In life Walter Rothschild was one of the world’s leading naturalists and devoted much of his wealth to sponsoring expeditions to explore and collect specimens of the natural world which so fascinated him. In life he kept his own menagerie but his legacy is now housed in what we locals call “The Dead Museum at Tring.” His name lives on not just in the annals of the Rothschild Family and in Zionist history, for he was the “Lord Rothschild” to whom Arthur Balfour wrote committing Britain to support the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, a letter known to history as “The Balfour Declaration.” His name lives on in the many species which were named as a result of his endeavours and sponsorship: To this day, there are more than 150 species or sub-species named after Walter Rothschild, including numerous beetles, various birds and several types of elephant, hare and lizard and the most well known, the Rothschild Giraffe.
The Natural History Museum at Tring was once the private museum of Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, and is located in the grounds of the former Rothschild family home of Tring Park. The building was constructed in 1889 to house his collection of mounted specimens and first opened to the public in 1892. The Rothschild family gave the Museum and its contents to the nation in 1937. Lionel Walter bred hybrids between zebras and horses (zebroids) and a hybrid foal is on display. He was frequently seen riding a zebra-drawn carriage. The museum’s Zebra Cafe alludes to Lord Rothschild’s love of zebras and has photographs of his trained zebras harnessed to open carriages.
Near us at Tring in an annexe of the Natural History Museum is the remarkable collection of Walter Rothschild, known locally by children as the “Dead Zoo”. It is almost a museum of museum’s containing as it does row upon row of stuffed animals, fish and birds in glass cases and displays. This is the legacy of a talented yet tortured man, for this Rothschild was the same Lord Rothschild to whom the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent the classified letter to his London address at 148 Piccadilly stating that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” with the understanding that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The declaration was made in a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild (Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild), a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation, a private Zionist organization. The letter reflected the position of the British Cabinet, as agreed upon in a meeting on 31 October 1917. It further stated that the declaration is a sign of “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations.” That this is a source of contention to this day can be seen from events in Gaza and from its incorporation into the Treaty of Sevres with Turkey which Osama Bin Laden referred to in his video address after 9/11. And he is also the Walter Rothschild who drove a carriage and zebras to Buckingham Palace and who was ridiculed as the “Butterfly Buffoon” but who left behind a remarkable legacy and after whom the Rothschild Giraffe and Mynah Bird are named, amongst others.
Born into what was one of the wealthiest families in the world, “Walter Rothschild” became the best known zoologist of his day – and one of Britain’s great eccentrics. A benign and enigmatic figure with a boundless enthusiasm for nature, he amassed the largest accumulation of zoological specimens ever collected by one man, establishing his own private Museum in 1892, now the Natural History Museum at Tring. Walter’s extraordinary life traversed the fields of politics and finance, as well as zoology, and was packed with both achievement and incident. From his involvement with the Balfour Declaration to his prodigious personal scientific output, Walter’s life was anything but commonplace. He went up to Cambridge accompanied by a flock of kiwi, drove a team of zebra down Piccadilly and into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, and was a victim of blackmail for many years.
The origins of the Rothschild family lie in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt, the Judengasse. Conditions for the community in the Judengasse were oppressive. There were restrictions on movement outside its walls, restrictions on the number of marriages that could take place each year and the community fought a long battle to secure the rights to buy property in the city beyond.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild was born here, in 1744; From roots in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, Mayer Amschel’s five sons set up a banking network in the then five major financial centres of Europe – London, Frankfurt, Paris, Naples and Vienna. The Five Arrows, as they became known, created vast wealth and established themselves at the very peak of European society. The third of Mayer Amschel’s sons, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, left Frankfurt for England in 1798, aged just 21. He settled, first of all, in Manchester in order to co-ordinate one of the most important aspects of the family’s trading business, the supply of British textiles to the continental market.
After ten years in Manchester, he and his wife Hannah moved to London, where Nathan expanded the purely financial side of his business and became a merchant banker, based at New Court, St Swithin’s Lane. From this address, Nathan and his brothers secured their first great business coup – the commission from the British Government to supply funds to finance the Duke of Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte. The bank is still in the same address today in a modern building set back from the lane. In the tradition of Rothschild discretion there is no sign on the outside proclaiming NM Rothschild and Sons but merely a discrete and small plaque with the family coat of arms, the 5 arrows. If you don’t know what it is you probably have no business being there!
The extensive collection, housed in several rooms, includes extinct animals and birds such as the quagga, thylacine, great auk and reconstructions of the moa and dodo. Oddities include hybrids and examples of abnormal coloration. The dogs display was relocated to the Rothschild Zoological Museum from the Natural History Museum, South Kensington, and London after World War II. These show how domestic dogs have changed shape due to selective breeding and include the tiny Russian and Mexican Lapdogs as well as famous racing greyhounds. The Museum has six galleries each one of which houses a different set of animals. The first gallery contains Birds, large carnivores and primates, the second is used to show temporary exhibits, the third Crocodiles, Crustaceans, fish, insects, large mammals and marine invertebrates, the fourth accommodates Rhinoceroses, Tapirs, wild ass and Zebras, the fifth holds Antelope, cattle, deer, goats, hippopotamuses, marine mammals, pigs and sheep finally the sixth gallery contains Amphibians, bats, British Mammals, domestic dogs, flightless birds, reptiles and small mammals. The Museum also contains a Discovery Room, designed for young children and the Rothschild Room which is a room set out to recreate the surroundings that the Rothschild family would have worked in.
