The travelling menagerie has long been declared extinct and the once famous names associated with it have been consigned to the history books or websites like this. But for few hundred years they were in their element on the fairground alongside travelling theatres and circuses. This is a potted history of the British travelling menagerie that doesn’t pretend to be definitive. It draws from well documented material, which in itself is probably a fraction of the true story.
These days a travelling menagerie is so far removed from the reality of our daily lives that it barely seems possible such a thing existed at all. But in the 18th and 19th centuries the only chance people who lived in villages and most towns ever had of seeing live wild animals was when a travelling menagerie visited their area. An event that invariably caused great excitement.
Apart from the entertainment value travelling menageries were also looked upon as educational. The proprietors of such shows were regarded as men of wisdom, as this excerpt from the Scotsman newspaper (1872) makes clear when talking about George Wombwell , whose collection was:
“Certainly the largest travelling, and the one which has done more to familiarise the minds of the masses of our people with the denizens of the forest than all the books of natural history ever printed during its wandering existence.”
Collecting wild animals and displaying them for public “pleasure” is nothing new. Feeding people to lions was a particularly Roman thing to do and civilisations that accumulated wealth have long taken an interest in exotic creatures. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sponsored expeditions to collect giraffes and cheetahs. Chinese emperor Wen Wang established a “garden of intelligence” that included deer, antelope, and pheasants. Even Aristotle studied the animals captured by Alexander the Great during his adventures in foreign lands. In the European middle-ages animals were not only kept for pleasure and study, but also as tokens of power. Royal menageries in particular became symbols of status.
Zoological gardens and parks for the amusement and education of the public are an invention of modern Western culture and began to replace Royal menageries in the late 18th century. London Zoo, for example, set up by the Zoological Society of London in 1828, was the world’s first scientific zoo and took animals from the ancient Royal menagerie at the Tower of London. And Surrey Zoological Gardens at Walworth, opened in 1831, took some of its animals from that other renowned permanent London menagerie, the Exeter Change.
The advent of the travelling menagerie had more to do with cash for curiosity than any quest for understanding and showmen realised there was a good living to be made in the exploitation of the exotic. Improvements in the sophistication of foreign trade, added to by the arrival of the British Empire, meant that animals of all kinds were involuntarily finding their way to Europe.
George Wombwell himself is recorded as having started by buying two snakes from a sailor in London and making money by displaying them in pubs. Also in London around this period was Charles Jamrach(and no doubt others) who established himself in East Smithfield before moving to the Ratcliffe Highway as an “importer and dealer in wild animals” and “collector of Eastern curiosities”.
It was the same in cities like Liverpool where William Cross was a big player. He was a famous animal importer, based for many years at Cross’ Menagerie and Museum, Earle Street, Liverpool. A major importer of animals for the zoological gardens and other collections of the United Kingdom he had agents in all parts of the world.
Both Jamrach and Cross based their businesses at the docks specifically to be near shipping and no doubt encouraged the export of exotic species from far away places. So successful were people like this that their business addresses were often open for lucrative exhibition purposes.
The exhibition of animals for profit was an opportunity obviously not lost on people like George Wombwell who took to the road himself as “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie” in 1805 with his, by now, large collection of animals.
By 1839 his menagerie was so large it needed 15 wagons to transport it and as an enterprise Wombwell’s business was so successful that by the time he retired he had three different menageries on tour at any one time.
But Wombwell was only a small part of what was a thriving sector of showbiz that was already well established even before even he came along.
Documentary evidence about travelling menageries in the UK is sketchy and confusing to say the least, but it’s possible to build up a rough picture for our purposes although it is not unreasonable to conclude there were many animal shows on the road from the 1700s to the 1900s in addition to the more notable ones mentioned here.
Firstly there was Wombwell’s great adversary Thomas Atkinswho eventually became proprietor of the Liverpool Zoological Gardens. Atkins and Wombwell had a number of high profile disputes over the years as they competed for business. In most documented accounts of these Atkins is painted as the bad guy, but Wombwell was no saint and on one occasion is said to have organized a fight between his lions and some dogs – as a “publicity stunt”!
Then there was George Wombwell’s family itself who continued long after he faded from the scene. Although there are many rich connections in this area undoubtedly the best known of all menagerie owners (certainly the most heavily documented) was Edward (E.H) Bostock.
