For many years the name of Rothschild has been associated with Waterloo, as Chapter Eight of THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO explains:
‘If there is one well-known fact about the news from Waterloo, it is that the first man in London to know of the victory was Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the founder of the British bank N. M. Rothschild and Sons. You can find this in histories both academic and popular, in novels both literary and romantic, in children’s books, reference books and business manuals, in films and television documentaries and on websites by the dozen.
‘It has featured as a fact or a probable fact in Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography as well as in histories of the City of London, of Jews and Judaism and, of course, of the Rothschild family and of Waterloo. Wellington’s most prominent biographer, Elizabeth Longford, repeated it in the 1970s, as did Niall Ferguson in recent works of financial history. The one-time CIA director Allen Dulles told the story in his 1963 book The Craft of Intelligence, and it also appears in a 2009 novel by Sebastian Faulks.’
‘In these many, many tellings the story has taken a great variety of forms, but most of them have in common two points: first, that Rothschild acquired exclusive word of the victory; and second, that he exploited it to make a fortune on the Stock Exchange.’
THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO goes on to dissect the legend in its principal forms and to tell its history, exposing the role played by anti-Semitiism in creating and propagating it. It concludes that not only is there insufficient evidence to justify the two principal claims – about exclusive knowledge and about the stock market killing – but there is also strong evidence disproving both.
So far as the historical record shows, Nathan Rothschild was not the first nor nearly the first person in London with authentic information about Wellington’s victory. Equally, though it seems likely that the news brought him some profit, that profit was almost certainly dwarfed by the gains that others made – perfectly legitimately – and the often-repeated allegation that Rothschild manipulated the market to enhance his gains is unfounded.
The chief evidence and arguments challenging the myth are set out in THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO. But so diverse are the stories associated with it, and so deep-rooted are the beliefs, that there was room to deal with only the principal elements. Plenty of loose ends remain, and these pages examine some of those.
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’.
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.)
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.
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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The following appeared in the Westminster Gazette of 16 April 1903,sent in by a Mr H. B. Hyde of Ealing:
‘About 1860 Mr Robert Sutton told me how he had learned the news of our victory at Waterloo. He was being shaved and his barber came to him directly after shaving Mr Rothschild. He told Mr Sutton that while he was shaving Mr Rothschild the latter received a letter which he opened and read, and the barber did so too. It announced that we had beaten Bonaparte at Waterloo. Mr Sutton, who was half shaved, jumped up, wiped his face and ran to the Stock Exchange and did the best day’s business he ever did in his long life.’
We know that Rothschild received a letter from Ghent on 21st June, and it seems that it arrived early enough for him to buy shares, so we can’t dismiss this story as entirely fictitious. On the other hand, this is an extremely feeble provenance: someone remembering a conversation that had taken place 43 years earlier with someone who was recalling an event 45 years before that date. Few historians would rely on such a tale.
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This is from the Manchester Mail of 22 August 1892:
‘More years ago than I care to confess, when I was a boy, I fell across Mr Russell, a well-known farmer at Bexhill, near Eastbourne. This gentleman was a very aged man, but in 1815 he was in the prime of life. One day, very stormy it was too, a boat landed a solitary passenger on the coast at Bexhill. This gentleman, evidently of Jewish race, asked if he could be driven to London before the morning.
‘No one could do it. Seeing that the gentleman was much distressed, Mr Russell stepped forward and said he could drive him. ‘You shall have enough money to make you a rich man if you get me to London before dawn.’ It was done.
‘This gentleman knew that Waterloo was won. Who this gentleman was, Mr Russell never would tell, but it is certain that the expedition benefited Mr Russell to the extend of not less than £10,000, besides presents in kind, which his descendants possess.’
The Rothschild Archives in London have considerable holdings for 1815 and it is possible that this has been missed, but neither I nor the archivists are aware of any evidence to support the idea that Nathan Rothschild paid or made substantial gifts to a farmer called Russell from Eastbourne or Bexhill.
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What appears to have been an error by a Victorian historian, SirArchibald Alison, has long been a significant building block of the Rothschild-Waterloo myth.
