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EXOTICSM AND ECCENTRICITY: The remarkable Walter Rothschild

 Published on: 10th March 2024   |   By: Annabel Stock   |   Category: Uncategorized

The eccentric scientific patron Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, was born on February 8, 1868.

Now, 125 years after his birth, Tring News takes a look at Walter’s career and his important connection to the town.

Walter grew up at Tring Park, where he began collecting insects and animals and nurtured an ambition to one day have his own zoological museum.

At Cambridge, he studied zoology, which sparked his interest in taxonomy. He travelled across Europe and North Africa collecting creatures and employed explorers and professional collectors to assist him. He also hired taxidermists and professional scientists to help him to curate his findings.

Upon turning 21, Walter left Cambridge to join the family firm, N M Rothschild & Sons, on the condition that his parents build The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in the grounds of Tring Park.

It was evident Walter had neither the flair nor the inclination for banking. In 1892, the museum opened to the public and, in 1908, Walter finally gave up banking to dedicate himself entirely to zoology.

As well as a variety of taxidermy creatures – believed to be the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual – Tring Park housed live zebras, emus, rheas and kangaroos, which roamed wild in the parklands. His collection of curiosities included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, and more than two million butterflies.

Walter died in 1937 and in his will left the museum to the British Museum, of which the Natural History Museum was then a part. The current Natural History Museum in Tring is now a part of the Natural History Museum.

An internet search of Walter’s name will bring up striking photographs of him driving a zebra-drawn carriage or sitting astride a giant tortoise.

Dr Ella Larsson, who has recently completed a thesis on Walter Rothschild at King’s College London, argues: “We can detract from Walter’s importance in the zoological community by getting side tracked by this flamboyance and end up seeing him as a wealthy eccentric rather than someone with a serious contribution to make.”

For Dr Larsson, Walter was a patron of the sciences.

She added: “There is a question about what qualified as science in the 19th century. Rothschild didn’t have a scientific degree and wasn’t being paid so there is an assumption that he was a wealthy eccentric who just loved animals. He didn’t make a groundbreaking study like Darwin and his work wasn’t theoretical; it was taxonomic description which is why he was treated as an outsider. His contribution was that he was able to invest in the field and support the research of others.”

Weird and wonderful tales about Walter Rothschild:

  • Walter once infamously drove a zebra-led carriage to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate that the striped creatures could be tamed.
  • Among his most famous collections was an assortment of 144 live giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. He was famously snapped riding astride one of these creatures.
  • The Rothschild giraffe is named after Walter.
  • Following a visit to Hungary in 1902, Rothschild is said to have brought six live dormice back to Tring. Allegedly, some of them escaped and started breeding successfully in the wild.
  • Walter’s niece claimed in her biography of Walter that he had to sell off his bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History in 1931 to raise funds to silence a mistress who was blackmailing him.
  • It is claimed that Lord Rothschild, Walter’s father, would often go riding in the morning before breakfast. The gardeners, who had been up since 5am, had to quickly replant any flowers dug up by the kangaroos living in the grounds before Lord Rothschild appeared for his morning ride.
  • It is believed that Walter’s beloved cassowaries were shipped off to London Zoo after one of them attacked his father.

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