Monday, October 24, 2016

More than monkeys and bears--traveling menageries in the Regency era

British life has always involved animals. From the hounds used in hunting to the house dogs and the horses that were common in every life, animals abounded. Portraits were painted of prize farm animals and deer roamed parks and estates throughout the island. Nevertheless Britain during the Regency era was very nearly devoid of wild animals. Those that did exist were small and more apt to be deemed nuisances than creatures of worth and benefit.

When the opportunity arose to see a bear (whether dancing or being baited in the village square), or a monkey (begging for money for its organ grinder), the general populace took full advantage. They were excited to see something beyond the everyday. When the traveling menageries took to the roads of Britain in the mid-1700's, people were agog. The wonders that the world held dazzled and astonished.
Morning Post - Friday 13 May 1808
George Wombwell had purchased two boas from the London docks and, discovering an insatiable interest in the public, built his business on those two snakes. A remarkable number of animals from abroad arrived on the ships that docked in London and they were soon traveling the country.
Cheltenham Chronicle - Thursday 06 August 1818

Lancaster Gazette - Saturday 31 January 1818
Wombwell's was not the only menagerie traveling Britain, and the common people were not the only ones fascinated by the wonders the menageries held as this account of Gillman and Atkins' display recounts.
Stamford Mercury - Friday 18 April 1817
There was Ballard's Menagerie:
Windsor and Eton Express - Sunday 19 October 1817

Pidcock's Menagerie housed at the Exeter Exchange in London also traveled the country as well, as early as 1770.
courtesy British Museum - 1799
And there was Polito's! This item is long but the descriptions and the hyperbole in the article/advertisement are wonderful.

Tyne Mercury; Northumberland and Durham and Cumberland Gazette - Tuesday 03 June 1817
There were accidents. Lions escaped, elephants died (Wombwell was particularly adept at marketing even dead animal viewings), and people were bitten. Mr. Soper (below) eventually died. He had put his hand in the cage to regain a dropped tool.
The European Magazine and London Review vol 56 Dec 1809
George Wombwell certainly used the available print media to best advantage among all the menageries. And his family's work at fairs continued through to the 1930s.
Worcester Journal - Thursday 16 August 1821
His tomb in Highgate Cemetary in London is appropriately crowned by a statue of one of his lions.

The conditions in which the animals were kept in traveling menageries were no doubt abysmal by modern standards. The food offered them and the cold climate of their new home took a great toll. But perhaps the pleasure they brought to the lives of people pinched by circumstance and lack of opportunity was partial recompense for the animals' sufferings. And perhaps generations of explorers and travelers were galvanized by the glimpse offered by traveling menageries of the world beyond their experience.

'Til next time,


More can be read about traveling menageries here: