The News from Waterloo

Wellington and the Rothschild myth

Georges Dairnvaell, a.k.a. ‘Satan’, was the first person to give wide circulation to the story that Nathan Rothschild profited from early knowledge of Waterloo, but he was not the first to make the suggestion.

Another person who did so – many years before Dairnvaell – was the Duke of Wellington himself. Several of the Duke’s acquaintances have left accounts of him telling a version of the story in private conversations in the 1820s and 1830s.

Table talk, 1822

In 1858 in the magazine Notes and Queries carried a series of exchanges relating to the news of Waterloo and in one of these a writer who signed himself ‘J. Mn.’ recounted comments he said he had heard the Duke make on the subject. The conversation was dated very precisely to 1 February 1822, though J. Mn. gave no other context.

The Duke, he wrote, was asked how news of his victory reached London and he replied that one of his first actions after the battle was to cause a message to be sent to Louis XVIII of France, who was then in exile in Ghent. This message (whose story is told in THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO) reached the king’s residence at breakfast time on Monday 19 June. The Duke continued:

‘There was a crowd of people before the window, as was usual; and a Jew who was there, looking in, had his curiosity excited by observing kissing and other signs of joy among the royal party. To learn the cause of this he made his way into the house, and having heard the important news, he set out instantly for Ostend, and getting on board a vessel ready to sail for England, he hastened to London, where he first went to Change Alley and transacted business; which done, he immediately carried the news to Lord Liverpool, some hours before the arrival of Captain Percy with the dispatches.’

Table talk, 1838 and 1839

In 1888 came the publication of Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington 1831-1851 a collection of transcriptions of informal chat and table talk compiled by the Duke’s friend Earl Stanhope. This contained two accounts of the arrival of the news, the first dated by Stanhope (p122) in 1838. Again Wellington spoke of the Jew who picked up the story at Ghent and made for London.

‘At Ostend he saw [Admiral Sir Pulteney] Malcolm, but told him nothing, nor did he to anyone until he reached Rothschild’s house in the City. He afterwards went to Lord Liverpool.’

A year later, the duke told the story again (p173):

‘At Ostend, at embarking, he saw Malcolm, to whom he declared that he knew no news – observed strict silence all the way – got to London – went with Rothschild to the Stock Exchange and did his little business there – and when that was done, then Rothschild brought him to Lord Liverpool, early in the afternoon.’

Other accounts

In an undated conversation recorded by Samuel Rogers (p236) the Duke described the Jew as ‘an emissary of Rothschild’. This was published in 1859.

The diaries of Frances Williams Wynn have Wellington’s close friend Don Miguel de Alava telling much the same story, apparently in 1825 (p157). This was published in 1864.

Williams Wynn wrote that the messenger from Ghent was ‘a spy from the house of Rothschild’ and that the government was only informed of his news by a partner in the Rothschild bank after he had ‘made all the advantage which this exclusive knowledge could give him on the Stock Exchange’.

And In 1884 this version of the Waterloo-Rothschild story was adopted, with minor variations, by Louis J. Jennings, editor of the diaries of John Wilson Croker. – The Croker Papers, vol 1 p59 (not available online). Croker was Navy Secretary in the government of 1815 and THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO describes his involvement in the story. Jennings wrote of a messenger ‘employed to convey to the Rothschilds in London the news of the victory at Waterloo’. This messenger called upon Louis XVIII and then proceeded to the banking house in London. ‘After they had extracted from him all the information that he possessed, they sent him on to Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, in order that the government might receive tidings of this great event.’

A reliable source?

At first reading, and coming from such a source – Wellington himself – this seems to be strong evidence that Mr C of Dover was a Rothschild employee and that therefore the claim that Nathan Rothschild was the first in London to receive news of the victory is justified.

That the Duke should have told the story as early as 1822 and repeated it several times (and these are only the recorded instances) also seems to lend it weight. It shows that this was no mere misunderstanding or error of transcription, but something the Duke believed to be true.

But hold on. Is Wellington really a reliable source on this subject? Where was he when these events occurred? Not in London, but busy with his army on the road to Paris. In other words he was nowhere near these events and was not a witness. What he said he was either told by others (who are not identified) or else it was a narrative that he constructed himself from information he later picked up.

Some problems

The contemporaneous evidence – naturally the most trustworthy – is hard to reconcile with Wellington’s story. We know from this evidence (see THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO) that Mr C arrived in London from Ghent during the night of Tuesday to Wednesday and that his information was authentic. His story was reported in three afternoon papers on Wednesday and not one of those newspaper reports linked him with Rothschild.

Nor do Mr C’s actions accord with the Duke’s account because it is clear that when he reached the City on Wednesday morning he told his story freely – it was already in print in the Courier by noon. If Mr C had been a Rothschild employee, and if Rothschild had wished to cash in on his early knowledge, that would surely not have happened. Mr C and Rothschild would have held on to what they knew.

