‘The Honourable Walter Rothschild, newly elected MP for Aylesbury, driving his Celebrated Team of Zebras’ Illustration for ‘The Illustrated London News’, 14 January 1899.

A Giant Bear of a Man

26th January 2018

Walter Rothschild, founder of the Natural History Museum at Tring, was born 150 years ago this year.

Jack Watkins pays tribute to a remarkable individual.

It says plenty about skewed human priorities that while the Rothschild banking dynasty is famous, not to mention envied, for its massive wealth, the contribution made by several family members to the better understanding and conservation of the natural world is little known. Of course, arch-cynics will say it was only the money that enabled them to pursue such lines of interest. Yet the fact is that neither of the brothers Charles and Walter Rothschild could escape life in the City quickly enough. And the title of one of the most important books of Charles’s daughter Miriam Rothschild, Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos, tells you just how much a chip off the old block she was.

If Miriam’s greatest legacy is her books and scientific papers, her father’s is as a pioneer of the protection of critical British wildlife sites. He set up the body which was the forerunner of today’s Wildlife Trusts, and acquired many sites out of his own pocket, including what is recognised as the first ever UK nature reserve, at Wicken Fen, near Ely. How much more might he have achieved had he not, aged 46 and driven to distraction by international finance and the onset of the then little-known condition of schizophrenia, slit his own throat with a razor in 1923?

It fell to Walter Rothschild, nine years Charles’ senior, to be the great populariser of the natural world. Yet the 2nd Baron Rothschild, born150 years ago this February and the founder of what is now called the Natural History Museum at Tring, was no physical or intellectual lightweight. Blessed with a freakishly retentive mind, even at the age of ten he could reel off the names of hundreds of species and tell the difference between the insect fauna of Germany and England.

Walter was a giant bear of a man, 6ft 3inches tall and weighing 22 stone. Miriam, in her biography of her uncle, Dear Lord Rothschild, describes how he would roll across the marble hall at Tring ‘like a grand piano on castors’. Yet life wasn’t quite the bed of roses you might expect. His health was poor and he had a crippling lack of voice control which made normal communication difficult, exacerbating his innate shyness. According to Miriam, he spent his life cut off from the rest of humanity ‘by his eccentric and confusing blend of creativity and childishness… and his total lack of self-confidence coupled with a peculiar brand of enthusiastic megalomania’.

The family home at Tring Park was his refuge, and it was here he developed his affinity with nature, collecting stuffed animals and setting butterflies before he was ten. By the time he died in 1937, he’d amassed the greatest collection of natural history objects held by one man, all displayed in the private zoology museum he opened on the family estate in 1892. The building and the collection were gifted to the nation on his death, after which they became part of the Natural History Museum.

Walter did go to Cambridge, and although he failed to get a degree, he was inspired by the university’s first professor of zoology, Alfred Newton. Newton’s collection of specimens from around the world inspired Walter to start his own. As Peter Marren writes, in Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies, ‘At the peak of his activities Walter had collectors everywhere; a contemporary map marking the whereabouts of Rothschild’s collectors with red dots looks as if the world has caught measles’. And his wealth enabled him to think big. In his museum he was proud to display the first entire stuffed okapi seen in the West, but it had cost him £300 to acquire this most mysterious of creatures, more than half the salary of his first curators. In time, such was the size of the collection at Tring, most notably of birds and butterflies, that it outstripped those of most continental museums and the Natural History Museum in Kensington itself.

Although Walter was shy, he clearly had a feel for what registered with the broader public. He dedicated his time to building a museum filled with huge and striking specimens stuffed in a convincing, lifelike way. At the same time, living animals roamed freely about the park. These included zebras, kangaroos, wild horses, cranes and giant tortoises. This didn’t always work, and Miriam Rothschild recalled the occasion when the giant tortoises – Walter’s special favourites – escaped from their greenhouse and ate all the young arum lilies, but it made the place an immense attraction. Despite being on the outskirts of Tring’s centre, in the days before widespread car ownership or public transport, and with minimal advertising, it pulled in 30,000 visitors a year.

The zebras, naturally enough, were particularly popular, and no-one loved them more than the enthusiastic Walter. They had first arrived at Tring in 1894, and he immediately set about breaking them in. Though the zebras didn’t exactly share his excitement, and fundamentally objected to being subjected to a harness and bridle, they eventually consented, and were regularly to be seen pulling their new master round the estate in his traps. On one occasion he even drove a four-zebra trap down London’s Piccadilly, causing a stir by taking them along the Mall and into the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Do you think Queen Victoria was amused?

Walter had an encyclopaedic knowledge of zoology. Specimens brought to him from around the world weren’t just for display but also for serious research, and he wrote many important papers in his own right. However, because his interest in flora and fauna was spread over a wide area, he was viewed with suspicion by many scientists who valued specialisation.

As Miriam said, he was ‘a lover of the whole animal, not just bits of them’. He’d acquired his knowledge not just from books or through a microscope, but by walking among the beech trees of the nearby Chiltern woods. He had that sense of wonder and simplicity in common with the ordinary soul who can’t name a single bird but knows all creatures have their place and are valuable just for their very being. He received hundreds of letters during his lifetime from people telling him they had only become interested in learning more about natural history after they had paid a visit to his museum.

Walter has been dead for eighty years now, but the Tring museum still has the massive display cases which he personally took such pains over designing, with the exhibits still in the strict taxonomic order and group classifications he so fiercely stipulated. When Miriam wrote the biography over three decades ago, she conceded that stuffed models and life-like exhibits weren’t such a draw in the age of the David Attenborough-style Life on Earth documentaries. The collections are still of massive importance to scientific study, however, and I wouldn’t be so sure they have lost their wow factor. Not for a young child, certainly, and in fact, they can still reopen the sense of awe and wonder in all of us. What is more than sad is to realise how many of these creatures are now endangered, far more so than a century ago. Too much environmental talk today is centred on the need to take action ‘to save the human race’, but we share this planet with other creatures who every much right to thrive on it as we have. A walk round Walter’s museum at Tring in his anniversary year is a timely reminder of what has, for far too long for many people and various vested interests, become a rather inconvenient truth.

Find Your Local