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The 'Waterloo' Commission: accounts, correspondence and sundry papers

The part played by Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) and his brothers in helping the British Government to finance military operations against Napoleon is legendary. Nathan's London House, N M Rothschild, dealt in bullion and foreign exchange, and his remarkable successes in these fields earned him the contract from the British Government to supply Wellington's troops with gold coin in 1814 and 1815, leading up to the Battle of Waterloo.

Nathan himself is said to have described it as ‘The best business I ever did’ and The Times, in December 1823 reported that ‘Mr Rothschild played so important a part in the history of the present generation that it is most probable that his proceedings will never be forgotten’. In the later years of the 19th century, some commentators even believed that Nathan Rothschild had made a fortune after Waterloo, acting on his early knowledge of the victory and buying into the market in the certain knowledge that stocks would rise once victory was confirmed. Some writers declared that Nathan was actually present at Waterloo, and had personally brought back the first news of victory, riding a succession of horses through Europe and crossing the English Channel in the dead of night. Close analysis of Rothschild finances has proved that this is not the case.

After years of campaigning, in 1814 Wellington, advancing north across Spain, had driven the French back to the Pyrenees, but was in desperate need of money to pay his troops. Nathan Rothschild, still a relative newcomer to British banking, was commissioned by the British Government to supply the Duke with the necessary funds, and together with his brothers he set up a network of agents to buy up coin and transfer it to Wellington in the form of local currency. The firm of N M Rothschild was approached it is believed because the Government had already failed to establish a similar network of its own and had been let down by other more established London firms, and the Rothschild courier and communications network had gained a justifiable reputation for speed and reliability. The pressure was on the Rothschilds to succeed. Nathan understood that success in this business could lead to further important commissions by Britain and her allies, a belief that was confirmed in the postscript of a letter from a Rothschild courier, John Roworth: 'I am informed by Commissary White that you have done well by the early information which you had of the Victory gained at Waterloo'.

Although it is virtually part of English history that Nathan Mayer Rothschild made 'a million' or 'millions' out of his early information about the Battle of Waterloo, the evidence is slender: little more, in fact, than Roworth's letter to Nathan 'you have done well', bolstered by a persistent legend. In the absence of contemporary records at New Court, it is impossible to estimate the size of his gain. But knowing the structure of the market we can conclude that Court, it is impossible to estimate the size of his gain. But knowing the structure of the market we can conclude that however much Nathan made out of Waterloo, it must have been very considerably less than a million pounds, let alone 'millions'.

For Wellington, Waterloo was the culmination of a long campaign against Napoleon: ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let's see who will pound longest, was his prediction for the battle’. For Nathan Rothschild, whose brothers saw him as their commanding general in their own parallel campaign during the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo underlined the success of a business plan built on strong family ties and an unsurpassed communications network. ‘I, who know him so well, and who in the discharge of my public duty received so much assistance from him, can safely pronounce him to have been most capable, skilful, upright and liberal in the whole of course of his employment as an agent of the state’, an appreciation of Nathan Rothschild by John Herries, British Commissary-in-Chief at the time of Waterloo.

Archive sources

For correspondence concerning the 'Waterloo' Commission, see records of the Correspondence Department, British Commissary-in-Chief's office, 1814-1816; 1819-1822; 1824-1827 (XI/38/59-61). These papers include accounts, contracts, correspondence and extracts from official documents; their starting point is the agreements made between the British Government and N. M. Rothschild for the latter to supply coin with which to pay Wellington's troops on campaign, beginning with the famous 'Vansittart letter' written to John Charles Herries, Commissary in Chief from Nicholas Vansittart, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 11 January 1814. This letter begins "It being of the utmost importance to the public service, at the present moment, that the Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in the South of France should speedily be supplied with a larger sum in specie, applicable to his Expenditure in that country, than it has been found practicable to procure through the Bank of England on any other usual Channel; it has been judged expedient by Lord Liverpool & myself, upon consideration of your report to me of the substance of the conferences which you have had with Mr Roschild [sic], to authorise you to employ that gentleman, in the most secret & confidential manner, to collect in Germany..."

See also The Shadow of a Great Man, published privately by Victor, 3rd Lord Rothschild in 1982 (A copy is available in the Reading Room). 

For convenience, other secondary material in the Archive collection relating to the Waterloo Commission is listed here.