It became part of the Natural History Museum in 1937. In April 2007 its name was changed to the Natural History Museum at Tring. The site is also home to the ornithological research collections (Bird Group, Department of Zoology) and the ornithological library (Department of Library and Information Services) of The Natural History Museum, but these are not open to the public. There are small special themed exhibitions throughout the year showcasing specimens not normally on display, as well as activities for youngsters.
The museum is best accessed by car. The nearest rail station is at Tring Station which is two miles from Tring. Buses and taxis run during commuter times, but are infrequent outside of rush hours and taxis do not wait at the station at weekends. The nearest taxi company is at Berkhamsted. According to museum staff, the reason the rail station is so remote is that Lord Rothschild did not want passing trains to upset his menagerie. He was able to ride to the station in a horse-drawn, or zebra-drawn, carriage. The museum’s Zebra Cafe alludes to Lord Rothschild’s love of zebras and has photographs of his trained zebras harnessed to open carriages. He also bred hybrids between zebras and horses (zebroids) and a hybrid foal is on display.
The zebras on display at the Natural History Museum at Tring seem to be resting, posed with their legs tucked themselves. It is a space-saving tactic that is used throughout the museum: resting takes up less room. Positioned on shelves and stacked up the walls behind glass, zebras relax, elans stretch their necks out, ostriches and emus recline in feathered mounds. The zebras are particularly striking. Generally speaking, museums will display one representative of a species, so why so many? It seems an unnecessary repetition. But if Noah had know his taxonomy as well as his divine mandate, he would have welcomed a small army of zebras onto the ark. It is not particularly common knowledge that there is no one zebra but many zebras. In fact, three species of zebra have been distinguished– Plains Zebra (Equus quagga), Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra), and Grevy’s Zebra (Equus grevyi) – and seven sub-species generally argeed upon. All are on display at Tring. With closer attention, what seems to be one species at first glance blossoms into many with subtle differences. The variation in widths and distribution of stripes, the size of ears, a tuff of hair on a tail. Burchell’s Zebra is distinguished by absent or incomplete leg stripes, the Grevy’s zebra has an unmarked belly, and most preciously, the extinct quagga. An unexpected comprehensive vision of a family where only one solitary species might expected.
Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, was born in 1868 into an international financial dynasty, but was destined to be famed as a zoologist and collector rather than a banker. Walter was the eldest son of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who was head of the distinguished firm of merchant bankers NM Rothschild & Sons and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury. As a child, Walter knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up, announcing at the age of seven, ‘Mama, Papa, I am going to make a museum…’. By the time he was ten, Walter had enough natural history objects to start his first museum, in a garden shed. Before long, Walter’s insect and bird collections were so large they had to be stored in rented rooms and sheds around Tring. Then in 1889, his father gave him some land on the outskirts of Tring Park as a 21st birthday present. Two small cottages were built, one to house his books and insect collection, the other for a caretaker. Behind these was a much larger building, which would contain Lord Rothschild’s collection of mounted specimens. This was the beginning of the Zoological Museum, which opened to the public in 1892.
Nathan’s chosen architect at Tring was ‘Wm. Huckvale’, and his work can be seen all over the area. Constance Battersea, Nathan’s cousin, wrote, “Cottage building was one of his hobbies, and very comfortable and well-constructed his cottages are, with a low rental to recommend them… He built four hundred at the very least on his estate.” The number may be an exaggeration! Two striking examples of William Huckvale’s work are the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum and the Louisa Cottages, Park Road, the latter named after Emma’s mother. In addition, many of the estate buildings are his work, some of which are the offices (including The Counting House) that form the entrance to the Park and the Rose and Crown Hotel. The Zoological Museum (now part of the Natural History Museum), including a library and curator’s cottage, was built in 1889, opened to the public in 1892 and subsequently much extended. It was given by Nathan to his son Walter as part of a coming-of-age present, for Walter to house his zoological collection, accumulated since the age of six. Before his death, Walter agreed to give the Museum to the nation.
Educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Walter worked for the family firm in London from 1889 to 1908, though his passion was for his natural history collection. At this time his collection was one of the largest in the world. Walter’s interest in natural history was not restricted to museum specimens. He kept an astonishing variety of animals in the grounds around the Museum and in Tring Park, including zebras, a tame wolf, rheas, kangaroos, kiwis, cassowaries and giant tortoises. He even drove a team of zebras into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. Walter Rothschild also had a political career, as a Liberal and Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for Aylesbury from 1899 to 1910. He was closely involved in the formulation of the draft declaration for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and in 1917 a letter from Arthur Balfour, addressed to ‘Dear Lord Rothschild’, set out the Balfour Declaration, which committed the British Government to supporting the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jews.
