Thursday, March 01, 2012

Travelling Menageries

Zoos and menageries were very much in vogue all through Victoria's reign.  For many of her subjects, men and women who would not travel beyond home and village in their lifetime, the animals they were able to see when they were brought to their villages by travelling menageries were both exotic and  remarkable. For the isolated villagers they provided a glimpse of a great and interesting world.

Menageries, of course, pre-dated the Victorian Era.  They were generally maintained by the wealthy and aristocratic in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Some idea of the magnitude of  a great private menagerie can be gained by a perusal of the Catalogue for the sale, by auction, in 1851 of the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool.  The menagerie had been formed by the Earl of Derby, President of the Zoological Society of London, and was auctioned upon his death, at which time it consisted of  1,272 birds and 345 mammals. Generally, however, by the time Victoria ascended the throne, private menageries were being replaced by zoological gardens.

Although the "Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society of London" dates from 1828 when it opened as a collection meant for scientific study.  Admissions of the public began  in 1847, around which time it began to be more commonly referred to as the "Zoo."  In 1836, the "Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society" opened the Bristol Zoo which ranks as the world's oldest provincial zoo.

Zoos, of course, were fixed in place but the travelling menageries could take the show to the people.  And "shows" were exactly what they were despite the very Victorian appeal to the educational verities that such displays might provide. For many in the nineteenth century the travelling menagerie offered the only opportunity they would ever have to see exotic animals. As Judith Flanders has noted in her wonderful book, Consuming Passions, "real animals were educational - no evangelical could 'behold the works of Nature without [also] admiring Nature's God'..."

Some measure of the enthusiasm for wild-life may be garnered from the appeal of the unusual animals that were sold on the London streets in the mid years of the century.  Street sellers were to be found offering all sorts of small animals; mice, birds, ferrets and dogs for sale.  Mayhew lists, among the animals in which the street sellers trafficked, "foreign birds, such as parrots, paroquets, and cockatoos; of gold and silver fish; of goats, tortoises, rabbits, leverets, hedgehogs " as well as "snails, worms, frogs, and toads..."  But, while the street merchants might feed the Londoners' insatiable appetite for the smaller exotic animals, larger creatures could only be viewed in zoos or on those rare visits of a travelling menagerie.

Generally the travelling menageries were to be found at the seasonal fairs in England where they were guaranteed a reasonable crowd. A. E. Housman tells us
The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the field,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there...
Clearly they were there for a good time and, if there was a travelling menagerie, they came to see the big cats and, perhaps, have a ride on an elephant.  The noisy, rumbustious crowd was prepared to make a day of it even if, when the day wore to a close, like Housman's Shropshire Lad they might lament
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair   
And left my necktie God knows where,           
And carried half way home, or near,   
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:   
Then the world seemed none so bad,   
And I myself a sterling lad;   
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,           
Happy till I woke again..
Behind the scenes the animals were spending the greater part of the year travelling over poor roads in all kinds of weather in small cages.  The movement of the menageries must have been a logistical nightmare.  It would involve more than a dozen wagons and scores of horses.  One can only imagine the difficulty of moving an elephant in its wagon on the roads of the day. Thomas Frost, in The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs points out these difficulties.
It is impossible to do justice to animals which are cooped within the narrow limits of a travelling show, or in any place which does not admit of thorough ventilation.  Apart from the impracticability of allowing sufficient space and a due supply of air, a considerable amount of discomfort to the animals is inseparable from continuous jolting about the country in caravans, and from gthe braying of brass bands and the glare of gas at evening exhibitions.
A Travelling Menageries c. 1856
At the time of his death in 1850, George Wombwell, perhaps the greatest of the Victorian "menagerists" was the proprietor of three travelling menageries. His  brightly painted wagons would arrive with great excitement and the animals would be picketed in the centre of the market square.  A band and spruikers would amuse the crowd and encourage them to pay the 6d or 1s to see even more, inside, where the animals would perform.  There seems to be considerable debate over whether or not there was "overt" cruelty, but even were this not the case, the entirety of the process and conditions of life in a travelling menagerie would have made it a misery for the animals. Nor was safety highly valued. But all that went on behind the scenes.  Thomas Frost described what a visit to see one of Wombwell's shows must have ben like,
I never failed, in my boyhood, to visit Wombwell's, or Atkins's show, whichever visited Croydon Fair, and could never sufficiently admire the gorgeously uniformed bandsmen, whose brazen instruments brayed and blared from noon till night on the exterior platform, and the immense pictures, suspended from lofty poles, of elephants and giraffes, lions and tigers, zebras, boa constrictors, and whatever else was most wonderful in the brute creation, or most susceptible of brilliant colouring.
In March of 1841, Francis Galton, the great Victorian polymath, then only 19 years of age and a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote to his sister, Emma, to tell her that he had actually entered the cage with the animals.
Yesterday I made my appearance before the eyes of wondering Cantabs, where do you think? Why right in the midst of a den containing 1 Lion, 1 Lioness, 1 huge Bengal Tiger and 4 Leopards in Wombwell's menagerie. ... The keeper told me that I was only the fourth that had entered that den.
Clearly Galton was more fortunate than some. In 1834, A lion and a tiger escaped from the menagerie and went on a rampage in the countryside killing a man, a woman and two children.   Wombwell's niece, Ellen Blight, was killed by a tiger when she entered the cage to perform.  Ellen had replaced Nellie Chapman, the original "Lion Queen" with Wombwell's menagerie when Nellie left the show in 1848.

Death of Lion Queen Ellen Blight
As early as 1825, George Wombwell, on two separate occasions, matched lions from his menagerie against fighting dogs.  The matches were highly structured in terms of time and procedure and although Wombwell later was to say that  while there was "talk of cruelty having been practised in the engagement. ... [no]man in his senses [could] suppose that I would risk the loss of my two lions, the finest ever seen in this country, for the purpose of gratifying a cruel propensity."  Perhaps Wombell didn't see it that way, but the correspondent to The Times expressed "disgust and indignation at the cruelty of the spectacle."

While Wombwell was undoubtedly satisfied with the outcome of the match, it is unlikely that the owners of the six dogs would have shared his enthusiasm, considering that those dogs not killed in the second match only barely escaped with their lives. Nor was Wombwell loath to use the fights to advertise his shows.  According to Frost, describing the setup of the menagerie show,
The front was entirely covered with painted show-cloths representing the animals, with the proprietor's name in immense letters above, and the inscription, "The Conquering Lion," very conspicuously displayed.  There were other show-cloths along the whole length of the side, surmounted by this inscription, "Nero and Wallace, the same lions that fought at Warwick."  One of the front show-cloths represented the second fight; a lion stood up, with a bleeding dog in his mouth, and his left fore paw resting upon another dog.  A third dog was in the act of flying at him ferociously, and one, wounded and bleeding, was retreating.  There were seven other show-cloths on this front, with the inscription "Nero and Wallace" between them.
Wombwell made several command appearances before reigning monarchs, three before Queen Victoria including one in 1847.

Wombwell's Menagerie, 1847
The nineteenth century saw vast improvements in the protection of both domestic and wild animals.  This was a process which began shortly before Victoria ascended the throne when, in 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, and culminated, in the year before her death with the passage in 1900 of "An Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Captivity." The Royal imprimatur was added to the SPCA by Queen Victoria in 1840. In 1835, bear-baiting and cock-fighting were outlawed and in 1876 a licensing system for animal experimentation was introduced.  But although there were major improvements and an increased concern for the protection of animals, the overall movement was slow, at best.

The 1900 "An Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Captivity," began by defining "animal" in the broadest possible sense so as to include "any bird, beast, fish, or reptile which is not included in the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1849 and 1854." It then specified, again in a very broad sense, what was meant by cruelty when it related to captive animals including "unnecessary suffering," as well as any act which might "cruelly abuse, infuriate, tease, or terrify [an animal] ... or permit it to be so treated."

Despite the greater breadth of this Act than those passed earlier, there were still significant omissions.  For one thing, it purposely excluded any application of the Act where an animal was slaughtered for food. It also excluded hunting or coursing although it did specify that this exclusion did not apply where an animal was "liberated in a mutilated or injured state in order to facilitate its capture or destruction."

Such an Act might, however, be a toothless tiger were there not appropriate penalties.  With the 1900 Act, an offence could be prosecuted and the offender could receive, "for every such offence ... imprisonment with or without hard labour for not exceeding three months, or a fine not exceeding five pounds, and, in default of payment, to imprisonment with or without hard labour."

Click here to download Thomas Frost, The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs.
Click here to download the Catalogue of the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley

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