The dark secret that forced Walter Rothschild to sell his bird collection

In 1983, his biographer and niece, Miriam Rothschild, published Dear Lord Rothschild, finally bringing to light the hidden passions, demons and (mostly) blackmailers of his uncle. Here’s what you need to know about the events that caused him to part ways with one of his most treasured collections.

Growing up in a menagerie

Life in Victorian England varied depending on your socio-economic background and parental status. Orphans and destitute children worked as shoe shiners and chimney sweeps while the offspring of the middle and upper classes benefited from an idyllic education, sheltered from the ugliness of the world. Those in the highest wealth bracket often engaged in one of the quirky hobbies of the Victorian world, such as creating seaweed scrapbooks or collecting anthropomorphic taxidermies.

seaweed album

Seaweed Album, ca. 1840. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

But for a boy with parents of almost infinite means, none of these hobbies would do. So when Mr. and Mrs. Rothschild observed their son’s fascination with the natural world as he roamed the family garden observing insects for hours, they decided to take it to the next level by putting together a veritable zoo of insects. exotic species. Soon the family menagerie at Tring Park in Hertfordshire included cranes, storks, kangaroos, wild horses, zebras, a spiny anteater, emus and a pangolin.

The obsession with animals persisted

Instead of moving beyond his childhood interests, Walter clung firmly to his fascination with the savage realm. Although he spent 15 miserable years working dutifully at New Court, the global headquarters of the Rothschild investment bank, his heart remained with his animals. After early retirement he devoted himself to assembling one of the finest private museums, with living and dead specimens, in the UK.

During his lifetime he employed approximately 400 collectors and acquired specimens from 48 different nations around the world. As the reputation of his collections grew, individuals from various parts of the world sent him unique items, further bolstering his long lists of specimens. Among his most famous collections was an assortment of 144 live giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the island of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean.

Not only did Walter want to increase his collection, he wanted to preserve these incredible animals for future generations by protecting them from hunting and the likelihood of extinction in their original habitats. At one point he even leased Aldabra Island for a decade to ban hunting and the decline of local giant tortoise populations.

An extraordinary collector

Walter collected an impressive 2,000 mounted animals and 2,000 mounted birds in his lifetime. He also had a collection of butterflies and moths in the millions and had 300,000 more bird skins. Additionally, he amassed 200,000 bird eggs and 30,000 books on natural history topics.

As for its living specimens, we’ve already talked about its 144 giant tortoises, but the collections don’t stop there. He also domesticated and trained four zebras to pull a horse-drawn carriage and was even invited to take it up the steps of Buckingham Palace. Additionally, he kept 64 live cassowaries, a giant flightless bird found in New Guinea and Australia.

Each cassowary had its portrait done in watercolor by the artist Frederick William Frohawk, and after their death they were carefully stuffed and preserved. Interestingly, he refused to part with his beloved cassowaries during the cheap sale of his ornithological collection to the American Museum of Natural History.

Dark secrets conspired

But despite the animal fun, Walter had skeletons hidden in his closet. And they refused to shut up or be silent without money – a lot. For over 40 years, Walter was blackmailed over large sums of money and a significant part of his life’s work. Who blackmailed? Two brilliant, beautiful and daring women who became his mistresses: Lizzie Ritchie and budding actress Marie Fredensen. He met both women at the same party hosted by King Edward VII, and they would cause him decades of turmoil and worry.

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A reputation for shyness didn’t stop Walter from continuing with the two women simultaneously, settling each in a separate apartment and doing his best so that they never discovered each other. Of course, secrets have a way of being uncovered, and once Lizzie found out about Marie, all hell broke loose. Lizzie tried to contact Walter’s mother and put so much pressure on him that his younger brother Charles had to step in.

Charles negotiated terms with each woman, buying them off with money and bribes. But the blackmail didn’t stop there. It turns out that a third lover and her husband had been blackmailing Walter for four decades, and they were the ones who finally forced him to sell his bird collection.

Miriam Rothschild describes these events with aplomb in her biography, but she never gives the name of the third mistress. However, she notes that the woman is “charming, witty, aristocratic and ruthless”. Unfortunately for Walter, he never understood that when it came to mistresses looking for money, the birds of a feather flock together.

By Engrid Barnett, contributor for


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