The News from Waterloo

Was John Roworth the messenger?

In 1868 a correspondent in Notes & Queries (Vol 2, 4th Ser, 38, 19/9/1868, p283) wrote in response to other letters discussing Rothschild’s role:

‘That the great Hebrew capitalist [Rothschild] was at Waterloo himself, nobody believes; but it is certain he had an agent there who was first to bring the intelligence of the great victory to England. The news was not made public till the interests of his employer were served. The name of this agent was Roworth. I believe he was cousin or near relative of the late W. Roworth, alderman and mayor of Nottingham, with whom I frequently saw him about forty years ago, after he had retired on a liberal pension. His own account was, that he slept the night before it on the battlefield, under some slight shelter. As soon as the total defeat of Napoleon was assured, he made a rapid journey to the coast, and crossed the channel in an open boat.’

This was signed ‘Ellcee, Craven’. Ellcee may be a version of the initials L.C., and Craven is a district of North Yorkshire.

Roworth was again the hero of the story in 1897, when the new Dictionary of National Biography examined the life of Nathan Rothschild:

‘One of Rothschild’s agents, a man named Roworth, seems to have been at Ostend awaiting news of the result while the battle of Waterloo was in progress. Procuring an early copy of the Dutch ‘Gazette’, which promptly announced the victory of the allies, he hurried across the Channel and was the first to bring the news to London, where he arrived early on the morning of 20 June [the Tuesday]. In this way Rothschild was in possession of the intelligence before anyone else in London, and at once communicated it to the English government. The ministers received it with incredulity; but Rothschild’s news was confirmed in Downing Street from another source a few hours later . . .’

Though both these tales feature a Rothschild employee called Roworth, they are very different. In the former Roworth witnesses the battle, rushes to the coast and crosses in an open boat, but in the latter he picks up a newspaper at Ostend and dashes with it to London. (This latter version was adopted by Nazi film-makers for their propaganda film Die Rothschilds: Aktien auf Waterloo.) Roworth was a real person, and was indeed a valued employee of Nathan Rothschild who was often used in sensitive business on the Continent. A letter written by Rothschild in May 1815 describes him as ‘our confidential friend Mr Roworth’.

A lawyer investigates

At the end of the 19th century Roworth’s role was investigated by a London barrister and occasional historian called Thomas W. Brogden, whose papers are preserved at Nottingham University. Brogden corresponded with Roworth’s nephew, William, who said he remembered his uncle and was sure that it was he who brought the news of Waterloo to Rothschild. William, however, did not recall his uncle saying anything about sleeping on the battlefield or crossing the Channel in an open boat.

Brogden delivered the conclusion to his investigation in a letter to the Westminster Gazette signed ‘Waterlooensis’, which was published on 11 April 1903 under the headline: ‘How the news of the battle of Waterloo came’. It is too long to repeat here, but its gist was that the man known as the Gentleman from Ghent, who was reported in the Courier and other papers as having brought the news of victory on the morning of 21 June, was Roworth. (He figures largely in The News From Waterloo.)

Brogden cited as confirmation that the Gentleman from Ghent was a Rothschild employee (a) the evidence of the Duke of Wellington’s reported conversations, and (b) the description in the published diary of John Wilson Croker of the Gentleman’s interview with Lord Liverpool, in which the link is also made.

Problems

There are several problems with this.

  1. Poor provenance

    The earliest source, Ellcee, was recalling 40-year-old conversations with Roworth about events that had taken place more than a decade before that. Moreover, Brogden cherry-picked the parts of this hearsay evidence that he liked and arbitrarily discarded others. Roworth’s nephew’s recollections were even more remote and were markedly vague to boot. As for the Croker diary, it may sound like an impressive source but the passage that makes the connection between the Gentleman from Ghent and Nathan Rothschild is not a diary entry written in 1815. Instead it is an uncredited account written 70 years later by the book’s editor.
  2. The wrong initial

    Contemporaneous evidence – a report in the Caledonian Mercury written in London on the afternoon or evening of Wednesday 21 June 1815 – tells us that the Gentleman from Ghent mentioned in the Courier and other evening papers was called ‘Mr C. of Dover’. This is not ‘Mr R. of London’, as Roworth would presumably have been.
  3. Two places at once

    A further item of contemporaneous evidence – this time P.S. to a letter written by Nathan Rothschild on Tuesday 20 June 1815 – tells us that ‘Mr Roworth will leave here this evening for Brussels . . .’ Roworth was therefore in London on Tuesday afternoon. Is it possible that he had also been in Ghent the previous day at 1pm? It is not physically impossible but it is very unlikely, given the vagaries of travel in 1815. And if he had just arrived from Ghent, would Rothschild really have turned him around so promptly? But most tellingly, if he left for Brussels on Tuesday evening, how could he have been telling his story in the City on Wednesday morning, when the Courier and others got wind of it?

Conclusion

The Roworth theory is one of many relating to the news from Waterloo that depend on hearsay or family tradition (see ‘Urban legends’ and ‘Other stories’). How they arose, and how far they have any foundation in fact, is something about which we can only speculate. When it comes to determining what actually happened, so far as we can, we have to rely on more concrete evidence, and primarily on the evidence of people writing at the time, before any of the confusions of retrospect arose. This contemporaneous evidence strongly suggests that Roworth did not bring the news of Waterloo to London, or to Nathan Rothschild, and that he was not the Gentleman from Ghent. Can you shed further light on this?

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