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Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937)

Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild, (known as 'Walter') was born on 8 February 1868. As the elder son of Natty, the first Lord Rothschild, he was something of a disappointment to his father as his life was devoted to natural history and not banking. His dutiful, 15 years at New Court ended in 1908, and he was free to develop his collections and his museum, the finest privately owned institution of its kind in the world.

Walter and natural history

His interest in natural history began when he was a child, collecting butterflies, and as a child, Walter knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up, announcing at the age of seven, 'Mama, Papa, I am going to make a museum...'. By the time he was ten, Walter had enough natural history objects to start his first museum, in a garden shed.

Before long, Walter's insect and bird collections were so large they had to be stored in rented rooms and sheds around Tring, his father's estate in Hertfordshire. Then in 1889, his father gave him some land on the outskirts of Tring Park as a 21st birthday present. Two small cottages were built, one to house his books and insect collection, the other for a caretaker. Behind these was a much larger building, which would contain Lord Rothschild's collection of mounted specimens. This was the beginning of his Zoological Museum, which opened to the public in 1892.

Walter employed around 400 collectors during his lifetime and accumulated specimens from more than 48 different countries, many of which were new to Western science. Collectors sent him animal specimens from around the world. Walter mainly stayed in Tring and focused on carefully studying the creatures he received and describing new species. He famously sent explorer Charles Harris to the Galápagos Islands, off Ecuador, to collect giant tortoises. Throughout his lifetime Walter kept a total of 144 live giant tortoises from Galapágos and Aldabra (in the Indian Ocean). His aim was in part to protect them from hunting and potential extinction in their native habitat; he even leased the island of Aldabra for 10 years, to stop declining giant tortoise numbers by protecting them from hunting.  

Walter accumulated new research material so rapidly that he and his professional zoologist curators, Ernst Hartert and Karl Jordan, began to issue the Museum's own scientific journal, Novitates Zoologicae launched in 1894. Over the course of 45 years, they published more than 1,700 scientific books and papers, and described more than 5,000 new species of animals. Walter died on 27 August 1937. Walter bequeathed his museum and his collections to the British Museum. Known today as the Natural History Museum at Tring, the museum celebrates Walter's passion for the natural world.

For scientific publications of Walter and material relating to his Museum, see Estates: Tring Park estate, Zoological Museum »

Political career

Walter lived all his life in Tring, barring spells at university. He was MP for Aylesbury, a major in the Buckinghamshire Yeomanry, a JP and a Deputy Lieutenant for the county. 

The 'Balfour Declaration'

Lionel Walter Rothschild was the 'Lord Rothschild' to whom Balfour addressed his 1917 proposal regarding the establishment of a Jewish state.

On November 2, 1917, the British Government expressed its sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations and announced that it would use its “best endeavours” to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The announcement came in a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937), the unofficial leader of the British Jewish community. The Balfour agreement became the diplomatic foundation stone of the state of Israel. The origins of the letter had begun in the early twentieth century, when Chaim Weizmann, the leading spokesman for Zionism in Britain began to solicit support among the British people, shortly after he settled in Manchester in 1904.

Beginning in 1916, the British hoped that in exchange for their support of Zionism, “the Jews” would help to finance the growing expenses of the First World War, which was becoming increasingly burdensome. More importantly, policy-makers in the Foreign Office believed that Jews could be prevailed upon to persuade the United States to join the War. At this time, there were very strong pro-Zionist feelings by many of the political elite and establishment. Many of Britain’s leaders, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Balfour himself, felt for the Jews and their history. These men were deeply religious Christian Zionists. They had grown up on the Bible; the Holy Land was their spiritual home. They believed that modern Zionism would fulfil a divine promise, and re-settle the Jews in the land of their ancient fathers.

The Balfour Declaration used deliberately vague language. The term “national home” was chosen in order to minimize the Zionist dream, to make Palestine a Jewish state. The Arabs, whose “civil and religious” (not national and political) rights were not to be prejudiced as the declaration put it, were referred to only as “existing non-Jewish communities”.

The Balfour Declaration was ultimately unsuccessful and many commentators place it among similar fruitless schemes. Surprisingly, the British by and large kept their word, and for at least two decades until the outbreak of the Second World War they allowed the Zionist movement to bring hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants into Palestine. These new arrivals set up hundreds of settlements, including several towns as well as the political, economic, military and cultural infrastructure of the future state of Israel. The Balfour Declaration was the opening chapter in a still unfinished story.

The original letter was presented to The British Library in 1924 by Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild. The Rothschild Archiive holds no personal papers of the second Lord Rothschild concerning these matters.

Foreign Office,
November 2nd, 1917.

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country".

