Today I want to tell you about George Wombwell who died in Northallerton, North Yorkshire on this day in 1850. He was the owner of a travelling menagerie, and whether he was a good or a bad person depends on where you are looking at him from. In the nineteenth century, he was a successful and enterprising fellow who brought joy to a lot of people. But by twenty-first century standards he did some pretty weird things.
He was born in Essex in 1777 but by 1804 he had moved to London and was working as a shoemaker in Soho. Then, when passing by London Docks he saw a couple of boa constrictors that had been brought in on a ship from South America and he rather took a fancy to them. Every source I’ve looked at insists that he bought the pair for £75, which is an awful lot and would be close to £7,000 now. So that’s quite an investment. He began to exhibit them at a penny a time in local taverns. Within three weeks he had made his money back. George thought he was onto something. He began to buy all sorts of exotic animals that came in on ships from Africa, Australia and South America and built up a large menagerie which he exhibited in London. He was a regular exhibitor at Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield and in 1810 he decided to take his show on the the road. He travelled all over the country with it.
George’s travelling menagerie included lions, tigers, leopards, hyenas, wolves, zebras, ostriches and even an elephant. At one point, he had a pair of giraffes, but sadly the animals died of cold before there travelling cage was even finished. In fact, his menagerie suffered a fair amount of casualties. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for them, he really liked animals and worked very hard to look after them. It was just that he, along with everyone else at that time, didn’t always have the skills and the facilities to give them what they needed. On the other hand, as a shrewd businessman, he wasn’t above turning a profit on a dead animal either. He could sell it to either a medical school for dissection or to a taxidermist.
It’s fair to say he had some degree of success too with his animal husbandry and was very well respected for it at the time. He often managed to breed his animals and was the first person to breed a lion in captivity in Britain. He also once helped out Prince Albert. His dogs kept dying and he didn’t know the cause. George quickly spotted that it was their water that was poisoning them. The prince was very grateful and asked him what he would like in return for the favour. George replied: “What can you give the man who has everything?” Eventually though, he requested some oak timbers from a recently salvaged ship. He wanted to make himself a coffin He then preceded to exhibit the coffin, for a special fee, along with his animals.
Our favourite story about him though is about his rivalry with another menagerie owner who exhibited at Bartholomew’s Fair called Thomas Atkins. There was a year when George had decided not to exhibit at the fair, but instead had taken his menagerie to Newcastle, but he also needed to make a short trip back to London on business. While he was there, he learned that Atkins, who also owned an elephant, had posters up everywhere advertising ‘The Only Wild Beast Show in London.’ George was incensed. He was having none of it. He immediately headed back to Newcastle, packed up all his animals and headed back to London with them. That wasn’t an easy feat. His travelling show needed 14 huge wagons which needed between fifty and sixty horses to pull them all. The elephant’s wagon alone was thirty feet long, thirteen feet high and nine feet wide. It needed twelve horses to pull it. Thirty, if it was going uphill. It was an extremely arduous journey and took ten days.
When George Wombwell arrived in London ready for the fair, he discovered that his elephant had died. When his rival, Atkins, heard about this he amended his poster so that it now read: ‘The Only Living Elephant in the Fair.’ That’s pretty cruel. But George had an idea of his own. He got his own poster made up. It read: ‘The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair.’ The poor elephant was hugely popular. People soon realised that, while there were plenty of opportunities to see a live elephant, the chances of seeing a dead one were few and far between. No one wanted to see Atkin’s living elephant when they could see a dead one and give it a poke with a stick.
George Wombwell died as he lived, on the road with his animals. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. His grave is marked with a statue of his favourite lion, Nero, an animal so docile that he used to sleep at the end of George’s bed and people were allowed to pay sixpence to go and sit in his cage with him.