The News from Waterloo

Pigeon post

The following is from the Morning Post of 18 September 1884, under the heading: ‘The Carrier Pigeon and its Employment in War’:

‘It is a well known fact in this country that the London house of Rothschild used carrier pigeons in 1815 to be informed of the course of events on the continent, and thus was able to receive the information of the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo three days before the English government did, to buy up largely English government stock at its then depressed price and sell at an enormous profit after the rise which took playce when the news became generally known, thereby realising an immense fortune.’

It is just one of many references to this idea. The principal source appears to be William Tegetmeier, an acknowledged authority on pigeons who counted Charles Darwin among his correspondents.There is a reference to him making such a claim in the Dublin paper The Freeman’s Journal of 15 June 1876, while in his book The Homing or Carrier Pigeon (London, Rutledge, 1871) he quotes a writer in Bell’s Life newspaper on 1 Jan of 1870 who asserted that ‘Baron Rothschild’ kept ‘an immense quantity of pigeons for express work’.

‘Doing a Rothschild’

The pigeon story has enjoyed considerable currency. In the Hollywood film of 1934, The House of Rothschild, produced by Daryl F Zanuck. Nathan Rothschild, played by George Arliss, is rescued from ruin by word of the victory which arrived on a slip of paper conveyed to London by a pigeon. More recently it figured in 2006 work by A. D. Blechman, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird (University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, P31). And in the realm of fiction it appears in a 2009 novel by Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December (Vintage, London. P152). Here a character in the story refers to the need for someone ‘to do a Rothschild’, which is explained as follows:

‘During the Napoleonic Wars, the Rothschild brothers had the fastest communication system in Europe: a pigeon post. Everyone in Lombard Street was aware that Nathan Rothschild would be the first to know how the Battle of Waterloo had ended, and this made it impossible for him to trade on his knowledge; his competitors would copy him and no one would want to be on the other side. So, with exaggerated furtiveness designed to draw attention to itself, he began to sell small amounts of government bonds. The herd followed, and the bond market crashed. Unknown to his rivals, Rothschild had, by using intermediaries, accumulated huge long positions in government bonds. When victory at Waterloo was announced, the patriotic rally in bond prices delivered him the largest fortune the City had ever seen.’ (Quoted by permission.)

What is the truth of all this?

The pigeon story was investigated by Victor Rothschild in 1982 in his book The Shadow of a Great Man (P30-32) and he concluded that it was ‘conceivable but most unlikely’. He wrote:

'That the Rothschilds used carrier pigeons is certain. But the earliest evidence is in a letter dated 1st October 1824'.

I would go further: it is extremely unlikely, for several reasons.

  1. Pigeons have to be bred, fed and housed, and before use they must be transported and kept alive in transit. In 1815, moreover, it was believed that they had to be trained. In the voluminous records of the Rothschild Archives in London for that year, however, no record exists of this cumbersome, costly infrastructure or attendant arrangements.
  2. If Nathan Rothschild used pigeons to communicate his principal correspondents would certainly have been his brothers elsewhere in Europe, yet there is no reference to this in their correspondence. Nowhere, for example, does his brother Carl in Amsterdam refer in a letter to the possibility of using pigeons.
  3. It wasn’t just the Rothschilds who didn’t start using pigeons until the 1820s and 1830s. Although it is possible to find instances of messages travelling by pigeon post in earlier decades it is rare. From the 1820s, however, and up to the time when the electric telegraph became available in the 1850s, it becomes more common. Both Julius Reuter, founder of the news agency, and the Manchester Guardian would employ them in these years. And as Victor Rothschild pointed out, the Times of 3 August 1836 ‘reported that the first intimation in England of NM’s death [that’s Nathan Mayer Rothschild] was when a pigeon shot down in Kent was found to have attached to its leg a roll of paper inscribed with the words: “Il est mort.” [He is dead’]. (This is in itself an intrinsically improbable tale, but the key point is that it is set in 1836, not 1815.)

It is easy to see how the pigeon story arose. In later years the family used carrier pigeons for correspondence and in later years (principally after the Satan pamphlet of 1846) the family was associated with early news of Waterloo. Two and two seem to have been put together, to make five.

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