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Walter Rothschild on his giant tortoise, Rotumah, dangling a piece of lettuce. 

A Natural History of Lionel Walter Rothschild

Walter Rothschild was a rich, eccentric and determined character who dedicated his life to the study of animals. His private collection formed the foundation of the Museum at Tring

Some men shoot tigers. Some men love bears. Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, Major in the Yeomanry, Conservative MP for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, heir to one of the greatest banking fortunes in history, and collector of the largest zoological collection ever amassed in private hands, had a specific and incurable addiction to cassowaries. He bred them. He stuffed them. He gathered living representatives of every known species and sub-species at his parents’ manor house in Hertfordshire. Bewitched by their beautiful and highly variable neck wattles, he identified new species where there were none.

In 1931, British aristocrat and naturalist Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild sold his extensive bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History for the bargain price of $225,000. The acquisition of the roughly 280,000 birds—estimated to have been worth as much as $2 million—was a great coup for the museum, and it took curators years just to unpack it. Many fellow ornithologists were surprised that Rothschild, an obsessive bird collector, had been able to part with his specimens, but the public wouldn’t learn the reason behind the sale until after his death.

Wall Street’s masters of the universe are known for their penchant for driving some seriously hot rides — Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Maseratis, etc.

But perhaps the most wild rides in the history of finance, though, belonged to the late Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) of the wealthy British banking family.

Rothschild, who worked briefly as a banker at his family’s firm, used to drive a carriage around London that was pulled by zebras. He also used to ride on the back of a giant tortoise.

The New York Times described it in an obituary for Rothschild’s niece:

“Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, whose animal collection came to include (in addition to fleas) some 250,000 butterflies and moths, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs and 144 giant tortoises, which he housed in his own museum. He rode on the back of his giant tortoise Rotumah, drove to Piccadilly in a zebra-drawn carriage…”

Zoology was Rothschild’s real passion. At age 7, he told his parents he wanted to open a zoo. At 21, Rothschild’s wealthy banker father, Lord Nathan Rothschild, gave him money to open a museum. He did at age 24. Today, it’s the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Rothschild with his butterfly net.

Zebras are beautiful, wild animals native to Africa. However, as many European colonizers learned in the early 20th century, despite their similarity to horses, zebras are just a bit too wild to completely tame.

From birth, Walter had been a golden child. He was the eldest son, and would inherit the great fortune built by the English branch of the Rothschild dynasty. To his nurses, he must have looked like the infant Jesus. In a portrait of him at age ten by John Everett Millais, he looks like Little Lord Fauntleroy, resplendent in a black sailor suit with red trim, tall socks, leather buckle shoes, and an enormous red sash tied at the waist. He was painfully shy, and suffered from a debilitating stutter. And though he was frail as a child, Walter grew into a strange and enormous man, standing six-foot-three and just over three hundred pounds, with a habit of drowsing in his hammock in the nude. Rather like the cassowary, he was prone to long periods of silence punctuated by sudden eruptions of temper. And like many men with histories of complicated romantic escapades, he lived in mortal fear of upsetting his mother.

Walter’s interest in animals manifested early. By the time he was five, he could spot the difference between rare species of butterflies. At twenty years old, Walter’s love of animals had become a full-blown obsession. His menagerie at Tring included zebras, wild horses, wild asses, emus, rheas, several kinds of kangaroo, cranes, a marabou stork, a dingo and her pups, pangolins, a capybara, and a spiny anteater. He successfully bred zebras with ponies. He collected albinos of various species.

When it was time to leave home for college, he arrived at Cambridge trailed by a flock of kiwis; he couldn’t bear to leave them behind at Tring. At twenty-one, Walter was put to work in the family business, but he showed no aptitude for finance. He hated his work. It’s unclear whether he had any real responsibilities. Still, he sat at a desk for nineteen years. By way of compensation, his father let him have a museum. The Tring Museum (although he always referred to it as ‘my museum’) quickly became one of the greatest natural history collections in the world, and a leading center of zoological research. Walter had collectors spread across the globe, scouring the earth for rare or unknown specimens; he employed four hundred such agents at one time.

