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Baron Lionel Walter RothschildThe Gentlemen Collectors

Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild of Tring

By 6 March 2024April 19th, 2024No Comments

Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild of Tring

One of Britain's best known Gentleman Collectors & Naturalists

1868- 1937


Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild Ph.D., F.R.S., J.P.

Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild of Tring will always occupy a place of honour  in the history of  Zoology.  The collections contained in what was the Rothschild family house at Tring in Hertfordshire, that he founded and maintained, were the largest ever assembled by one man, and were unrivalled in their time and still are today.

Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild of Tring loved animals and left his house at Tring as a Museum for the British Nation. It is now The Natural History Museum at Tring.

Finance & Naturalia | The beginning of the Museum

As with most private and public collections, the beginning of what has grown into an important Museum was haphazard. Like so many boys, the Honourable Lionel Walter Rothschild, the eldest of the three children of the  first Lord  Rothschild, head of the famous banking house of N.M.Rothschild and Sons, interested himself in Coleoptera and Lepidoptera, beginning to collect at the early age of seven. His devotion to natural history collections remained with him to the end of his life.

The  name of Rothschild is so intimately connected with finance but Walter Rothschild’s financier father was also keen on botany and kept an aviary for his own enjoyment and that of his children, all three of whom remained equally fond of animals.  

In Walter Rothschild’s life, however, the dominance of natural history was extreme and considering his life story, I draw some of my own parallels with the traits and circumstances and privileges of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, although Vauncey was 22 years older than Walter.


A privileged childhood

Walter Rothschild was a delicate child who could not be exposed to the rough and tumble of school life, and therefore was educated entirely at home under a governess and tutor.  Admiration for the intelligent boy and early flattery accustomed him to regard himself as the centre of his world and to expect the fulfilment of his boyish wishes as a natural corollary of his important position. 

Shy by nature, he became unduly self-centred as he grew up and averse to asking advice. He had ample opportunities in London for indulging in his hobby by buying specimens from  natural history dealers, the collections gradually getting too large for the schoolroom and being then stored in a spare bedroom at the back of the house; these collections consisted chiefly of insects, with the addition of a few mounted mammals and birds.  The young naturalist had the great advantage of an early acquaintance with a friend of the  family, Dr.Albert Günther, the Keeper of Zoology in the British Museum, with whom he remained intimate until Dr.Günther’s death.  

The ZSL and The British Museum

Visits were often made to the Zoological Gardens in London to Dr.Günther, and also to the British Museum where Dr. Gray and Mr Edward Gerrard, the leading British Taxidermist and Naturalist, led the management and development of the Natural History section of the Museum. 

These visits tended to drive Walter’s interest even further, and motivate him greatly and the admiration for all the strange creatures he saw perhaps created in his subconsciousness the ambition to one day possess similar collections of his very own.

Anything large made a deep impression on Walter Rothschild. His predilection for Ratite  birds like Ostriches and Cassowaries, and also Giant Tortoises, and his pride in having  record horns and fishes in his Museum, exemplify this trait. 

The last insects he bought were some Attacus caesar moths which come from the Philippines, among which there was one specimen larger than any he had of that species in his collection.  

As a boy and youth he was an assiduous field-collector of insects and skilful in setting even very small specimens, a skill he lost  in  later years.  However, he never learned to skin a mammal or bird. 

Creating one of the world's largest natural history museums

Besides the aviary of his father, there were already Kangaroos of various kinds and Emus and Rheas in Tring Park, and now enclosures were built in a paddock for a small number of mammals and Cassowaries, and this was the beginning of a zoological garden (imagine!).

The collections of skins and insects had already so much increased while Walter Rothschild was still at Cambridge that they had to be stored at Tring in rented rooms and sheds, and it  became  obvious  that  adequate  premises  had  to  be provided in which they were not  exposed to  deterioration. 

His father gave him a  piece  of  ground  on  the  outskirts  of  Tring  Park. Here  he  built  a  cottage  for the insects  and  books  and  a  smaller  one  attached  to  it  for  a  caretaker. The building for a public museum was opened in August 1892 and housed one of the world’s largest natural history collections.    

Whoever advised him in the making of the plans for this public Museum forgot that all the specimens exhibited should be plainly visible.  However, there was one advantage  in  making  the glass  cases  too  high: Walter  Rothschild  had  evidently  learnt  from  Dr.Günther that it is essential for the good preservation of specimens not to expose them to direct  sunlight, so that  there  is  certainly  no  danger  that  the  colours  of  any  of the animals  and  birds  exhibited  in  these  cases will  fade.

Chaos is transformed into a Museum

After leaving the University of Cambridge, Walter Rothschild, following family tradition, joined the firm of Messrs.N.M.Rothschild and Sons with the objective of studying finance under the tuition of his father, and he found very little time for his collections. 

Although the mounted  vertebrates in the public gallery were quite safe, being well looked after by the caretaker, Mr.A.Minall; the insects, for which one or two attendants had been engaged, were more exposed to damage on the shelves and in the corners where the boxes were piled up high.

The  accumulation  of all the collections  had become chaotic, and Dr. A.Günther urgently advised his young friend to put a reliable zoologist as Curator in  charge, recommending  Mr.Ernst Hartert who was collecting bird skins at that time on the Dutch islands off the coast of Venezuela for Count Berlepsch.   Mr Hartert came to Tring as Curator in April 1893.