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist 

Yours sincerely

Arthur James Balfour

Destruction of Tring Park records

Most of the estate papers and ledgers relating to the Tring Park, including records of Walter's hot-houses and the records of the live animals he reared, were destroyed during the Second World War. Victor Rothschild was absent on active service, and his agent, faced with the task of evacuating several tons of paper from Tring Park to Victor's estate at Rushbrooke, decided that the most practical solution was to burn the records. This act of destruction is recalled by the late Miriam Rothschild in her book, Dear Lord Rothschild: '...thus the detailed history of the wonderfully successful mini-welfare state with all its ramifications, pioneer health and fire services, unemployment and apprentice and pension schemes, water and electricity supply, comprehensive milk recording projects, stock breeding and poultry fattening programmes, herd books, conservation, sylviculture, game management and game books, agricultural shows apple orchards, sheep dog trials, aviary, reading room, allotment schemes, holiday camps in the Park for East End children, parties and Christmas hampers for all and sundry, even the details of the dogs' cemetery and its gravestones, was lost...' Even more disastrous was the destruction of the Archives of Walter's museum in the 1960s by the British Museum, who in creating a new ornithological department, cleared them from the basement where they were stored. Miriam records that '...ledgers, letters and diaries, boot boxes full of papers and boxes of photographs' were destroyed, again by burning.

For other sundry papers relating to Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild, inlciding a private photograph album of cartes de visites from family and friends see Named Collections: The Ashton Wold Collection. See also Dear Lord Rothschild: birds, butterflies and history, Miriam Rothschild (London: Hutchinson, 1983).

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, sundry legal papers, 1885-1935

000/927, 000/1162/1, 000/1162/4, 000/1162/6, 000/1162/11, 5 items

Sundry legal papers concerning matters pertaining largely to the Tring Park estates. The papers in 000/1162 formerly comprised the contents of a tin trunk, ‘Hon L.W. Rothschild’ from Halton House. Much of the correspondence contained in this collection has been addressed to or handled by A.W. Vaisey, solicitor, of Aylesbury.  It is likely that the firm of Wilkins took over or inherited the business conducted by Vaisey. Wilkins deposited the tin trunk with Halton at a date unknown.

  • official documents concerning members of the family of Lord Rothschild, including family wills; probate and estate matters; (000/1162/1)
  • two private cases for compensation and pensions for estate staff; (000/1162/4)
  • papers concerning a 21st Birthday Testimonial presented to Walter Rothschild on his coming of age in 1889 (the Testimonial, as presented to Walter Rothschild, is in the collections of The Archive, Windmill Hill, Waddesdon Manor.); (000/1162/6)
  • papers concerning sundry legal matters, including indentures of apprenticeship, leases and matters pertaining to Walter Rothschild’s seat on the Urban District Council of Tring. (000/1162/11)
  •  Deed of gift concerning a collection of bird’s eggs, transferred from Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) to Nathaniel Charles Rothschild (1877-1923), 1891. (000/927)

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, sundry certificates, 1893-1935

000/1627/1-5, 5 items

A sundry collection of certificates awarded to Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild:

  • Certificate of membership of The Hungarian Ornithological Society, 11 February 1898. (000/1627/1)
  • Certificate membership for Tring Museum of The Entomological Society, Itzehoe-Hude [Germany], 10 January 1900. (000/1627/2)
  • Certificate of membership of The Entomological Club, Berlin, 9 October 1906. (000/1627/3) 
  • Certificate of membership of The Belgian Entomological Society, Berlin, 7 October 1893. (000/1627/4) 
  • Certificate of award of the Victoria Medal for Horticulture from The Royal Horticultural Society, 26 October 1897. (000/1627/5)

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, sundry correspondence, 1884; 1890; 1893; 1899; 1917

000/196/1-2, 000/635/1, 000/1719, 000/2324/1, 7 items

The Rothschild Archive London holds little private correspondence of Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, with the exception of the few items listed here:

  • Letter addressed to 'Grandmama', 1 January 1884: Lionel Walter Rothschild (aged 16), Tring Park to Charlotte  Rothschild [Charlotte, Baroness Lionel de Rothschild (1819-1884)], in which he thanks for presents, tells her that he is having a pike stuffed, and has had a snake given to him. (000/196/1);
  • Copy of letter from Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild to the Reverend W. Quennel, E.C.Bird, T.G. Elliman, Robert Hedges, Edward Pope, George Thoorpe, A.N. Vaisey, 8 February 1890. The letter is one of thanks for an album bearing images of Tring presented to Walter for his 21st birthday. (000/1719);
  • Letter from Walter to Dr Cajetan Freiherr von Felder sent from New Court 10 March 1893 concerning the payment of debts. (000/2324/1)
  • Letter dated 4 May 1899 to Lionel Walter from the Director of the British Museum, informing Walter that he has been elected to the Board of Trustees of the Museum. (000/644/1);
  • Character reference letter for Thomas Hinton (b.1879 in Tring) from Walter Rothschild dated 1 March 1899 for position of Waterfowl Keeper in St. James's Park. Thomas Hinton had worked for Walter for eight years looking after Emus and Ostriches in Tring Park. (000/1654);
  • Letter from Walter Rothschild to the War Office, 17 November 1917: Lionel Walter Rothschild, Tring Park to The Secretary War Office, Acknowledges receipt of a cheque for £1,000 on behalf of Mr Leopold Frank, which is to be used to buy 'moveable' hut and band for the Comforts Committee. (000/196/2).