One of the three sons of James Bostock and George Wombwell’s niece Emma, both of whom were running the old Wombwell No.2 menagerie, he was born into a life on the road in 1858. By 1883 he had started business on his own, but in 1889, on the retirement of his mother (his father having died), he purchased her menagerie and re-christened the combined show “Bostock & Wombwells”. And if that wasn’t enough he bought another show off a Frank Hall in 1892, giving him Menagerie No.3.
Luckily for us latter-day historians Bostock wrote a book called “Menageries, Circuses and Theatres”, that although mostly biographical, contains a huge amount of information about menageries in general. In it he states that Gilbert Pidcock was the first menagerist of which there is record, being on the road in 1708, almost a century before Wombwell.
By all accounts “Pidcock’s Wild Beast Show” was very successful and was the largest at St. Bartholomew Fair (London) by 1769 where it had occupied a premier position for several years.
Pidcock is said to have had winter quarters at Exeter Change and was a contemporary of Stephanus Polito. Polito’s “Grand Collection of Beasts” was constantly on tour around England during the summer and on display at Exeter Change during the winter.
In 1798 it is said Polito entered into a partnership with another menagerist called Miles and the following year “Miles and Polito’s Menagerie” appeared at Bartholomew Fair. Polito was also seen again at Nottingham Goose Fair in 1807 (with or without Miles is unclear) and in 1809 Miles was noted as exhibiting a “Grand Collection of Living Curiosities” at Exeter Change (with or without Polito is unclear).
Both Pidcock (or more likely a descendent, as dates above cover a large time period) and Polito ran Exeter Change at one point and during Polito’s time it became the haunt of poets such as Wordsworth and Byron and artists like Landseer and Agasse. It attracted thousands of people every year.
Another owner of Exeter Change was Edward Cross (no relation we think to Liverpool’s William), who is said to have been the superintendent of Polito’s travelling show for quite a while. It was he who supervised its end and the dispersal of stock to London Zoo and Surrey Zoological Gardens.
Next on the list was Ballardwho was famous for his comedy troupe of monkeys in the mid 1700s. His show occupied a site in the Haymarket, London. It later evolved into a travelling menagerie that went under the name “Ballard’s Grand Collection of Wild Beasts”.
One of his exhibits at Bartholomew Fair (1825) was a lioness which is said to have escaped and attacked the Exeter mail-coach nine years earlier. In 1827 (again at Bartholomew Fair), the receipts for his menagerie were £90 in three days, compared with Wombwell’s £1,700.
Away from London George Sanger in his book “Seventy years a showman” talks of a great battle fought in 1833 between employees of Wombwell and the menagerie of Hilton on the Oxford Road between Reading and Henley, as both shows raced between one fair and another. Sanger comments, “at this time Wombwell’s and Hilton’s were the two great menageries and involved in deadly rivalry.”
Hilton eventually sold up to former employee William Manders.The owner of what became “Mander’s Grand National Star Menagerie” was initially Hilton’s spieler and legend has it he eventually bought out Hilton following a prolonged period of passing his hat around at the end of each performance, although E.H. Bostock is on record as saying Manders was also financed by a very wealthy Liverpool turtle merchant.
Although not having the provenance of the Bostock shows William Manders was, nevertheless, a proprietor of menageries from 1850 to 1871, eventually employing 60 people and touring in America.
Other menagerie notables include the American, Issac Van Amburgh. Of Dutch and Tuscarora Indian (Cherokee) parentage he worked with Boston’s Titus Menagerie, travelling in America until about 1835. Arriving in Britain in 1838 (presumably with his own animal show) he was feted by the greatest performers in the land and was much admired by Queen Victoria.
Two examples of the more ‘modern’ showmen are Albert Haslam and William Sedgewick.Haslam, from Sheffield, was essentially a magician who called himself “Professor Anderton, King of the Wizards”. The “Professor” was assisted by his four sons and two daughters and by 1891 was operating in the West Country.
The show developed and became “Anderton & Haslam’s No.1 Royal Managerie”. In 1892 he was joined by Fred Ginnett and they toured the West Country billed as “Anderton, Haslam and Forepaugh’s Menagerie”. A lion act was added to the show in 1895. This was run by his son, Arthur Haslam, who worked under the name “Captain Rowland”.
Anderton and Haslam’s menagerie and circus toured for some years, mostly in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but at one time providing the circus at the Agricultural Hall, Islington. Anderton was also a hypnotist who gave demonstrations of his powers in the menagerie tent.
At some point this show was sold at auction in Bolton, but by 1900 the company were travelling as “Professor Anderton and Captain Rowland’s Combined show.” This was a performing animal and living picture variety show.
