Early communication networks
By 1812, the year of Mayer Amschel Rothschild’s death, the five brothers had grown used to travelling throughout Europe on business, and the importance of worthwhile up-to-date commercial data was crucial. To make the most of what they found on their travels, they developed the habit of writing detailed letters keeping their siblings abreast of what was going on in their sphere, whether it was the day’s business, the market opportunities and prices in the towns they passed through, or just the usual family comments on their brothers’ behaviour and character. Getting these letters delivered swiftly and securely was another matter. 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.
Letters carried by pigeon
When the Rothschild brothers took to the air in their pursuit of speed we cannot say. But we can be certain that by the 1840s – and probably much earlier - the brothers had taken to the use of pigeons to carry short and important messages between them. Nathan Mayer Rothschild had a farm in Kent where carrier pigeons were stationed. One or two examples of letters carried by pigeon survive among the papers in The Rothschild Archive. They measure about 8 cm by 5 cm and still bear the folds where they were packed into the small container attached to the pigeon’s leg.This method of communication was one of the tools of success in the Rothschild business strategy during the period c.1820-1850, and part of the success of the Rothschild’s communication system was its flexibility, using a number of different means of transmission, including pigeon post, to suit the circumstances.
A letter written in August 1846 by Nathaniel de Rothschild from Paris (Nathaniel was Nathan’s son) says: “I hope our feathered messengers will have brought you in due time our good prices” Elsewhere in the letter he reveals, “A B in our pigeon dispatches means: buy stock, the news is good; C D…means sell stock, the news is bad”. (RAL XI/109/57).
The news of Waterloo
The most famous incident occurred on the night of 19 June 1815, when a courier arrived at New Court bearing the news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, a full 48 hours before the government’s own riders brought the news to Downing Street. Whilst it is true that the Rothschilds had an extensive communications network, and did use carrier 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 Rothschild Archive London. The story has been repeated in many secondary sources published after the event, speculating on what may have happened. It is likely that a series of couriers on horseback brought the news to New Court.