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The Natural History Museum at Tring

It was at Tring Park that Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937) created his famous museum of natural history. His interest 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.

The Zoological Museum, 1892-1937

Before long, Walter's insect and bird collections were so large they had to be stored in rented rooms and sheds around Tring. 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. Alfred Minall acted as caretaker and taxidermist, and the museum opened to the public in 1892. 

Walter made use of a great number of professional collectors to build up his museum, including A F R Wollaston in North Africa, William Doherty in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, and A S Meek in New Guinea. He also undertook one major expedition himself, spending nearly six months collecting in Algeria in 1908. He kept live animals in Tring Park, including emus, kangaroos, zebra and giant tortoises. He  appointed two curators in 1892 and 1893: Ernst Hartert (1859-1933) as ornithologist and Karl Jordan (1861-1959) as entomologist. Hartert retired as Director of the Museum in 1930, and was succeeded by Jordan until his own retirement in 1938. By 1908, when Rothschild retired from banking, the museum had an establishment of eight, including Arthur Goodson who assisted Hartert, and Fred Young who had succeeded Minall as taxidermist. The museum also published its own journal, Novitates Zoologicae from 1894 to 1940, which eventually ran to 42 quarto volumes rich in hand-coloured lithographs. From his research base at the museum, Walter published over 800 scientific papers, many in Novitates Zoologicae. Walter added two wings to the museum to house the collections of birds and insects in 1910 and 1912. In spite of his family's great wealth, the Museum was often short of money. Walter sold most of his beetles to raise funds for the Museum, and in 1931 a crisis forced him to sell his vast collection of birdskins - some 280,000 items - to the American Museum of Natural History, which acquired them thanks to funding from Mrs Harry Payne Whitney. 

After his fathers' death in 1915, Walter succeeded to the family title, becoming the 2nd Lord Rothschild. his mother, Lady Rothschild was left a life interest in the Tring Park mansion, where she lived with Walter. Lady Rothschild, after living at Tring for more than sixty years, died in 1935 aged 91. Under the terms of his father’s will, Walter was obliged to move out of Tring Park and the house and estate passed to his brother Charles’ (1877-1923) branch of the family.

The Zoological Museum, 1937-1971

Walter died in his sleep in August 1937, and in his will, he bequeathed his Zoological Museum in its entirety to the Trustees of the British Museum. This, the largest bequest ever received by The Natural History Museum, consisted of 3,000 mounted mammals, reptiles and amphibians, 2,000 mounted birds and about 4,000 skins, a vast collection of butterflies and other insects, a library of 30,000 volumes, the buildings and the land on which they stood. An Act of Parliament in 1938 allowed the Trustees to accept the bequest.

A succession of Natural History Museum staff acted as Officer-in-charge of Tring including T C S Morrison-Scott (1938-1939), J R Norman (1939-1944) and J E Dandy. Collections were evacuated to Tring from South Kensington during the war, but it wasn't until the end of the 1960s that major changes took place. The display galleries were modernised in 1969-1971, though they still retain a Victorian flavour, and the Bird Section moved into a new building on the site in 1971, providing space in South Kensington for Rothschild's insects to join the other entomological collections there. 

The Zoological Museum today

Known today as the Natural History Museum at Tring, the museum today still celebrates Walter's passion for the natural world. See the museum website here »

Archive sources

Regretfully, The Rothschild Archive London holds no records of Walter's museum, or his scientific research and correspondence.

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...' 

Much of the Zoological Museum archive was destroyed in the 1960s by the British Museum, who in creating a new ornithological department, cleared them from the basement where they were stored. Miriam Rothschild records that '...ledgers, letters and diaries, boot boxes full of papers and boxes of photographs' were destroyed by burning.

See Estates: Tring Park estate, Zoological Museum for information about sources for the period prior to Walter's death.

Correspondence of the Tring (Natural History) Musuem, 1890-1955 including some correspondnece of Walter and his curators may be found in the collections of the Natural History Museum, Tring.

Walter's niece, Dame Miriam Rothschild wrote extensively about her uncle Walter and his musuem. See Dear Lord Rothschild: birds, butterflies and history, Miriam Rothschild (London: Hutchinson, 1983).

The Natural History Museum at Tring, exhibition and marketing materials, 1992-2008

000/1849, 000/1893, 000/1955, 000/2929/4, 2 folders; 2 CDs

Sundry exhibition and marketing material of The Natural History Museum at Tring:

  • colour postcard of an octagonal case to display  a collection of hummingbirds presented to the museum in 1893, 1983;
  • Packs of postcards produced by the Museum, including a set of nine postcards specially selected to commemorate the Centenary of The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum Tring 1892-1992;
  • Children's Activity sheet produced by the Museum; 
  • Tourist maps of Tring and guidebook;
  • Poster for exhibition Walter Rothschild: The man, the Museum and the Menagerie held at The Natural History Museum, Tring, 23 July-2 December 2007 with images of Walter Rothschild and the Museum at Tring; digital images from the exhibition;
  • Leaflet 'The Rothschild family and the Museum' produced by the Natural History Museum leaflet for its 2008 exhibition.

The Natural History Museum at Tring, catalogues of collections, 'Manuscripts and drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of the Natural History Museum at Tring', 1996

000/1323/19/4, 1 volume

Manuscripts and drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of the Natural History Museum at Tring, Frances E. Warr (British Ornithologists Club Occasional Publication No.2, 1996).

The Natural History Museum at Tring: secondary sources, 'Taxidermist', 2006

000/1655, 1 item

Article ‘My Museum The Walter Rothschild Zoolological Museum, Tring’ by Katrina Cook in Taxidermist, volume 33, 2006.