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New Court estate: Burmarsh Farm [messenger pigeon station]: sundry papers

Use of messenger pigeons for business communications

Efficient and accurate communications were essential to the Rothschild early business success; in an age when a postal system was developing at differing speeds and with varying efficiency across Europe, the Rothschilds relied on a network of trusted couriers. Whilst it is true that the Rothschilds had an extensive communications network, and did use messenger pigeons, there is no evidence for the news of the English victory at Waterloo having been brought by pigeon. No original contemporary account or documentation concerning how the news of the victory at Waterloo in 1815 reached New Court survives in the collections of the Archive  Recent research has also cast new light on this persistent myth. See Brian Cathcart, ‘Nathan Rothschild and the Battle of Waterloo’, Rothschild Archive Review of the Year 2013-2014 » Certainly by the 1840s, the brothers had taken to the use of pigeons to carry short and important messages between them.

A letter written on 28 August 1846 by Nathan's son Nathaniel (1812-1870) from Paris refers to the use of pigeons (XI/109/57). Two examples of messages carried by pigeon dating from 1846 also survive (RAL XI/109/57). They measure about 8cm by 5cm and still bear the folds where they were packed into the small container attached to the pigeon’s leg. The reason for such few survivals is that these messages were instructions for a particular course of action, rather than documents in their own right to be retained. The information may have been copied upon receipt, (a clerk may have been stationed on a rotation basis at the place where the messages were received) and it was the fair copy of the resulting document that was despatched by rider to New Court, and the information from the message may then have been recorded elsewhere in correspondence or a ledger. The original pigeon message was probably destroyed shortly after receipt, either for reasons of confidentiality or because it was simply no longer needed, the information it contained having been acted upon. We may speculate that the examples that survive in the Archive contained information that was time critical, and therefore the message was itself immediately relayed to New Court, or that they were kept as curios. It is highly unlikely that Nathan or any of his brothers would have had any direct contact with the messenger pigeons; this would have been done by clerks, porters and other staff.

Burmarsh Farm, Burmarsh, near Hythe, Kent

There is no evidence that pigeons were kept at New Court (or elsewhere), but Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836) paid £8,750 for Burmarsh Farm, Burmarsh near Hythe, in Kent in 1825, and this may have been a base where pigeons were stationed. Further support for this theory is to be found in The Times, 3 August 1836, which reported that the first intimation in England of the death of Nathan Rothschild was when a pigeon shot down in Kent was found to have attached to its leg a roll of paper inscribed with the words: ‘Il est mort’. Nathan also had business interests in Kent, the Cullen family (based in Calais from 1820) acting as agents for London house receiving and forwarding specie to NMR and the partner houses through the Kent ports; barrels, bars, bags, cases and casks of gold and silver as well as bonds and obligations were received and sent by William Cullen. Burmarsh Farm was on the books of the London bank until at least 1918; sundry accounts for payments relating to the property will be found in Property ledger I/158/2,  although it may be that the property was retained for its rental value long after its original need ceased. Nathaniel, 1st Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) had plans drawn up for renovation of the property, but these appear not to have been acted upon; it is likely that the First World War, and the death of Lord Rothschild intervened. Today the property is grade II listed and is known as ‘Rothschild Farmhouse’.

Burmarsh Farm [messenger pigeon station], sundry papers, estimates for renovations, 1914

000/178, 1 file

Burmarsh Farm, Burmarsh, near Hythe, Kent: estimates for building, including four plans of farm and cottages, 1914. 

Burmarsh Farm [messenger pigeon station], sundry accounts, 1883

000/1145, 2 files

Burmarsh Farm, Burmarsh, near Hythe, Kent: rent account for Mr. John Piddlesden, detailing a year's rent to 11 October 1883. See Property Ledger I/158/2 for further sundry accounts for payments relating to the property, 1915-1915. The ledger also includes a summary of the ownership of the property by the Rothschild family.