George Wombwell's tiger

'You 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.

tiger skeleton
Tiger 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.

The skeleton 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 the time.
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 1910


By 1839, 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.


George Wombwell's lair in Highgate Cemetery, London. The statue is of Nero, his pet lion.


George Wombwell died in 1850 and is buried in London in Highgate cemetery, quite near to Karl Marx. He lies under a magnificent statue of his pet lion, Nero. His obituary in The Times stated:

No one probably has done so much to forward practically the study of natural history amongst the masses

 


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