Waterloo Commission: Waterloo Receipt, 1815

000/1890, 1 item

Waterloo Receipt, 1815: document entitled 'The Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury in account with Mr N .M. Rothschild for Money advanced for the payment to the Duke of Wellington  of Twenty five Millions of Francs for the Army at the Battle of Waterloo. The document list accounts from 2 June to 17 June 1815. 'By Bills on the Lords of the Treasury accepted the 19 June and due the 11 August 1817 - 500,000; By Bills on the Lords of the Treasury accepted the 19 June and due the 21 August 1817 - 203,398.15.5; By Cash repaid to Mr Rothschild, vide Account with His grace the Duke of Wellington - 168,000. total £703,566.14.5'

Waterloo Commission: Waterloo Accounts, 1815

000/1510, 2 items

Account sheets concerning the Waterloo Commission: original acccount entitled 'An account of bullion & specie furnished by Mr N.M. Rothschild to J.C. Herries, Esqre, Commissary in Chief'. The document gives a daily account from 4 April to 20 October 1815 of gold gathered by the Rothschild brothers to provide funds for the financing of the allied armies in the lead-up to and wake of the Battle of Waterloo.  A total of £2,136,916 11s 1d was shipped secretly around the French coast in 884 boxes and 55 casks. The account lists quantities and values for: gold ingots, doubloons, Portugal gold coin, Bombay mohur, Ferdinand d'Or, French gold coin, dollars, French crowns and spare pieces.  Costs of boxes, casks, cartage and commission are also included. The second item in this accession is a contemporary copy of the document.

Waterloo Commission: Waterloo Indemnity Account, 1817

000/1169, 1 item

Waterloo Indemnity payable by France, 1817: Original document entitled 'The Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury, with His Grace the Duke of Wellington on account of the sum of 25 Millions of Francs, granted for the Army under His Grace's Command at the Battle of Waterloo'. The document gives an account from 18 June 1817 of Exchequer Bills, 'By the account granted to Parliament on the 11 March 1817 to Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, and His Majesty's Forces, and those of His Majesty's Allies serving under His Grace's Command at the Battle of Waterloo, and the Capture of Paris: and which was assigned to His Majesty from the Pecuniary Indemnity payable by France under the Treaty of 20 November 1815, by the Protocols of the Minister of the Allied Powers of the same date. Carried forward, Francs 25,000,000.' 

Waterloo Commission: sundry papers relating to 'portions and rations' to troops in British pay, 1815

000/573/21, 1 file

Collection of sundry papers found in a packet addressed to 'William Garner, London, 1836; to the care of N M Rothschild Esq. to be fetched by Mr Walker'. The paper concern 'portions and rations' to the troops in Britsh pay at Waterloo, 1815:

  • Letter from "Schwerin". Labelled “Copy”, 24 September 1814;
  • Statement of the Portions and Rations furnished by the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin to the Troops in British Pay, 15 February 1815;
  • Two statements from "Schwerin", 15 February 1815; 
  • Statement of the Portions and Rations purchased by the Duchy Mecklenberg-Schwerin to the Troops in British Pay, 1814-1815, with two wax seals, titled “Vollmarht” and "NM Rothschild".

Copies of ‘Herries’ papers, held by the British Library, 1814-1824

000/49, 1 box

Copies of papers held in the British Library relating to John Herries, British Commissary-in-Chief at the time of Waterloo.

A set of papers concerning the Herries family was purchased in 1956 by NMR from a Colonel Spottiswoode. An arrangement was made with the then British Museum (British Library) that these papers would be gifted to the British Museum after any 'of exceptional significance concerning the Rothschild family' had been extracted. In the event, many papers of historical significance to the family were copied, and two original letters betweeen Mr J.C. Herries and NMR were retained. The papers gifted to the British Museum (British Library) were fully incorporated into their manuscripts collection.

This accession includes: file of correspondence  concerning the purchase, gift and cataloguing of the 'Herries Papers', 1956-1975; file NMR ref 111/1646A, 'Herries Papers: A survey of materials relating to the history of the Rothschild Banking Houses', prepared by L.M.Gulley, c.1975; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XIII (2), 1814-1816; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XIV, 1814-1815; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XV, 1816; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XVI, August 1816; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XVII, 1816-1824; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XVIII, Rothschild Accounts, 1814-1816; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XIX, Rothschild Accounts, c.1817-1819; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XX, Treasury Bills, 1814-1815; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XXI, Treasury Bills; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XXII, Treasury Bills; Herries Papers (copies) Vols XXII, XXIV and XXV, A brief note on the above volumes held by the British Museum; Herries Papers (copies) Vol XXVI, Correspondence with Geo. Harrison of the Treasury 1816-1817.

