Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rothschild, Nathan Meyer
ROTHSCHILD, NATHAN MEYER (1777–1836), financier and merchant, born at Frankfurt-am-Main on 16 Sept. 1777, was the third son of Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1745?–1812). The surname ‘Rothschild’ came from the sign (‘zum rothen Schilde,’ i.e. the red shield) of the house, formerly 148 Judengasse at Frankfurt, in which the family long lived. The dwelling, which was restored in 1886, still survives, though the rest of the street, now known as the Börne Strasse, has been rebuilt. Several members of the family were distinguished rabbis in the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth centuries (Lewysohn, Sechzig Epitaphien zu Worms).
Nathan Meyer's grandfather, Amschel Moses, was a merchant and banker in a small way of business at Frankfurt. There Meyer Amschel, Nathan Meyer's father, was born about 1745. Meyer Amschel was educated for the Jewish rabbinate at Fürth in Hesse, but was ultimately placed by his father with the Hanoverian banking firm of Oppenheim. After spending three years at Hanover, where he developed much financial aptitude, he returned to Frankfurt and, his father being now dead, set up for himself at his father's house, 148 Judengasse. His business combined the characteristics of a small bank and money-changer's office with an agency for the distribution of general merchandise and curiosities. His reputation for just dealing attracted the attention of William IX, landgrave of Hesse Cassel (known after 1803 as Elector William I), who inherited on his father's death in 1785 a private fortune, reputed to be the largest in Europe. The landgrave consulted Rothschild as to his investments, bought many works of art of him, and often came to his house to play a game of chess. In 1801 the landgrave appointed Rothschild his court agent. To this connection Rothschild mainly owed his success in life. At his patron's suggestion, and with his support, Rothschild soon took the first step in that career of loan contractor to European governments which his successors have pursued on an unparalleled scale. In 1803 he lent twenty million francs to the government of Denmark. The transaction was repeated several times within the following nine years, and during that period the finances of Denmark were largely regulated by Rothschild's advice. After the battle of Jena in 1806 the landgrave fled to Denmark, leaving in Rothschild's hands a large part of his fortune, variously estimated at 250,000l. and 600,000l., besides a great many of his works of art. Rothschild showed himself worthy of the trust. When French commissioners demanded of Rothschild the whereabouts of the treasure, neither threats of violence nor offers of bribes could induce him to reveal the secret (Marbot, Memoirs, 1891, i. 310–11). The whole sum of money, with interest, and the works of art were restored to the landgrave by Rothschild's sons on his resettlement in Hesse in 1815. Napoleon left Rothschild unmolested, and Napoleon's nominee, Prince Dalberg, prince-primate of the confederation of the Rhine, to whose dominions Frankfurt had been annexed, made him in 1810 a member of the electoral college of Darmstadt. Meyer Amschel Rothschild died at Frankfurt on 13 Sept. 1812. By his wife Gudule (b. 23 Aug. 1753), daughter of Baruch Schnappe, a Frankfurt tradesman, whom he married in 1770, he had ten children, of whom five were sons. His widow inhabited the ancestral dwelling at Frankfurt till her death, on 7 May 1849, at the age of ninety-six. Heine, in ‘Ueber Börne,’ gives an attractive picture both of the house and of its early inhabitants. Greville, when he visited Frankfurt in June 1843, caught a glimpse of ‘the mother of the Rothschilds’ (Diary, 1888, v. 177). The eldest son, Amschel (b. 12 June 1773, d. 6 Dec. 1855), was kept at home to assist his father, but the four younger—Solomon (b. 9 Sept. 1774, d. 27 July 1855), Nathan, the subject of the present notice, Karl (b. 24 April 1788, d. 10 March 1855), and Jacob or James (b. 9 May 1792, d. 15 Nov. 1868)—were sent abroad, and each ultimately established branches of their father's business in other countries. Solomon went first to Berlin, and afterwards to Vienna; Nathan finally settled in London; Karl settled in Naples, and Jacob or James in Paris. This dispersion of forces confirmed and increased the family's influence and prosperity. By his dying instructions the elder Rothschild enjoined his children to live at peace with one another, and to act strictly in concert in all business transactions. The sons and their descendants not only faithfully obeyed those injunctions, but strengthened their union by repeatedly intermarrying among themselves. The Naples house was closed in 1861, after the creation of the kingdom of Italy, but the four other firms continue their influential careers at London, Paris, Vienna, and Frankfurt.