Giant tortoises were another of the great passions in Walter’s life. From 1900 to 1908, he rented an atoll in the Seychelles called Aldabra, in hopes of keeping this marvelous tortoise habitat safe. He wrote that he wanted to “save them for science”; he loved the prehistoric-looking giants, and tried to bring as many of them back to Tring alive as he could. Sometimes, he would get on their backs and ride them. He did his best to figure out the mysteries of their evolution and taxonomy.

The prize of his collection was a great Galapagos Tortoise named Rotumah. When Walter acquired him, Rotumah was reputed to be the largest tortoise in the world, and was thought to be 150 years old. He had lived for many years on the grounds of a lunatic asylum in the suburbs of Sydney, where he had arrived as a chief’s gift from the King of Tonga to a well-known trader named Alexander MacDonald. “A most erotic and savage individual,” Rotumah arrived deeply chilled by his voyage to England by steamer and near death. He made a swift recovery, only to die two years later of “sexual over-excitation.” The tortoise was an erotomaniac, but his mate had been left behind in Sydney.

The stripes are pretty! Just don’t get bitten. 1895: Lord Walter Rothschild with his team of carriage-pulling zebras. Rothschild (1868 – 1937) of the global Rothschild banking family, owned his own zoo. Although entire herds of zebras were near impossible to tame, some individual zebras did respond well to domestication. Lord Walter Rothschild, heir to the Rothschild British financial fortune, tamed and trained a team of zebras to perform horse-like duties, such as pulling a carriage. IMAGE: THE PICTURE MAGAZINE/PUBLIC DOMAIN

1913: A zebra pulls a carriage through Brxton, London. It is likely that the zebra and carriage were the property of music hall artist, Mr. Gustav-Grais, and were used to promote his shows.IMAGE: TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Riding Zebras. c. 1910 A German colonial officer takes a leap on the back of a tame zebra in German East Africa. IMAGE: HAECKEL BROTHERS/PAUL THOMPSON/FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Walter had his own problems with sex. For years he kept two mistresses. One was named Marie Fredensen; the other, Lizzie Ritchie. He met them both at a party for King Edward VII. Marie was a would-be stage girl; Walter’s biographer wrote she was “As pretty as an Edwardian birthday greeting card, sweet, pert, cuddly, kittenish, simple, dependent, wheedling, adoring and light as a feather.” Lizzie was intelligent, worldly, temperamental, vindictive, a “bit crazy” and a great listener.

Walter installed each of them in separate London apartments. Neither woman knew about his relationship with the other, nor did anyone in his circle; he never once spent a night under either of their roofs. Eventually though, Lizzie found out about Marie and flew into a rage. She bought a house next to his museum in Tring and tried, repeatedly, to confront his mother. Marie was equally distraught.

The stress of his various entanglements became too much, and Walter decided he could no longer stand to read his mail. Instead, he placed his unread correspondence in two large wicker baskets, one reserved for the blackmailer and the other for the mistresses and other matters. When each basket was full, he locked it. For two years, the baskets piled up until they filled a whole room.

When his younger brother Charles found out about the ruse in 1908, it took him and four clerks working day and night six weeks to sort out the mess. On Walter’s behalf, Charles worked out a settlement with both women. Walter agreed to buy each of them a house and gave them a 10,000 pound per year allowance. Each woman separately forced him to agree to never see the other one again. Finally free from his burden, Walter went on a collecting expedition to the Sahara, which he kicked off with a tremendous party in Algiers. In the desert, he survived a terrible sandstorm and captured a beautifully colored spine-tailed lizard and a fine specimen of a rare butterfly named Euchloë pechi.

An illustration from A monograph of the genus Casuarius. Image credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library.

1935: Laffin Leslie, an 18-year-old dwarf, guides Jimmy, the “only rideable zebra in the world,” across a road in Berkshire, England. IMAGE: FOX PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

c. 1930: A zebra pulls a carriage in Calcutta, India. IMAGE: IMAGNO/AUSTRIAN ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Walter Rothschild was born in 1868, the scion of the extremely wealthy Rothschild banking family. From a young age he was obsessed with animals, and spent hours observing the insects in the family garden. His family encouraged his passion and gave him funds to start collecting a menagerie, which by the time he went off to university included kangaroos, cranes, storks, zebras, wild horses, emus, a spiny anteater, and a pangolin.

