The News from Waterloo

The Quote That Wasn't

What appears to have been an error by a Victorian historian, Sir Archibald 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).

‘A distinguished historian’

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.