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November 1, 2007updated 10 Jan 2016 3:05pm

Plutocrats: A Rothschild Inheritance

By Spear's

Plutocrats: A Rothschild Inheritance
George Ireland
John Murray

‘Poor Papa,’ Nat Rothschild once wrote to his brothers, ‘he never said a truer thing than that it is ten times more difficult to keep one’s money than to make money.’ This adage should be drummed into the heads of all students of wealth management and preservation.

Nonetheless, the generation that followed Nathan Mayer Rothschild heeded his advice. George Ireland explains, ‘the collected value of all four of Nathan’s sons’ estates at death amounted to £8.4  million, a sum that exceeded the worth of any other family in England of the day’.

Plutocrats tells the stories of the four sons of Nathan Mayer Rothschild: Lionel Nathan (1808-79), Anthony Nathan (1810-76), Nathaniel (1812-70), and Mayer Amschel (1818-74). Not only did they manage to preserve the family wealth, but they also made a profound impact on Victorian society as exemplars of how wealth should be directed to both private and public benefit.

They commissioned architects to build grand houses in town, bought country estates, race-horses and foxhounds, collected art, acquired premium vineyards, and dispensed charity with lavish abandon.

Early enthusiasts of the Turf, Anthony and Nat expected their racehorses to cover their costs. ‘With luck,’ wrote Nat, ‘a racing establishment seldom pays more than its expenses but if one is out of luck it is dreadfully expensive work.’ Nat found that betting on horses in France was an unsatisfactory business, because his French aristocratic friends did not feel the same obligation to settle their wagers as he did. Betting, he said, ‘is something like fucking – when one gets into the habit of it one seldom leaves off.’

Mayer bought Mentmore, the Buckinghamshire country estate, and enjoyed riding to hounds, but it was his passion for horse racing that marked him out above all else. Ireland points out that ‘from the outset, his approach to the business was shrewd – very definitely not that of a rich dimwit indulging his fancy’.

He bought King Tom, a bay stallion that was more than sixteen hands high, for £2,000 in 1853 and although it only won him three races it proved a money-spinner when put to stud: ‘Of the 170 foals he sired from 1857 to 1863, for example, 56 turned out winners, with 24 two-year-old winners.’

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During the 1864 season, Mayer won £11,320 in prize money, making him the second highest earning owner that year. But his most impressive year came in 1871 when his filly Hannah won the One Thousand Guineas, the Oaks and the Leger; his colt Favonius won the Derby; and another of his horses won the Caesarewitch. ‘All honour to such a noble sportsman!’ wrote one racing correspondent. ‘It would be well for the interests of the Turf if all raced as he.’

If horse-racing proved to be a rewarding extra-curricular interest, so did viticulture. In 1853, Nat bought a vineyard in the Médoc, Chåteau Brane-Mouton, which he renamed Mouton-Rothschild, for 1.2 million francs. Apart from providing him with a regular supply of fine wines to drink – he consumed one-and-a-half  bottles of claret daily – the vineyard was returning a profit of ‘about 250,000 francs clear’ by 1864. Six years later it was valued at 2.5 million francs. (James Rothschild, an uncle, bought Chåteau Lafite in 1868 and Lionel Rothschild came close to buying Cos-d’Estournel.) Yet Nat never visited his prize vineyard.

The Rothschild brothers were great hosts, though Mayer’s table was considered inferior to Lionel’s. They certainly demanded high standards of eating from those who invited them for dinner. ‘Uncle Mayer says he dines at Buckingham Palace today, prepared, of course, to find fault with everything,’ wrote Charlotte to Leo in 1867.

Certainly, Mayer did not stint himself. His nephew Natty wrote to his parents that the combined weight of Mayer and his wife must be 30 stone or more, as a result of which the springs of the ‘contract Brougham broke and we had the most uncomfortable drive I ever had in my life’. The brothers’ vigorous cultivation of society also drew them to clubland. While Nat and Anthony belonged to the Garrick, Crockford’s, and Almack’s (a dancing club in King Street, St. James’s), Mayer and Lionel belonged to Brooks’s (politics and hunting).

Yet for all their cultivation of hedonistic pleasures, three of the four Rothschild brothers never lost sight of the original business that had made their father’s fortune. While Nat preferred to live in France, Lionel, Anthony and Mayer continued to handle foreign exchange business in London on a scale estimated at £100,000 each week.

‘The three Rothschild brothers were known to make their appearance by 3.45 and to position themselves by a pillar on the south side of Change, near to the spot where Nathan had stood,’ writes Ireland. Mayer, Anthony and Lionel were all generous donors to charity as well, although Lionel must take the crown in this respect.

‘It mattered not of what creed or nationality were those who sought his aid,’ wrote one admiring obituarist. ‘Whether relief was needed by the burn-out inhabitants of some wooden town in Poland, or boots required for the boys at an English free school, an
appeal to the Baron was sure to be successful.’ Indeed, a charitable bequest upon his death was allocated two thirds to the Jewish charities of London, one third to the Christian.

George Ireland manages to bring alive the individual characters of the four brothers through copious quotations from their spirited correspondence with each other and with their wives and cousins. For example, Nat would gently complain that ‘Tup’ (Mayer’s family nickname) had the best time because he was more interested in hunting and racing than in banking. ‘I give you my word that it is a very fine thing to be a great man and to be at the head of all that is going on in the way of business,’ Nat wrote from Paris in 1843, ‘but for my part I think it is a great bore & wd. prefer a little more quiet & a great deal less agitation. One enjoys nothing. Old Tup is the lucky boy.’
However, it is Nat who emerges as the liveliest character of the four, always joshing and teasing his brothers about their latest extravagances. ‘I am glad my dear Tup that you have bought such fine Limoges [enamel] cups,’ he wrote to Mayer in 1851. ‘Mentmore Towers will soon arise & decorated with all the splendours of antiquity & modern times will astonish the admitting multitude. I hope dear Tupus to be able to accept yr invitation next year & am sure the towers, bowers, & flowers will surpass my expectations.’

Far from dissipating the family fortune, the myriad activities and endeavours that the Rothschild brothers pursued tended to enhance it. But the single most important factor in determining that their fortune continued to grow was that the brothers were bound together by close ties of familial affection. The achievement of Ireland’s book is to portray them as flesh-and-blood creatures, to render them less intimidating and less buttoned-up than their plutocratic reputations suggest.

Review by Christopher Silvester.

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