Once Walter’s studies were over, he was expected to go into the family business, which he did dutifully, but his heart wasn’t in it. Although he stayed at his desk for 15 years, his focus remained on curating his animal collection. Bankrolled by his parents, Walter employed numerous people to collect exotic specimens from remote parts of the globe, which he kept at his private zoo in Tring (about 40 miles northwest of London) or had stuffed for his collection. Walter eventually compiled what is said to be the largest collection of animal samples ever amassed by a private individual, with over 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 bird’s eggs, 30,000 beetles, and numerous mammals and reptiles.

Despite being very shy, Walter was a determined character, a fact evidenced by his quest to prove that wild zebras could be tamed. Having rejected the consensus that the animals were untameable, Walter employed a horse trainer who worked with a number of zebras in his collection until they were sufficiently cowed to be tethered to a cart. Walter then drove a carriage pulled by six tamed zebras across London and up to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

Although Walter was an eccentric—he also liked to ride on the back of his giant tortoise, dangling a lettuce leaf in front of the creature to inspire movement—he was deadly serious about collecting and recording exotic species. Due to his family’s vast wealth, he was able to search far and wide for new and exciting animals. As a result, he was responsible for identifying and naming 153 new insects, 58 types of bird, and three spiders, and perhaps most famously for identifying a sub-species of giraffe, the Rothschild giraffe, during a trip to east Africa in the early 1900s.

Rothschild loved all nature, but his chief love (some might say obsession) was the cassowary, a giant flightless bird with a colorful neck that’s native to Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands. Rothschild obsessively collected cassowaries both alive and dead, studying their habits, plumage, and behavior. In 1900 his efforts came to fruition when he published his magnum opus, A monograph of the genus Casuarius, complete with numerous beautifully illustrated color plates of the birds.

But as meticulous as Walter was about his collecting, his personal life was messy. For 40 years, he kept a secret that eventually drove him to despair and forced the sale of a large portion of his life’s work.

That secret? He was being blackmailed. For many years Walter supported two demanding mistresses—aspiring actress Marie Fredensen and Lizzie Ritchie, both of whom he met at a party held by King Edward VII. He set both women up in London apartments and juggled spending time with them, until Lizzie found out about Marie. She began threatening Walter, and attempting to confront his mother. Walter found the pressure unbearable, and resorted to ignoring her pleading letters. It took his younger brother Charles to negotiate terms, ultimately buying off both women with property and cash.

However, Lizzie and Marie weren’t directly responsible for the sale of the bird collection. Walter also allowed himself to be blackmailed for 40 years by a third former lover. The increasing demands for money, and his desperate desire to keep his scandalous love life secret, exerted huge pressure on him. By 1931, he was desperate for cash to silence his blackmailer. The easiest way to obtain money was to sell off his beloved bird collection, and the AMNH—with readily available money and with a strict promise to keep the collection intact—offered a speedy and secret sale.

Marie and Lizzie had put a strain on Walter’s finances, but the true reason he eventually had to give up his collection only became apparent after his death. Walter destroyed the baskets full of his unread correspondence, but for some reason, he left one of them behind. It revealed that, through all the years he was with Lizzie and Marie, another of his former mistresses was blackmailing him. The ruse went on for some forty years and must have involved enormous sums, both in direct payouts and losses from disastrous speculation on the stock market, made at the blackmailer’s request. Only Walter’s sister-in-law and her daughter Miriam ever learned the truth. In her biography of her uncle, Miriam refused to say who reveal the blackmailer’s identity, except to say that she was “charming, witty, aristocratic and ruthless.” She was also married. At some point, Walter met her sons, who had befriended his nieces. Otherwise, he never mentioned the matter, not even to his brother Charles.