As is explained in The News From Waterloo, Alison was a prolific and hugely popular historian in the middle of the 19th century. His magnum opus was The History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815. The first instalment of this multi-volume work appeared in 1842 and Alison produced many volumes and a bewildering array of editions in the years that followed.
The first edition contained no reference to the Rothschild Waterloo legend, but in a revision of 1848 Alison added a footnote, which duly appeared on page nine of volume twenty of the seventh edition. In a characteristically eccentric riff upon the ‘almost supernatural’ ability of the news of great battles to travel at great speed, Alison wrote:
In the London papers of Tuesday the 20th June a rumour was mentioned of Napoleon ‘having been defeated in a great battle near Brussels on Sunday evening, in which he lost all his heavy artillery’. The official despatches did not arrive in London until midnight on Wednesday.
Later in the same lengthy footnote Alison added:
The same paper (Courier, June 20, 1815) mentions that, ‘Rothschild had made great purchases of stock, which raised the Three per Cents from 56 to 58.’
The implication of this is that Rothschild knew the outcome of Waterloo sufficiently early on Tuesday 20 June 1815 not only to buy stock but also to do so in sufficient quantity to cause a significant boost to prices and to attract the attention of the Courier (the leading London evening paper).
Ten years after it was published this item was mentioned in the journal Notes and Queries (2nd Series, Vol 6, 152, Nov 27 1858, p 434) in connection with correspondence about who first brought the news of Waterloo. An editorial reply by N&Q republished the two quotations from Alison, attributing them only to ‘a distinguished historian’, and then pointed out:
But unfortunately, on a close examination of the newspaper thus cited, “Courier, June 20, 1815”, we find no mention whatever of the “great battle near Brussels” or of Rothschild’s “great purchases in the funds!”
This appears to be correct. The British Library collection edition of the Courier contains no such mention, and I am not aware of any appearing in any surviving edition of the paper of that day, or of any other surviving title published that day. It just isn’t there.
Yet despite the put-down by Notes & Queries Alison’s erroneous quotation has survived in the literature and been relied upon by some notable historians of the Rothschilds, among them Lucien Wolf and Niall Ferguson.
In 1909, in a review of Balla’s Rothschild Romances for the Daily Telegraph,Wolf attempted to rebut the suggestion that Nathan Rothschild profited by deceiving the markets about the outcome of Waterloo. Insisting that Rothschild acted openly, he wrote:
How open his transactions were is proved by indisputable contemporary evidence. Thus in the Courier of June 20 it is stated that ‘Rothschild has made great purchases of stock’.
This is a clear echo of the Alison mistake.
Niall Ferguson has also cited the quotation, indeed he has placed considerable reliance on it. Ferguson’s distinct perspective on the Rothschild-Waterloo story is that, far from profiting from the news of Waterloo, Nathan Rothschild found himself near to ruin because he had bought up vast quantities of gold coin to supply the allied armies, and now the war was over almost before it had begun. Ferguson wrote in Money’s Prophets (p99):
In London, a frantic Nathan sought to make good the damage; and it is in this context that the firm’s purchases of British stocks have to be seen. On July 20, the evening edition of the London Courier reported that Nathan had made ‘great purchases of stock’.
In Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (p85) the quotation appears again:
But there was one possible way out: the Rothschilds could use their gold to make a massive and hugely risky bet on the bond market. On 20 July 1815 the evening edition of the London Courier reported that Nathan had made ‘great purchases of stock’, meaning British government bonds. Nathan’s gamble was that the British victory at Waterloo, and the prospect of a reduction in government borrowing, would send the price of British bonds soaring upwards. Nathan bought more, and as the price of consols duly began to rise, he kept on buying.’
The quotation appears in the same context in Ferguson’s Channel 4 television series, Money, in the programme called ‘Human Bondage’. In all three cases it is used to demonstrate that Nathan Rothschild began buying stocks on Tuesday 20th. If this was the case he would have to have received the news on that Tuesday afternoon, thirty hours or more before the official dispatch arrived. Yet the key quote, about those ‘great purchases of stock’, does not seem to exist.
How did Alison come to make his mistake? At this distance of time it seems that we will never know for sure, but here is a little speculation.
