'The best business I ever did'
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.
Paying the troops
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'.
News of ‘Waterloo’
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 to New Court in 1815 by pigeon post. No original contemporary account or documentation concerning how the news 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 »
A million out of 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 however much Nathan made out of Waterloo, it must have been very considerably less than a million pounds, let alone 'millions'.
The impact of Waterloo for the Rothschilds
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.