 'Balfour Declaration' outlining British government support for a Jewish nation in Palestine, was addressed.
The affectionate portrait that Miriam Rothschild paints of her eccentric uncle is one of the strengths of the book. From her own memories and those of family and friends we discover a man who overcame considerable personal challenges to become one of the greatest collectors and benefactors in modern zoology. The advantages of her 'personal' touch are to some extent counterbalanced by a distinct lack of critical assessment of the man and his work. She pays too little attention to discussing the value of Walter's idiosyncratic approach to collecting and describing, and I would have liked a little less one-sided analysis of his relationship with other museums and institutions. But as an account of the man and his museum I found the book engrossing. Though reprinted as a paperback it is well illustrated and well produced, with an unusually comprehensive index.
When in 1938, towards the end of his life, Walter donated the museum and its collections to the nation, it contained over two million insects, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 eggs and a library of 30,000 scientific books. A legacy more valuable than gold.
Nicholas Drayson is a novelist and nature writer.