For one, Alison had a mixed reputation among professional historians in his own day, and it is possible that the reference to him as ‘distinguished’ by the Notes and Queries editor is ironic. All writers make mistakes and it is possible that, writing so prolifically, Alison made more mistakes than most. So the quote that wasn’t may simply be a symptom of haste.
Where Alison might have got the idea that Rothschild had had early information and had bought shares is no mystery. The ‘Satan’ pamphlet, published two years before that footnote was written, had not only sold very widely across Europe but had also stirred up a good deal of comment – including by Friedrich Engels in the Northern Star newspaper. In 1848 Alison, besides revising his great work, was also researching and writing its sequel, a multi-volume history of Europe since Napoleon’s fall. It would be surprising if he had not come across the story told by ‘Satan’.
Published in Britain in 1914, A Great Peace Maker: The Diary of James Gallatincontained thefollowing lines under the date June 18 1815:
Great anxiety. Consols have fallen terribly. I have never seen greater depression; everybody one sees seems frightened. A rumour today that a battle had been fought and that the Duke of Wellington was crushed; tonight that is contradicted. One cannot believe anything. They say Monsieur Rothschild has mounted couriers from Brussels to Ostend and a fast clipper ready to sail the moment something is decisive one way or the other . . .
James Gallatin was an American, and and was both son and secretary to Albert Gallatin, a diplomat specialising in finance who was part of a US mission to Europe at this time. On 18 June the mission was in London, and this quotation purports to describe the mood in the city.
Taken at face value it appears to provide impressive contemporaneous evidence confirming the story told by Lucien Wolf, that Nathan Rothschild had taken special measures to ensure that he would be the first to hear of the outcome of the fighting in Belgium. What could be better than a diary entry written in London on the very day of the battle?
In fact few historians seem to have cited it. One who does is Derek Wilson in Rothschild: A Story of Wealth and Power (First published 1988; revised edition 1994; London, Mandarin. P58), declaring that it showed ‘everyone in the diplomatic community knew about the great banker’.
In 1957 an article entitled ‘The James Gallatin Diary: A Fraud?’ appeared in American Historical Review (LXII July 1957 pp 878-885) . The writer, R. Walters Jnr, discussed and examined the content of the diary and its relation to events (mainly in the U.S. rather than Europe). He wrote: ‘. . . I reached the conclusion that the diary is a complete fraud.’
The perpetrator, according to Walters, was presumably the editor, James Francis Gallatin, the grandson to the diplomat and son of the supposed diarist. James Francis styled himself Count Gallatin, though his right to the title was disputed, but he was known to his own family as ‘bad Jimmy’. Walters notes that no manuscript for the diary has survived or was ever known to have been seen by anybody other than Jimmy.
The entry for Sunday 18 June is demonstrably false, as this examination shows:
‘Great anxiety. Consols have fallen terribly. I have never seen greater depression; everybody one sees seems frightened.’ – Consols had not fallen in the previous days, indeed the Observer of that day reported strong buying of stocks, and on the Sunday London did not even know that hostilities had broken out.
‘A rumour today that a battle had been fought and that the Duke of Wellington was crushed; tonight that is contradicted. One cannot believe anything.’ – No such rumours were reported in any of the newspapers of Sunday 18th or Monday 19th, as they would have been if they had existed.
‘They say Monsieur Rothschild has mounted couriers from Brussels to Ostend and a fast clipper ready to sail the moment something is decisive one way or the other…’ – As shown in The News From Waterloo, the correspondence in the Rothschild Archive in London strongly suggests that no such arrangements were made. Instead, Nathan Rothschild was writing impatiently to his agent in Ostend asking him if he knew what was going on.
In short, no one who was really in London on 18 June 1815 could or would have written these words.
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 atOstend 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’.
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 (see ‘The Wellington Version’), 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.
There are several problems with this.
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? If so, please let me know through the Contact page.
The House of Rothschild (1934)
You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pk93JIkolAU
The comments underneath are revealing.
Made by 20th Century Pictures and produced, with a starry cast, by Darryl F Zanuck (42nd Street, How Green Was My Valley, All About Eve), this was popular in its day and received an Oscar nomination. Today it is embarrassing to watch, a crude mishmash of Jewish stereotypes and leaden anti-racism messages, all wrapped in a daft, schmaltzy story barely related to historical fact.
