The wild life of Lord Walter Rothschild
PUBLISHED: 10:03 20 February 2018
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
Ardent zoologist and founder of what would become the Natural History Museum at Tring, Lord Walter Rothschild dedicated his life to studying the natural world. Keri Jordan explores the animal passions of the great Victorian eccentric on the 150th anniversary of his birth this month
Born into the world’s richest banking dynasty on February 8, 1868, it was expected that Lionel Walter Rothschild would follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and blaze a trail in the financial industry. However, despite the efforts of his father Nathaniel (first Lord Rothschild) to encourage a fiscal fondness in his firstborn son and heir to the family’s empire, Walter’s attention was quickly consumed by the natural world.
A sickly, introverted child, Walter was educated at home at the family mansion in Tring. His tutors noted his sharp visual memory and capacity to retain facts, and this would serve him in his later scientific research.
Walter favoured spending time with animals over people, from playing with the chickens and shire horses that were bred on the country estate, to collecting and setting butterflies and birds for display. He became interested in taxidermy after watching one of his family’s employees, Alfred Minall, stuffing and preserving animals. Minall, along with Albert Günther, Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, were to have a significant impact in shaping Walter’s path in life.
At around seven years of age, Walter declared to his parents that he was going to build a museum to house his ever-expanding collection of animals and specimens. Minall helped with the venture, and Walter opened his first exhibit three years later in a garden shed in Albert Street, Tring.
On a visit to the London Natural History Museum a few years later, Walter and Albert Günther began what would be a long friendship. Günther provided academic guidance and support, and later on, advice on how to operate a successful museum business.
Walter studied natural science at the University of Bonn and zoology at Cambridge. At the age of 21, his father relented to his son’s passion and gave Walter some land on the outskirts of Tring Park so that he could indulge his true heart’s desire and build a proper museum. Nevertheless, Walter was to work in the family banking business for 20 years until 1908.
By his early 20s Walter had accumulated a vast number of live and stuffed animals from all over the world. He employed explorers, taxidermists and scientists who helped him source and categorise a collection that included kangaroos, zebras, giant tortoises, dingos, monkeys, capybara, pangolins and deer.
Exotic birds were a particular area of interest and Walter’s menagerie featured cassowaries (his life-long passion for the giant flightless bird led to his celebrated and beautifully illustrated Monograph of the genus Casuarius in 1900), cranes, emus, rheas, wild turkeys and a marabou stork to name but a few. Insects were another of his passions and Walter had two cottages built to house his insect collection, alongside his vast library of books, and living quarters for an onsite caretaker. A much grander building was constructed to house his collection of mounted specimens. This was to become the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum, which opened to the public in 1892.
‘Walter’s desire to share his love and fascination with the natural world drove the creation of the public museum,’ explains Alice Adams, interpretation and learning manager at the site’s present incarnation, the Natural History Museum at Tring – a sister site to the world famous London museum. ‘His main aim was to further scientific knowledge and inspire people of all ages. The museum was, and indeed still is, a great platform to share his work.’
At its largest, Walter’s collection comprised more than 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 bird eggs, two million butterflies and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of mammal, reptile, bird, insect and fish specimens. There were birds preserved in methylated spirit that had been brought back from Captain Cook’s voyages, and animal skins from Charles Darwin’s Galapagos expedition. It was the largest zoological collection ever assembled by a private individual.
Seemingly at odds with the shyness stayed with him throughout his life, Walter also had an eccentric flamboyant side which he used to draw attention to his scientific cause. He was often seen riding one of his giant tortoises around Tring Park. He successfully bred zebras with ponies and on one occasion, travelled to Buckingham Palace in a carriage drawn by a team of four zebras to disprove a theory that it was impossible to tame these animals.
‘Walter was intelligent, meticulous, determined, socially awkward, but above all, passionate about natural history,’ says Alice. ‘Ultimately, he wanted to be known for his academic achievements and to be taken seriously as a zoologist.’
In 1894 Walter and two of his dedicated professional curators, Ernst Hartert and Karl Jordan, launched a scientific journal, Novitates Zoologicae. Hartert specialised in birds and worked for Walter from 1892 until he retired in 1930. Similarly, Jordan, an expert in insects, worked alongside Walter from 1893 until he died in 1937.
The Rothschild Museum published more than 1,700 scientific books and papers over a 45 year period, as well as identifying over 5,000 new species. These include the following which were named after Rothschild: a giraffe which had five horn-like ossicones on the top of its head instead of the usual two; 153 insects, 58 birds, 17 mammals, three fish, three spiders, two reptiles, a millipede and a worm.
In 1898, the University of Giessen awarded Walter an honorary doctorate. He was also made a trustee of the British Museum in 1899, and elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1911.
It was not only natural history that fired up Walter, he was also actively involved in politics, playing a key role in the Zionist movement. He was Conservative MP for Aylesbury from 1899-1910 and worked in partnership with British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour and leaders in the Jewish community to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This undertaking became known as the Balfour Declaration (after a November 1917 letter from Balfour to Walter viewing ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’) and was fundamental in creating the state of Israel.
Despite his ill health, Walter also served as a part-time officer in the Royal Buckinghamshire Yeomanry Territorial Army unit. He was promoted to captain in 1902 and major in 1903 before retiring in 1909.
Although he never married, Walter had several mistresses, one of whom gave birth to a daughter. Another mistress is said to have blackmailed him to keep his love life secret, forcing him to sell his vast bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History in 1932.
Lord Walter Rothschild died at Tring Park in August 1937 aged 69. He bequeathed his museum and its remarkable collections to the British Museum (a group which included the Natural History Museum before an act of government established it as a standalone institution). It remains the finest collection of stuffed mammals, birds, reptiles and insects the institution has ever received. Today the remarkable Natural History Museum at Tring provides a permanent home for Walter’s collected works.
‘Walter left us a truly irreplaceable, inspiring and scientifically valuable legacy,’ Alice remarks. ‘In creating a world-class museum, Walter ensured that his prolific scientific work, extensive research and vast collections are preserved for future generations to enjoy.’
Celebrating Walter Rothschild
Natural History Museum Tring is running events throughout the year to commemorate the life and work of Lord Walter Rothschild.
For more information, visit nhm.ac.uk/visit/tring
Tring Natural History Museum is at The Walter Rothschild Building, Akeman Street, Tring HP23 6AP.