Case of Commemorative Coins, c.1820

000/2338, 1 item

Case of Waterloo Commemorative Coins. This case of fifteen coins labelled 'An account of Bullion specie furnished by Mr N M Rothschild to J C Herries Esq. Commissary in Chief April-October 1815’, was compiled at a later, unknown date to commemorate the Waterloo Commission. The case reflects the range of coinage brought together for the purpose and includes: 

  • Colombia - Doubloon, 1801
  • Portugal - Peza, 1785
  • France - 20 Francs, 1815
  • France - 40 Francs, 1812
  • Mexico - Doubloon, 1800
  • France - Louis, 1786
  • Prussia - Half-Pistole, 1807
  • Moghul Empire - Mohur, 1806
  • Prussia Frederick D'Or, 1755
  • Portugal - Quarttinho, 1769
  • Mexico - 8 Reales, 1807
  • France - 5 Francs, 1815
  • France - Franc, 1809
  • France - 5 Francs, 1814
  • United States - Dollar, 1798

Bust of the Duke of Wellington, c.1820

000/1911/57, 1 item

Small ivory bust of the Duke of Wellington (1768-1852). The long and friendly relationship between Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) is reflected in Nathan’s ownership of this miniature bust, one of countless popularly circulated images of the Duke.

Commemorative memorial medallion for the death of Napoleon, 1821

000/1911/54, 1 item

Commemorative white metal memorial medallion for the death of Napoleon, 1821 by Thomason & Jones. Bearing his portrait (now stripped of its laureate crown), EMPEROR NAPOLEON around head in wreath, DIED 5 MAY BURIED IN RUPPERTS VALLEY ST HELENA 9 MAY 1821. Reverse depicting his biography in 36 lines. The medallion was produced to commemorate Napoleon's funeral at St. Helena in 1821.

The Waterloo Commission: secondary sources, advertising card, n.d.

000/2372, 1 item

Small card produced by Bouillon Oxo De La Compagnie Liebig. The illustration shows Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) leaving a carriage to sail across the Channel after the Battle of Waterloo 1815. There is an explanatory note in French on the reverse of the card. A depiction of the fictional events surrounding Nathan Mayer Rothschild and events of Waterloo.

The Waterloo Commission: secondary sources, 'Taking the Long View', 2002

000/1481, 3 cassette tapes

Recording of 'Taking the Long View', broadcast on Radio 4, August 1999. This 30 minute programme is entitled "The Napoleon of Finance" and deals with the financing by NM of Wellington's troops culminating in the battle of Waterloo. Jonathan Freedland conducts interviews of Dr Neil Barr (Sandhurst), Phillip Cotterell (Leicester University), Niall Ferguson, Mordechai Zucker (who reads aloud from several Judendeutsch letters) and Prof Bill Rubenstein (Aberyswyth University).

'Waterloo 175' Commemoration: commemorative medallions, 1990

000/1911/3, 3 items

Commemorative medallions produced for the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in leather cases, 1990:

  • Commemorative bronze medallion for the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo;
  • Commemorative silver medallion for the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo;
  • Commemorative gold medallion for the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

These three medallions bear identical images. They were struck by The Royal Mint  from reductions of the original dies designed by Benedetto Pistrucci. Pistrucci was commissioned by the Royal Mint in 1816 to produce designs for a medal to commemorate the efforts of the victorious Allied forces at the Battles of Les Quatre Bras and Waterloo. The dies were engraved at a diameter of 137mm and consisted of and inner and outer part. Although they took thirty years to complete, they were considered too large to be safely hardened for striking. The obverse of the medal is an allusion to the treaty of Peace which resulted from the Battle of Waterloo. The central portion of the design depicts the busts of the four allied sovereigns of the period; Prince Regent (later George IV), Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia and Frederick William II of Prussia. A number of mythical figures, among them Apollo and Themis, appear around the circumference of the medal. The central group on the reverse consists of two classical equestrian figures who bear the features of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Von Blücher, the Prussian leader. Between them appears the representation of a flying victory and, above, the imposing figure of Jupiter. A composition of many figures representing the Battle of the Giants forms a border around the inner part of the design. The nineteen figures, tumbling from their assault on heaven, represent the confusion of the defeated enemy and the nineteen years duration of the Napoleonic Wars.

'Waterloo 200' Commemoration Service, St.Paul's Cathedral, sundry ephemera, , 2015

000/2288, 1 file

Ephemera for the Service of Commemoration to mark the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo held 18 June 2015 at St Paul's Cathedral. [Rothschild & Co. sponsored the programme].

  • Commemoration booklet;
  • Order of Service;
  • tickets.