Moreover, we have reliable, contemporaneous evidence of how Rothschild really learned of the victory at Waterloo and it is not as Wellington told it. A correspondent writing on that Wednesday evening for the Caledonian Mercury of Edinburgh reported:

‘Good news – to be relied upon – Lord Wellington was joined on the 18th by 20,000 Prussians under Bulow and beat Bonaparte completely, taking nearly the whole of his artillery, Omnium is up at 6. This I have from good authority – one who has seen a letter from Ghent, received by Rosschild [sic], the great stockbroker, whose information is invariably the best. He is now at the Foreign Office.’

So Rothschild received a letter from Ghent, and not a messenger. And (as is explained in THE NEWS FROM WATERLOO) the reported content of that letter, relating to von Bulow, is different from the information so widely shared by Mr C. Furthermore, the likelihood is that Rothschild received this letter considerably later than the arrival in London of Mr C.

So the Duke’s version simply doesn’t fit the known facts.

Why would Wellington tell an untrue story?

Here we can only speculate, but it looks likely that it is a matter of adding two and two and making five. First, the story of Mr C was, at least for a time, fairly well known, and it is not surprising that the Duke would have known it.

I can see two possible reasons why he made a link with Rothschild. The clue to the first is in that remark in John Roworth’s letter to Rothschild of 27 July 1815:

‘I am informed by Commissary White you have done well by the early information which you had of the victory gained at Waterloo.’

This is discussed in full in the book and elsewhere on this site. What may be significant here in relation to Wellington is that the source was a British government official, Commissary White, and that the letter was written in Paris. The Duke was also in Paris at that time and undoubtedly had dealings with White, who may very well have told him the same story.

It may be that, when Wellington was asked years later what he knew of the arrival of the news in London, he connected these two stories. We know today that they do not belong together, but he did not.

The other possible reason for the Duke’s error is this. Months before Waterloo, on 11 March 1815, the following item appeared prominently in the Morning Chronicle newspaper:

‘An extraordinary sensation was yesterday morning produced by the intelligence from France, of the landing of Bonaparte at Frejus, in the department of La Var, where he landed on his flight from Egypt. The first notice of this most memorable event was announced by Mr Rosschild, the exchange broker, who sold stock to the amount of £600,000 on the receipt of the news by express from France.’

Rothschild was thus reported to have been the first person in London to receive information of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, and to have used his knowledge in his financial dealings (as well as ‘announcing’ it). Perhaps this story lodged in Wellington’s mind, and years later he confused the news of 11 March with the news of 21 June.

Some clues in the telling

If we look back now at the various tellings of Wellington’s story there are signs that it needs to be treated with caution.

The earliest, told in 1858 by the unknown ‘J.Mn.’ is said to date from 1822, seven years after Waterloo. It does not mention the name Rothschild. Instead Wellington is quoted as repeating the tale of Mr C, with three added details: the man who travelled from Ghent was a Jew; he used his knowledge for profit in the City; he then went to the prime minister with his story.

In the next telling the source is the Duke’s friend Alava, who had even less reason than Wellington to know the facts. The date is said to be 1825 and according to Williams Winn the story was told by Alava in France. In this account the man from Ghent was a Rothschild ‘spy’, the banker turned his knowledge to profit and a bank partner told the government.

In the 1838 version Wellington repeats the story told by Alava and adds further details. The messenger passed through Ostend without telling his story to Admiral Malcolm (who was in charge of naval support for Wellington and was at that time in the Belgian port). He went to Rothschild’s house, and he (the messenger) then went to see Lord Liverpool.

And in the 1839 version more detail is added. The messenger went with Rothschild to the Stock Exchange to transact business and then, early in the afternoon of Wednesday, he went to see Lord Liverpool.

It is evident that this story improved over the years. By 1839 it had become a rather more colourful after-dinner anecdote than it had been in 1822. That alone is reason for scepticism.

A Dairnvaell connection?

One striking fact about the Wellington version is that it does not seem to have reached an audience much beyond the Duke’s social circle until the late 1850s. The reason for this, undoubtedly, is that he strictly prohibited his friends from recording his words, and although several of them clearly did so, they did not feel able to publish until after his death in 1852.

Dairnvaell’s ‘Satan’ pamphlet, which also linked Rothschild with the news of Waterloo (although in a very different way) had appeared in Paris in 1846. These dates make it unlikely that Dairnvaell got his idea from Wellington.

None the less, there is a curious coincidence here. The Roworth letter saying that Nathan Rothschild had done well out of early information of Waterloo was written from Paris, and it passed on gossip being shared there by a British official. Wellington was in Paris at that time, as was the Duke of Alava. And years later it was in Paris that Dairnvaell wrote his pamphlet.

It may be that there is information that could shed light on this in archives in France. Perhaps one day I will have an opportunity to investigate, but if anyone else knows anything please get in touch through the Contact page of this site.