Sir, might own the only live elephant at this fayre, but I owns the
only dead'un. Now, a live elephant is not a great rarity, but the
chance of seeing a dead'un, comes only once now and again!'
Geo. Wombwell to Atkins, his adversary at Bartholomew Fair, 1836.
A rather dirty skeleton of a big cat has been perched on top of a
cupboard in a teaching laboratory at Aberdeen University's Zoology
Department for at least the last 30 years. A few days ago Martyn Gorman,
the Zoology Museum Curator, climbed up to take a closer look and was
intrigued to find an old museum label dated 1866.
skeleton, Aberdeen University
After searching through some rather dusty records he now knows rather
more about the skeleton's history. It is that of a female Bengal tiger
and it used to be part of the collection of specimens that were used
to teach comparative anatomy to medical students in days gone by.
The skeleton was transferred from the Anatomy Museum to the care of
the University Zoologists in about 1966.
itself is not unusual in any way and is of routine zoological value.
However, the tigress in question is of some historical interest in
that she was once a resident of the great Travelling Menagerie of
George Wombwell. When the tigress died she was acquired by E Gerrard
& Sons, one of the leading taxidermy and osteology companies of
George Wombwell was born at Wendon Lofts, Essex in 1777. He moved
to London in 1800 and opened a cordwainer's shop in Soho's Old Compton
Street. However, his career was soon to take a dramatic change in
direction. It all started when two large boa constrictors were discovered
on a ship in the London Docks. He bought the two serpents for 70 guineas
and started to exhibit them in the local hostelries. They must have
proved immensely popular with the drinking classes because within
3 weeks Wombwell had recouped his investment. He realised that there
was real money to be made from showing exotic animals to the public
and started to purchase a variety of beasts, mainly from ships returning
to London from all around the world.
Initially, the animals were on display in his Soho premises but in
1810 he established Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie. Over the next
70 years the Menagerie travelled throughout the British Isles in brightly
coloured wagons displaying jungle scenes and containing wildcats,
wolves, monkeys, giraffes, elephants and camels. Eventually Wombwell
was to gain such fame that he was invited to give five royal command
performances, three of them before Queen Victoria herself.
Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie at Gargrave, Yorkshire, in
the menagerie was so large as to need fifteen wagons for transportation,
and included two elephants, a rhinoceros, zebras, onagers (wild asses
from central Asia), llamas, six lions, panthers and leopards, ocelots,
a kangaroo complete with joey, a pregnant hyaena and three tigers.
By the mid-1850s, a live gorilla had been added to the collection.
Wombwell was responsible for breeding the first African lion to be
born in Britain and named him Wallace after William Wallace the Scottish
patriot. Wallace the lion was to achieve high notoriety at the infamous
'Lion Fight' in Warwick. As a publicity stunt, Wombwell advertised
that he intended to set his lions against bullmastiffs. The plan was
to pit two groups of three dogs against Wombwell's pet lion, Nero.
Unfortunately for the gathered bloodthirsty crowd, Nero, who was well
known for his docility, refused to fight the dogs. However, when Wallace
was brought into the fray he inflicted such appalling injuries on
the dogs that the fight was rapidly abandoned.
In time Wombwell's enterprise became so successful that he had three
different Menageries on tour at any one time. Naturally, he had his
competitors, particularly a menagerist by the name of Atkins. For
many years Wombwell and Atkins had both exhibited at St Bartholomew's
Fair in London, and the rivalry between the men was intense. In 1836,
Wombwell decided not to attend the fair has he had a previous booking
in the north of England. However, when he heard that Atkins would
be exhibiting at St. Bartholomew's he decided that he too must put
in an appearance. Roads at that time were all but impassable, but
by tremendous efforts Wombwell's collection travelled south and arrived
in time for the opening of the fair in London.
Unfortunately Wombwell's elephant was over-exercised by the journey
and died the morning of their arrival in London. Atkins was delighted
at this turn of events and immediately put up a huge canvas sign proclaiming
The only live elephant in the fair! Wombwell, determined not to be
outdone and ever the entrepreneur, replied with a large scroll bearing
the words The only dead elephant in the fair! The public, realising
that they could see a living elephant at any time, flocked to see
and generally poke the dead one! Throughout the fair Atkins' menagerie
was largely deserted much to his disgust.