The third son, Nathan Meyer, founder of the London branch, first came to England in 1797; he was sent by his father to Manchester to buy cotton goods for the German market, and there he remained till 1805. He was naturalised as a British subject on 12 June 1804, and next year settled at St. Helen's Place, London, in order to undertake business in association with his father. He soon removed to New Court, St. Swithin's Lane, which is still his descendants' place of business. Although for a time he acted as a general merchant as well as a financier, he concentrated his attention on finance. On arriving in London he bought, for exchange purposes, at an auction of the East India Company, a quantity of gold which had just arrived from Calcutta. The broker of the English government asked him to re-sell it to the government with a view to paying with it the subsidies of their German allies. Rothschild declined. Thereupon the secretary of the treasury summoned him to an interview, and, impressed by Rothschild's ability and foresight, invited him to undertake himself the payment of the foreign subsidies. Rothschild assented, and for nearly ten years was actively engaged in this service, which gave him a commanding position in the city of London. In some cases the foreign princes, instead of having the money remitted to them, desired it to be invested in English consols—an arrangement which greatly facilitated Rothschild's operations. As agent for the English government he likewise forwarded funds to Wellington throughout the Peninsular war, and rendered especially valuable financial assistance to England and to Europe in their struggle with Napoleon in 1813, by paying in behalf of the English government the large sums due to England's allies—Prussia, Russia, and Austria—under the terms of the treaty of Töplitz. The king of Prussia, in recognition of the aid rendered to the coalition by Rothschild and his brothers, made them all members of the council of commerce.
Rothschild realised the importance of obtaining news of public events at the earliest possible moment. He not only employed a staff of couriers on the continent, but organised a pigeon post, which the firm long maintained. One of Rothschild's agents, a man named Roworth, seems to have been at Ostend awaiting news of the result while the battle of Waterloo was in progress. Procuring an early copy of the Dutch ‘Gazette,’ which promptly announced the victory of the allies, he hurried across the Channel, and was the first to bring the news to London, where he arrived early on the morning of 20 June. In this way Rothschild was in possession of the intelligence before any one else in London, and at once communicated it to the English government. The ministers received it with incredulity; but Rothschild's news was confirmed in Downing Street from another source a few hours later—on the afternoon of 20 June. Major Henry Percy (1785–1825) [q. v.] reached London with Wellington's despatch next day. The story that Rothschild himself brought the news from Waterloo, and was in exclusive possession of the information for a sufficiently long period to enable him to operate largely before it was generally known, is mythical (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 434, 448, 501, 4th ser. ii. 114, 283, 375, 7th ser. v. 486). After the peace of 1815 he, with his brothers, received a patent of nobility from the emperor of Austria, on the recommendation of Count Metternich; and on 29 Sept. 1822 the title of baron of the Austrian empire was conferred on each of the brothers. Nathan himself never assumed the title. In 1822, however, he became consul-general of Austria in England.
After the war the London house made rapid progress under Rothschild's astute guidance. The deaths in 1810 of both Sir Francis Baring [q. v.] and Abraham Goldsmid [q. v.] left him without any very formidable competitor in the London money-market. In 1818 he, with representatives of the London firms of Baring and Hope, was present at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, when arrangements were made for the evacuation of France by the allied troops, before the French government had fully paid the war indemnity (Alison, Continuation of History, vol. i. chap. vi. § 61). In 1819 he undertook a loan of 12,000,000l. for the English government, and during the following years he, with his brothers, rendered similar assistance to France, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Brazil, Belgium, and Naples. Nathan Meyer contrived to make foreign loans popular in England by arranging for the payment of interest in London in sterling coin, thus avoiding all fluctuations in exchange, and by making private advances when the debtors were temporarily unable to remit payment. Most of his loans proved eminently successful, and in the less fortunate transactions the losses were very widely distributed. The greatest actual loss incurred by Rothschild was probably that in connection with the scheme of Nicholas Vansittart (afterwards Lord Bexley) [q. v.], chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Liverpool's administration, for the funding of exchequer bills in a new 3½ per cent. stock; Rothschild was reported to have lost half a million by his efforts to float the scheme. During the speculative fever and commercial panic in London in 1825, the Duke of Wellington consulted Rothschild as to the best means of meeting the crisis, and his advice was followed by Lord Liverpool's government. In 1828 he was commissioned by Wellington to send a sum of money to Dom Miguel, who was just appointed regent of Portugal in behalf of his niece, Donna Maria. Rothschild was doubtful of Dom Miguel's intention of honestly respecting his niece's claim to the throne or of governing the country constitutionally in accordance with the wishes of England and France. Instead, therefore, of forwarding the money to the regent, Rothschild sent it to Sir Frederick Lamb, the British minister at Lisbon. When the ship with the gold arrived at its destination, Dom Miguel had violently seized the throne in defiance of the powers, and the money was restored to the English government. In 1835 Rothschild and his brother-in-law Montefiore contracted with the English government to raise 15,000,000l. to be applied to the compensation of slave-owners in the West Indies. Doubts were freely expressed as to the advisability of undertaking so large a loan in time of peace, but Rothschild's confidence in the wisdom of the operation was fully justified by the event, for the slave-owners largely invested in consols the moneys they received.