The Museum has two libraries, the stunning Rothschild Library and the modern Ornithological Library. T he magnificent Rothschild Library was added to the Museum between 1908 and 1912. Augmented by The Natural History Museum’s ornithological collection, it now houses some 75,000 books and is considered to be one of the finest ornithological libraries in the world. By the time Lord Rothschild died, his collection included some 2,000 mounted mammals and a similar number of mounted birds, along with 2 million butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 144 giant tortoises, 200,000 bird’s eggs and 30,000 relevant books.
Poignantly, Nathan’s death in 1915 marked the end of Tring’s glorious late Victorian and Edwardian era. Whilst the younger son Charles inherited a fortune, Walter succeeded to the title as the second Lord Rothschild; he received the famous letter from the Prime Minister, the “Balfour Declaration”, which led to the creation of the state of Israel. Walter remained uninterested in banking and devoted his life to the museum. Indeed Walter Rothschild spent 18 years with the Bank and the kindest judgement is that his lack of interest meant he did no harm and he passed the baton to his brother Charles who committed suicide at the age of 46 in 1923. The male Rothschild’s for all their many gifts have a history of depression and it is not known if Walter’s abdication of his banking responsibilities contributed to Charles’s demise, but it was widely assumed at the time. Charles’s contribution to Nature Conservation was significant and he is regarded as a pioneer of nature conservation in Britain, and managed his estate at Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire to maximise its suitability for wildlife, especially butterflies. He was concerned about the loss of wildlife habitats, and in 1912 set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, the forerunner of The Wildlife Trusts partnership. In 1915 the Society produced a schedule of the best wildlife sites in the country, some of which were purchased as nature reserves.
Charles predeceased his older brother Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild (1868-1937) who died without issue. The peerage therefore passed to Charles’s son Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild. Like his zoologist brother, he devoted much of his energies to entomology and natural history collecting. His collection of fleas is now in the Rothschild Collection at the British Museum. He also discovered and named the plague vector flea, Xenopsylla cheopis (Rothschild), also known as the oriental rat flea, at Shendi, Sudan, on an expedition in 1901, publishing his finding in 1903.
Emma was left a life interest in the house, where she lived with her son Walter spending her 20-year widowhood at Tring until she died in 1935. Walter survived her by just two years, dying, unmarried, in 1937. The family wanted the whole estate to be used as a research centre and Wildlife Park but this was refused and it was subsequently broken up. Emma’s grandson, Victor, inherited the title as the third Lord Rothschild; he was also Walter’s nephew and a distinguished scientist. He is remembered for his gift of Victoria Hall to Tring. Faced with the burden of death duties, in 1938 came the first of the estate sales. The County Council gained the woodlands and the Mansion was used briefly by the bank before becoming a school. The remaining estate later passed to his son Jacob who was to succeed to the title himself, in 1990. Meanwhile, Tring Park was sliced in two by the Tring bypass in 1975 and the land on the south side was sold in 1989. Tring Park’s history has shaped the town and its legacy is immense.
Tring is an historic market town, nestling in the foothills of the Chilterns, close to the border with Buckinghamshire. Although Tring has been an economic centre for many centuries, the town really prospered under the watchful eye of the Rothschild family at the turn of the 20th century. The Rothschild’s’ legacy was predominantly one of the architecture they influenced in Tring and the Zoological Museum. Other tourist attractions in and around Tring include the Tring reservoirs, Tring Park, the church with its connections with the family of George Washington and the Chiltern Hills themselves.
Tring Park was one of 7 Rothschild mansions surrounding the Vale of Aylesbury, the others being Ascott House (Home of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild), Mentmore Towers (Former home of Lord Roseberry who married into the Rothschild’s and was Prime Minister), Halton House, Aston Clinton House and Waddesdon Manor.
The wonder of Waddesdon
Waddesdon Manor is the last remaining complete example of ‘le goût Rothschild’ and Eythrope House which borders Waddesdon and where Jacob (Lord) Rothschild lives. It is a great pity that the intention of Walter Rothschild’s bequest to the British Museum to have a research centre at Tring Park and a wildlife park in the demesne was not respected as if it was the “Dead Zoo’s” collection would be seen in a living context and Britain would have had a wonderful and developing zoological amenity and research facility which would have contributed to our understanding and appreciation of the natural world. In this context the decision in 2007 to drop the name “Walter Rothschild Collection” from Tring appears to add insult to injury. Nonetheless visitors young and old will still be enthralled with what they see and hopefully the Natural History Museum will enhance the collection and deal with the access issues to make this unique collection and museum more accessible to all.
Natural History Museum at Tring
The Walter Rothschild building
Tel +44 (0)20 7942 6171
Monday to Saturday 10.00-17.00
The Museum is open every day except 24-26 December.
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