Walter’s last years were marked by tragedy. Charles shot himself in a Swiss hotel at the age of forty-six. The mysterious blackmailing went on for forty years, eventually forcing Walter to sell off his collection of birds to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1931. When Lizzie heard of the sale, she asked for a slice of the money, but added that she would be saving up, “To help you buy back the birds.” He grew ill, and stopped spending as much time in the museum; within a few years, he was dead. For his tombstone, he chose a passage from the book of Job: “Ask of the beasts and they will tell thee and the birds of the air shall declare unto thee.” Along with his curators, Walter described five thousand new species (even if a few didn’t stick in the end). He proposed no grand system; he simply wanted to possess the world in all its endless variety. Blessed with boundless resources, he was able to amass a good deal of it. But he was trapped by his personality, and many of his designs came to ruin. Better to remember him as he was in his prime: astride a tortoise, followed by birds.

Here, a German soldier is riding a zebra in Zanzibar. The German Army in Africa was particularly interested in domesticating zebras for riding because they were resistant to different diseases that were killing off their European horses.

A prisoner in a striped uniform is on the back of a striped zebra. Photo Getty Images.

But the European settlers did not realize that zebras were naturally very nervous animals and could become aggressive when cornered. With one powerful kick a zebra can kill a lion—a very useful evolutionary perk, but not great for humans who wanted to ride them.

1923: Mrs. Martin Johnson rides a domesticated zebra named Bromar. IMAGE: BETTMANN/CORBIS

For European colonizers penetrating Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local zebras’ resistance to diseases carried by tsetse flies made domesticating them an attractive alternative to importing horses.

As it turns out, there is a reason Africans never domesticated them. Unlike horses, which naturally roam around munching on grass, zebras spend their lives cagily watching, evading and fighting savannah predators such as lions, cheetahs and crocodiles.

Natural selection has bred zebras to be nervous, flighty and brutally aggressive if cornered. But the European settlers did not realize that zebras were naturally very nervous animals and could become aggressive when cornered. With one powerful kick a zebra can kill a lion—a very useful evolutionary perk, but not great for humans who wanted to ride them.

Though impossible to domesticate on a large scale, taming individual zebras to perform horse-like duties has occasionally been successful.

Lord Walter Rothschild, tamed and trained a team of zebras to pull a carriage, which he drove past Buckingham Palace to demonstrate their supposedly pliable nature.

As for riding, zebras are smaller than horses and do not have the back strength necessary to carry a person for an extended time. But that hasn’t stopped people from taking the occasional joyride at the zebra’s expense.

It is hard to overstate the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild’s obsessive fervour for zoology. At his estate in Tring, he collected more specimens than anyone else in recorded history. Rothschild discovered and catalogued countless new species, over two hundred of which are named in his honour. Among his collection of live animals was a tame wolf, 144 giant tortoises, and flocks of cassowaries and kiwis.

Walter employed dozens of collectors who travelled the world to bring back new specimens for display and research, and live animals for study and breeding. He was particularly fascinated by cassowaries and giant tortoises, and even trained zebras to draw his carriage.

Following Walter’s death in 1937, the building and collection were gifted to the nation and became part of the Natural History Museum.

Today it retains its unique Victorian character, including its original floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted hardwood and iron cases. The 4,000 specimens on public display are still arranged in taxonomic order, classified into related groups, just as they were in Walter’s lifetime.

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.

The Balfour Declaration was a letter issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 in support of the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. The letter itself was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community at the time. The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on 9 November 1917. The “Balfour Declaration” was later incorporated into both the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, and the Mandate for Palestine. The original document is kept at the British Library.

Although he was a scion of the legendary Rothschild family, which led to his important societal position, Walter did not share his family’s interests and aptitudes. He despised banking, had little interest in politics, was unaffiliated to Judaism, and until 1916 evinced no enthusiasm for Zionism. Walter was passionate about one thing only: animals.

And he is also the Walter Rothschild 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.

The Museum at Tring looks after one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, composed of 1,150,000 skins, skeletons, nests, sets of eggs and specimens preserved in spirit, as well as the ornithological library with 75,000 works. The Rothschild Library houses a collection of ornithological literature dating back to the sixteenth century, and a contemporary collection that includes serials from around the world.

Photo: A Monograph of the Genus Casuarius. London: 1900.

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