Such a series of operations impressed the public imagination. Byron, writing in 1823 in ‘Don Juan’ (canto xii. st. v. and vi.), in reference to the collective power of Rothschild and Baring, declared that
Is not a merely speculative hit,
But seats a nation or upsets a throne.
Besides floating foreign loans, Rothschild dealt in all existing stocks, and often purchased largely of securities which appeared to be unsaleable. He was often employed, too, in converting stocks bearing a high rate of interest into those bearing a lower rate, and he operated extensively and with singular judgment in bullion and foreign exchanges. In 1824 he took a leading part in the formation of the Alliance Insurance Company, but he generally avoided connection with joint-stock companies. His most successful mercantile enterprise was in 1832, when his eldest son, Lionel, who was in Madrid on business with the bank of Spain, purchased by tender of the Spanish government the whole product of the Spanish quicksilver mines for a term of years. The Rothschilds already held the control of the Idria mines from the Austrian government, and they thus obtained a monopoly of mercury.
Rothschild began business with a firm belief in the stability of England's resources. He never doubted that her triumph over Napoleon would ultimately be complete. Faith in England's power was thus the dominant note of his conduct of business. He formed his decisions rapidly, and his judgment, on which smaller capitalists placed implicit reliance, was rarely at fault. His memory and calculating power were exceptional, and without taking any notes he could dictate to his clerks with perfect accuracy an account of all the transactions undertaken during the day.
Rothschild took a leading part in the efforts to abolish the political disabilities of English Jews. With Sir Moses Montefiore he prepared a petition to the House of Commons in 1829. He entertained supporters of the projected measure at his house in Piccadilly, and had frequent interviews with Wellington, Lyndhurst, Brougham, and other statesmen. In 1834 he ‘advised Wellington to form a liberal government and consent to some reforms,’ telling him ‘that he must go with the world, for the world would not go with him’ (Montefiore Diaries, ed. Loewe, i. 93–4).
Rothschild removed in middle life from his business premises in New Court to Stamford Hill, and afterwards to No. 107 Piccadilly; he acquired a country house at Gunnersbury in the year of his death, but never lived there. He died on 28 July 1836 at Frankfurt, whither he had gone to attend the marriage of his eldest son. Montefiore was with him at his death (ib. p. 103). His body was brought to England, and buried in the Jewish cemetery at Mile End on 8 Aug. The funeral was attended by most of the foreign ambassadors. His will, a very lengthy document, was printed in the original German in Von Treskow's ‘Biographische Notizen’ (Leipzig, 1837), and in English in the ‘Annual Obituary’ for 1837. He gave each of his seven children 100,000l., but left the residue of his estate at the disposal of his widow. A portrait of him was engraved by Penny, and a characteristic whole-length was etched by Dighton. He married, on 22 Oct. 1806, Hannah, third daughter of Levi Barnet Cohen, a London merchant. Her sister married Sir Moses Montefiore. She is said to have had great business capacity, and her husband left instructions that his sons were to engage in no undertaking of moment without her consent. She was also widely known by her munificent charities; she died on 5 Sept. 1850, and was buried beside her hhusband. The issue of the marriage was four sons and three daughters. Of the latter, Charlotte (d. 1859) married her first cousin Amschel or Anselm, son of Baron Amschel of Frankfort; Hannah (d. 1864) married the Right Hon. Henry Fitzroy (1807–1859) [q. v.]; Louise (d. 1894) married her cousin, Baron Meyer Charles of Frankfurt, well known as an art collector (d. 1886). Lionel Nathan, the eldest son, is separately noticed. Nathaniel (1812–1870), the third son, married his cousin Charlotte, daughter of James Rothschild of Paris.