By the time Hartert joined, the collections were already of great size and considerable scientific value.  However, there  was  much  material  of inferior  quality, and some of it was of little  use  because  the  data  necessary  for  research  were  not  preserved.

The   collections  were   soon  brought  into  some  sort  of  order and it is noted that “The  Museum  contained  two  distinct departments.  The first was The Public Galleries, 

With about 950  stuffed mammals, 3,600 stuffed birds. It also had about 200 reptiles, and about  300 fishes,stuffed and preserved in spirit. It also had about 1,500  insects, crustaceans and  arachnids.

The Students’ Department was entirely devoted to ornithology, coleoptera, and lepidoptera.   There  were about  40,000  skins  of  over 7,000  species of birds; 350,000 specimens of beetles from more than  60,000 species; and with the Lepidoptera the collection contained about 300,000 specimens from nearly 25,000 species. Wow!

At Cambridge where he studied Zoology, the foundation was laid for the creation of an Ornithological collection of the Tring Museum when Walter purchased some New Zealand birds from Sir Walter Buller.  Walter Rothschild’s interest was so thoroughly roused that he sent Henry Palmer, a sailor who could skin birds, to the Chatham Islands with the sole object of collecting all the species of birds occurring on the islands. The description of a new Pigeon in 1891, from these islands was Walter Rothschild’s first contribution to the literature of Zoology (and his last notes in 1937 were on his favourite Cassowaries).

Baron Rothschild says goodbye to Finance - Blackmail Ruins Him - The End of His Life is Near


In  1908 at the age of 44, he retired from the City, having neither inclination nor ability for finance, and decided to spend his time on scientific pursuits and travel. He largely ignored fixed budgets for the museum, and continued spending money including on building a new library. 

He  had  frequently been for four or five weeks in the Alps, but had never gone outside Europe. From 1908 to 1914 he visited various European countries and North Africa, always with the object of increasing his collections.  

When on an earlier visit to Hungary in 1902, Rothschild brought six live edible dormice (Glis glis) back to Tring. Some of them escaped and started breeding successfully in the wild. They have now become a localised pest over an area of approximately 200 square miles in a triangle between Luton, Aylesbury and Beaconsfield, and there are estimated to be at least 10,000 of them.

My own daughter’s house and attic has been invaded by these Glis Glis, and even though they are considered an invasive species, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.


In 1931, when  arrangements  were  nearly  completed  for  an  expedition  to  New  Guinea  with  the  object  of  collecting  birds  and  Lepidoptera, Lord Rothschild was suddenly confronted with a blackmail demand to pay a large debt. Though he never married, Rothschild had two mistresses in his life at the same time, one of whom bore him a daughter.  There was a third mistress who was married, and whose name was never revealed.  Turns out that the blackmail had been going on for 40 years. 

The blackmail forced him to sell the bird-collection in order to meet the demands, because the sum required was huge and the outlook in the City was very gloomy. He tried in vain to  exclude from the final sale the Parrots and Birds of Paradise in addition to the Ratites, but had to be content with keeping only the Ratites and a few specimens of rarities not represented in the British Museum. 

In 1932 the collection was packed up and sent to the buyer – The  American Museum of Natural History in New York that paid the sum of $225,000 for the collection.  The loss of it was a great shock to him. He missed the birds, and it was very hard to make him realise that in consideration of his age and his financial position, it was useless to try to build up a bird-collection again. It was a disaster for him which preyed on his mind to the end of his days, and the end of his days were very close…


Still reeling from the shock of the blackmail and the forced sale of his bird collection, in  May  1935, when  walking  from  the  Museum  to  the  mansion, he  slipped in a paved tunnel in the grounds and injured his left knee very severely.  

He became an invalid, and this affected his daily life to the extent that he could spend no more than a couple of hours a day amongst his beloved collection in the Museum.

Just two years later in June 1937 his back began to trouble him and his spinal cord was found to be affected by cancer.

He died in August 1937 at the age of 73. 

Lionel Walter Baron Rothschild Left The Grandest of Legacies

At the time of his death the Museum buildings contained, amongst many other things, 

2,004  complete mounted  mammals

207  heads

335  pairs  of  horns  and  antlers

6  large Elephant  tusks, and many skeletons and skulls

13 Gorillas

25 Chimpanzees

228 Marsupials

24 Echidnas – the  most  valuable  specimen  from  the  commercial  point  of  view  being the Quagga.

2,400  mounted birds, including 18 Apteryx, 62 Cassowaries, 62 Birds of Paradise, 520 Hummingbirds, the Great Auk with skeleton and two eggs,and a fine Korean Eagle.

680  Reptiles  and  Amphibians, including  144  Giant  Tortoises.

Two  million  specimens  of  Lepidoptera

A  Library of nearly 30,000 books.

Baron Rothschild offered the entire freehold buildings, collections, and library to the British Museum on condition that the Tring Museum should be continued in some form or other as an Institute for Zoological Research.

His reputation as a Zoologist will be lasting.    


(article inspired by the NOVITATES ZOOLOGICAE 1938 by Dr Karl Jordan FRS )


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