The climax (spoiler alert) is Waterloo. Having ruthlessly defeated official prejudice to win himself a slice of a big war loan, Nathan then finds himself having to save the British government and the Stock Exchange from ruin as rumours circulate of an allied defeat. At the last moment he receives word of victory (thanks to a pigeon post message from the battlefield) and not only is his fortune re-made, but the country is rescued.
The cast includes George Arliss, a big star who had only recently won a best actor Oscar; Boris Karloff, already famous for his monster in Frankenstein; Loretta Young, who would go on to a long career in film and television; and Robert Young, later television’s Marcus Welby M.D. There is an amusing cameo part for C. Aubrey Smith, often Hollywood’s quintessential crusty English gent, as a Duke of Wellington who speaks with a broad Irish accent.
It’s hard to know what they were thinking when they made it. The message at the end, when Nathan is elevated to the nobility by the Prince Regent ('England is deeply grateful to her adopted son’), seems to be that he is a heroic patriot as well as a modest and likeable man. Racial prejudice is pointedly exposed as cruel and wrong. Earlier scenes, however, have a different feel, and the opening passages (in which Arliss plays Nathan’s father, Amschel) are pretty well cardboard cut-out stuff in the tradition of Shylock and Fagin.
The history is bunk. The plot doesn’t even follow any of the myths prevalent at the time, though in one sense the writers accidentally strayed close to a truth no one then knew. That Nathan Rothschild was never ennobled in Britain was an easily confirmed fact in 1934 and it remains a fact today, so the film’s closing scene is nonsense. But in recent years it emerged that he was probably offered a knighthood in 1815, and turned it down.
A sample line: 'Buy till we break... We've picked our horse and we'll back it till it drops . . . I’m giving all I've got to give for the peace of Europe.'
Die Rothschilds – Aktien auf Waterloo (‘The Rothschilds – Shares in Waterloo’)
You can see this film (in German) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfBonAqo0ek
This was one of several anti-Semitic feature films released in Nazi Germany in 1940, the most famous and successful at the time being Jud Süss. Most accounts of the Rothschild suggest that it suffered at the box office in wartime Germany because it conveyed a muddled message, leaving audiences uncertain whether they should hate the grasping Jews or the corrupt, arrogant British.
Nathan Rothschild is portrayed as a dandyish banker trying to make his way in London. We see his fortune grow thanks to his ruthless manoeuvring and to the assistance of a ‘Jewish International’, but socially he remains frozen out. The film’s climax (spoiler alert) is once again Waterloo, which enables him, not to win society over, but to assert ownership of it.
Rothschild achieves this after realising that he can make a really big killing by being the first to have news of the battle’s outcome. ‘I must know what is happening,’ he declares. ‘I must have news, accurate news, you understand? News is money!’ He promises a fortune to anyone who can get it for him, incidentally corrupting a nice young Englishman from the romantic sub-plot, who is supposed to send him word by pigeon post.
When the young man discovers he is part of a profiteering scheme he sets all the pigeons free in disgust, but Rothschild gets the news first anyway, through a drunken sailor called Ruthworth who rushes to London from Ostend with a newspaper announcing the victory. While Ruthworth is cheated of his reward, Rothschild plunges the London stock market into panic by spreading word of a defeat. Rival banks fail, Baring dies of shock and crowds of ruined and distraught people fills the street while Rothschild celebrates a profit of £11 million. The young Englishman arrives too late with news of the victory – and in a nice twist he insists that it is not Wellington but the Prussians who have won it.
The final frames of the picture drive home the propaganda message. A map of Britain is shown with a gleaming star of David over it, and then comes a postscript: ‘As work on this film was completed, the last of the Rothschilds’ descendants are fleeing Europe. The fight against their accomplices in England, the British plutocracy, carries on.’
This plot owes most to the Lucian Wolf account of the delivery of the news to London – the printed report rushed across the Channel from Belgium – though it also retains the engineered stock market panic which Wolf rejected, but which has been around since the late 19th century. None of this has any basis in evidence.