Sir Anthony de Rothschild (1810–1876), the second son, born at New Court in May 1810, steadily applied himself to business under the guidance of his abler brother Lionel. He was created a baronet on 12 Jan. 1847, on the recommendation of Sir Robert Peel, with remainder to the sons of his brother Lionel, and was appointed Austrian consul-general in 1858. But he soon acquired the tastes of a country gentleman, and in 1851 purchased the estate of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire. He rebuilt the mansion-house, and entertained many distinguished visitors there; Matthew Arnold was among his wife's intimate friends. He was highly popular with his tenants, and kept his labourers at work all through the winter. He was high sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1861. At the same time he took an active part in the affairs of the Jewish community in London. From 1855 to 1875 he was presiding warden of the great synagogue, and in 1870 became the first president of the newly instituted united synagogue in London. He also took a zealous interest in the Jews' free school at Spitalfields, of whose committee he acted as president. His benefactions were not, however, bestowed solely on his co-religionists. He died at Weston Grove, Woolston, near Southampton, where he was residing temporarily for the benefit of his health, on 3 Jan. 1876, when the baronetcy passed, according to the patent, to his nephew, the first Lord Rothschild. Sir Anthony was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Willesden. By his wife Louisa, daughter of Abraham Montefiore, esq. (a younger brother of Sir Moses), whom he married in March 1840, he left two daughters: Constance, wife of Cyril Flower, first lord Battersea (d. 1908), and Anne, wife of the Hon. Eliot Constantine Yorke (d. 1878).
Meyer Amschel de Rothschild (1818–1874), fourth son, known as Baron Meyer, was born at New Court on 29 June 1818. He took little part in the affairs of the firm, but became widely known as a sportsman and collector of art treasures. In 1851 he acquired land in Buckinghamshire (formerly part of the Duke of Buckingham's estate), and commenced building his mansion of Mentmore, which was soon celebrated alike for its hospitality and works of art. In the neighbouring hamlet of Crafton he set up his stud-farm, where he bred many famous horses. Baron Meyer was a popular member of the Jockey Club. He thrice won the One Thousand Guineas—in 1853 with Mentmore Lass, in 1864 with Tomato, and in 1871 with Hannah. He won the Goodwood Cup twice—in 1869 with Restitution, and in 1872 with Favonius (Black, Jockey Club, p. 269). In 1871 he won the Derby with Favonius, the One Thousand, the Oaks, and the St. Leger (all with Hannah), and the Cesarewitch with Corisande; the year was called ‘the baron's year.’ He represented Hythe as a liberal from 1859 to 1874. He died on 6 Feb. 1874, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Willesden. He married, on 26 June 1850, his first cousin Juliana, eldest daughter of Isaac Cohen, esq.; she died on board her yacht (Czarina) at Nice on 9 March 1877, leaving an only child Hannah, who married, on 20 March 1878, Archibald Philip Primrose, fifth earl of Rosebery; the Countess of Rosebery died at Dalmeny Park on 19 Nov. 1890, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Willesden.
[No authentic record of Nathan Meyer Rothschild or of his family exists. The published accounts abound in inaccuracies. Reeves's ‘The Rothschilds,’ 1887, which is ill-informed and uncritical, is mainly founded on an obituary notice in Gent. Mag. 1836, ii. 323, and Picciotto's Anglo-Jewish Sketches; it gives portraits. Other traditional details of the family's early history appear in Das Haus Rothschild, seine Geschichte und seine Geschäfte, Prague and Leipzig, 1857; in Franz Otto's Das Buch berühmter Kaufleute (Leipzig and Berlin, 1868), pp. 538–90, with portraits and views of the Frankfurt house; in Ehrentheil's Familien-Buch, 1880; in Harper's Magazine, 1873, xlviii. 209–22; in Nouvelle Biographie Générale; in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie; in the Jewish World, 5 April 1878; and in F. E. von Scherb's Geschichte des Hauses Rothschild, 1893. See also A. von Treskow's Biographische Notizen über N. M. Rothschild, nebst seinem Testament, Quedlenburg and Leipzig, 1837; Francis's Chronicles and Characters of the Stock Exchange, 1849, pp. 296–311; Illustrated London News, 14 and 21 Feb. 1874, and 22 Jan. 1876 (with portraits); Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore, ed. Loewe, 1890, vol. i.]