In the 1900s William Sedgewick’s menagerie was one of the biggest on the road. Oldham based Sedgewick originally entered show business with a photographic studio and by 1860 was travelling a waxworks show. He then moved into the menagerie business and by 1869 was running a group of performing lions. Sedgewick was a great breeder of lions, boasting that he had more than any other showman.
But what did a travelling menagerie look like when parked-up and ready to perform? With the better documented shows of the 19th century the usual configuration was an open square, three sides of which were composed of wagons containing the beasts, and the fourth of a “walk-up”, or steps leading to a platform on which was a paybox and a balcony.
On the balcony was a band that performed popular music, while the animal trainers strutted about and the ‘spieler’ harangued the crowd with stories of the dangers of wild animal training and begged the public to come and judge for themselves.
There were steps down into the show on the other side and the whole outfit was covered by an awning of canvas tied off on each side to the tops of the beast wagons.
The front was very often a big affair, consisting of wooden columns to represent marble, much gilt carving and many pictures of wild beasts fighting, being hunted and captured, and living in their native jungle. The main show took place in the beast wagons themselves and this is where the trainers did most of their work.
And what was life like on the road for these shows? There are a couple of things that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, the cramped conditions in which the animals lived and performed must have been horrendous. Second, it is difficult for many to appreciate what the owner of a travelling menagerie had to put up with as well. The roads at the time were lousy at best and the huge horse-drawn wagons were not exactly easy to deal with in dry conditions, let alone when things were wet or icy.
Not only that, but the variety of animals transported and kept alive and in “good” condition from one stand to another for thirty to forty weeks each year must have been quite an effort. So, from whoever’s perspective you look at it this was not a great or glamorous existence.
But the proprietors were not to be deterred and the shows travelled immense distances to keep the public happy. E.H Bostock, for example, took his “Grand Star Menagerie” on this little jaunt in 1883/84:
Burton-on-Trent, Tutbury, Ashbourne, Derby, Nottingham (for Goose Fair), then to Sunderland and onto Galashiels, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth, Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Kingussie, Crantown, Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Foress, Aberdeen, Forfar, Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow, all over Yorkshire and then to Hull and shortly afterwards taking in Beverley, Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough.
For the spectator these shows must have been a great spectacle. Viewing animals in their cages, elephant rides and feeding times were all very well, but most people were there for the excitement of seeing the big cats and the trainers that risked their lives with them. We all have in our mind’s eye a vision of the 19th century lion tamer and this first-hand account by Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake of “Captain Wombwell” (yet another distant relative of the famous George) in his book “English Fairs and Circuses” fits that stereotype perfectly:
“The most popular and best known trainer of my day was Captain Wombwell, who worked the lions for Mr E.H Bostock. He was a heavily built man, about 5ft. 8 in. in height, with fair hair, a long waxed moustache, and the largest hands I ever saw.
“He was attired in a crimson plush jacket with gold braiding and frogs – evidently made before he became so stout, as it would not meet anywhere. It was emblazoned with many medals presented to him to record special deeds of valour – in the menagerie and not on the battlefield.
“Armed only with a twisted willow whip stock and rawhide thong, he would climb slowly up the steps leading to the door of the cage. With his hands on the door-catch and his eye on the position of the animals, he would at the right moment open the door, and with extraordinary agility for such a heavy man, be inside with the door slammed behind him in a split second. Then the fun began.
“The five big lions would start bounding round the 6ft-wide cage, with Wombwell unconcernedly standing in the centre. After the first mad rush round, the usual jumping and posing took place and then, to my mind, the most exciting moment arrived when the trainer had to leave the cage. Again, the exact moment had to be gauged for a hasty exit backwards, which was accompanied by a mad rush at the door by two or three of the lions.”
But shows like this were not to last forever. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the constant search for variety on the fairground led to the mixing of menageries with some unlikely showbiz elements, particularly the Cinematograph – Crecraft’s “Wild Beast and Living Picture Show” and Hancock’s “Living Pictures and Menagerie” being examples.
And as the 20th century gathered pace, so did the speed in decline of the travelling managerie and other once popular shows. Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, again in his book “English Fairs and Circuses,” summed up the end very well when he wrote of Bostock & Wombwells:
“I think it may be said that the travelling menagerie proper has had its day and, after 130 years on the road, will be seen no more. I am talking of the show of not less that six or eight wagons of beasts and a big front. Small wild animal shows are still touring the country with the fairs, but when the Bostock & Wombwell show was sold to the London Zoo in 1932 it was the end of the menagerie that relied entirely on itself.”