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, patent application, 1900

000/2048/4, 1 item

Off-print of patent application, 10 August 1899, complete specification, Left, 10 May 1900, accepted, 10 August 1900 for Improvements in or relating to Gun-carriage and other Vehicles. Submitted by Hon. Walter Rothschild, Gerald Dudley Smith and James Armstrong Wilding.

Lionel (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, parliamentary election address, 1906

000/635/10, 000/2121, 2 items

Copies of a Parliamentary Election Address to’ The electors of the Mid (or Aylesbury) Division of the County of Buckingham’ by Lionel Walter Rothschild, 4 January 1906. Walter stood for the Liberal & Liberal Unionists. The election was held from 12 January to 8 February 1906. The Liberals, led by Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman, won a landslide majority victory.

The Aylesbury seat was held by members of the Rothschild family from 1865 when Walter's father, Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) was returned unopposed. From 1886 he backed the Liberal Unionists, finding Home Rule an unsupportable policy. On his elevation to the peerage in 1885, his Commons' seat was taken by his brother-in-law, Ferdinand de Rothschild whose liberalism, unlike Natty's, embraced the emancipation of women. In the 1899 by-election caused by Ferdinand's death, Walter was elected unopposed. A Free Trader like his father, he served until 1910 when he retired from politics at the January 1910 general election. Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1882-1942) then held the seat of Aylesbury for the Conservatives from 1910 until 1923.

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, 'zebra carriage' photograph, c.1905

000/1400/2, 1 item

Large framed photograph of Walter Rothschild riding in a carriage drawn by four zebras (Equus burchelli). Walter was often to be seen about the streets of London and Tring in a carriage drawn by a quartet of zebras (although often 'disguised' horses were included in the team), or in a trap driven by a single zebra. Walter is said to have driven his zebra carriage to Buckingham Palace to demonstrate the tame character of zebras to the public. Numerous photographs such as this example exist of his configurations of zebra carriage, photographed in various locations such as Tring Park, or outside the Royal Albert Hall. They appeared in many contemporary publications at home and abroad. 

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, portrait photograph, c.1914

000/1148, 1 item

Mounted studio portrait photograph of (Lionel) Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937).

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, photograph of Walter in his study at Tring, n.d.

000/2710, 1 item

Modern reproduction of a photograph of Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937) in his study in his Museum at Tring. The original is in the Ruthven Deane Collection (Library of Congress), Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, (ref 96501763). Copyright by Newman Berkhamsted. Ruthven Deane (1851-1934) was an American ornithologist, noted as a founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union and for his collection of photographic portraits of ornithologists and naturalists. It is almost certain that the Lord Rothschild would have corresponded with Deane, although no such correspondence is held by The Rothschild Archive.

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, Grant of Freedom of the City of London, 1895

1/217 (000/954), 1 item

Grant of Freedom of the City of London, conferred upon Lionel (Walter) Rothschild in 1895. This certificate was retained (with a number of other Freedom of the City of London certificates of other members of the English Rothschild family) in file 1/217 in the Secretariat Department 1 series. Not much is known about personal affiliations of members of the Rothschild family to City Livery Companies. The English Rothschilds have traditionally been members of The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London, and among the most ancient of the City Guilds. No evidence has come to light to confirm Nathan Mayer Rothschild being a member but it may be that the Fishmongers' were one of the few livery companies to admit Jews as members.

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, X-ray photographs, 1935

000/1627/7, 2 items

Two glass plate x-rays with corresponding prints of Walter Rothschild's broken knee. Walter fell fell in the tunnel at his Museum at Tring in January 1935, sustaining this injury.

Lionel (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, birth certificates and will, 1873; 1897; [1937]

000/635/2 and 000/635/7, 4 items

Certified birth certificates for Lionel (Walter)  Rothschild, 1873 and 1897.

Two ‘Office Copies’ of the will of Lionel (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937).

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, Memorial Service, Order of Service, 1937

000/1942, 1 item

Order of Service for the 'Late Lord Rothschild's Memorial Service' [Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937)], held at Manchester Great Synagogue on 2 September 1937.

Lionel Walter (Walter), 2nd Lord Rothschild, artefacts, commemorative 'Balfour' medallion, 1967

000/1137/2, 1 item

Commemorative medallion issued in Israel in 1967 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Although not conmtemporary with the life of the second Lord Rothschild, this item is included here as it references an important event in his life.