Monday, October 12, 2009

George Wombwell's tiger--University of Aberdeen, Scotland

'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. Recently, Martyn Gorman, the Zoology Museum Curator, climbed up to take a closer look and was intrigued to find an old museum label dated 1866.

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.

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.


Steve said...

I'm NOT saying that we should go back to these days again! lol

But I'll bet that there are people out there who would still pay to see a dead elephant.

Maybe the exhibited animal world has progressed further than some folks in the "real" world??

Anonymous said...

Wade, your blog is like reading a good magazine every morning. You sure manage to include an interesting variety of history, critique, humor and thought provoking comentary. And you update it often enough to keep it interesting. It's become part of my morning routine to fix a cup of coffee, have a smoke or two and read what's up in the animal world. A great effort on your part. The only thing that might make it better is if more recent comments would show up, so it would be easier to follow discussions on older topics. But, this might just be the format of the blog program. Anyway, thanks again - I'd rather read this than the nonsense in the morning paper.
I know you don't like people posting annonymously, but I'm just a random annonymous person who stumbled on the blog, and my name seems irrelevant.

Wade G. Burck said...

Thank you very much, it is greatly appreciated, but a lot of folks are responsible for this deal. Their story suggestions and comments are what make it what it is. Me, I have lived animals most of my life, and they are the air in my lungs. Nobody here is irrelevant and you will be fascinated by the knowledge and caliber and character of the commenter's, many very respected folks in the training and zoo profession.
The recent comments are posted on the right side as they are moderated. Unfortunately if 15 come in at once, 5 are archived in the manure pile, and only 10 post. That's the best you can expect on a blog. The manure pile will provide you with everything from day one. The other down side to a blog is it reads in "reverse". The first post on the page may be the 10th chapter of the book, and you may have to go to the manure pile and go to the start and work your way forward.