George Wombwell was born in Duddenhoe End, near Saffron Walden, on the 24th of December 1777. He was the son of James Wombwell and Sarah Rogers.
James married Sarah Rogers at the church of St Michael the Archangel in Braintree on the 10th of February, 1760. The register entry has his surname spelt UMBLEY, and curious spellings seem to be the norm for this family until they settle in the North-West Essex area. The marriage was witnessed by Robert Collis and Daniel Rogers, both of whom appear to have written their own names in the parish register. I don’t know whether Daniel was any relation to the bride.
Sarah herself was the daughter of Samuel and Sarah Rogers, and she had been christened at the same church twenty-three years earlier, on 8th February 1737. James was born in 1739.
In his early life George had a passion for domestic pets, and took great pleasure in rearing birds, rabbits, dogs and other animals. If any of them fell ill or became injured he nursed them with care and would seek advice from his family doctor as to how to treat his pets.
George’s pre Menagerie years don’t appear to be documented, save that he moved to London in 1800, and ran a cordwainer’s shop. For those who don’t know, a cordwainer is somebody who makes leather goods, including shoes. This being distinct from a cobbler, who traditionally repairs shoes. The shop was in Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, then a famous mart of the second-hand clothes trade, and now called Dudley Street. However a change of career presented its self, when he bought 2 Boa Constrictors from a sailor at the London docks for 70 guineas, and started exhibiting them in local hostelries. There is an interesting advert in the Bristol Mercury and Universal Advertiser from September 1807:
Amongst the Number of Natural Curiosities arrived in this City, there seems none to equal or rival the Two wonderful Siboya Serpents. Those Ladies and Gentlemen who have already seen these extraordinary Reptiles, are so highly gratified with the sight of them, that the Proprietor flatters himself, from their high Recommendation that all ranks of people will gratify their curiosity, as they are undoubtedly the only ones of the Kind ever exhibited in the kingdom alive.
To be seen at a commodious room at the White Swan, St. James’s Back.
N.B. The Proprietor gives the utmost value for Foreign Birds and curious animals”.
This may well have been George’s exhibition, as Siboya is an island off Thailand renowned for Boa Constrictors.
Within 3 weeks George had recouped his investment and a substantial profit. He realised that there was money to be made by showing wild beasts and started to purchase exotic animals mainly from ships returning to London from around the far flung corners of the British Empire. George had a great love for all animals, and a natural flair for animal husbandry.
His first exhibition was at Bartholomew fair, at Smithfield, in 1804. He became an importer of wild animals and proprietor of one of the largest and finest menageries that ever travelled and that he predated Jamrach and Eice(famous wild beast importers of the Victorian era) is proved by the existence of a small yellow card, bearing a woodcut of a tiger, and the inscription
Wild Beast Merchant,
All sorts of foreign Animals, Birds etc. bought, sold, or exchanged, at the repository of the Travelling Menagerie,
If anyone reading has one of these cards, or a photo or scan, I’d be much obliged.
In order to secure animals, he kept in touch with the pilots on the Thames and elsewhere, so that when the East Indiamen and the other foreign sea going ships entered the Downs with wild animals aboard, George was promptly notified and got the first chance of buying them. Later, George engaged agents specially to watch the ships arrivals.
In 1805 the Wombwell’s travelling menagerie proper took to the road.
George continued to amass all sorts of wild beasts, including a pair of Giraffes which cost the then huge sum of £1800! They were taken to Commercial road whilst he set a team of men to build a portable cage for the creatures, sadly before the waggon was finished the poor beasts died 3 weeks later, as a result of the cold English weather
In 1825 George was in London, buying wild beasts, and was incensed to learn his major rival Thomas Atkins was advertising “the only wild beast show in London” at Bartholomew fair. And so he set off from London to Newcastle where his menagerie was currently showing, and brought it back to London, which took 10 days. It was a herculean task, as he exhibited each night on the road. He had 14 huge waggons, and between 50 to 60 horses, the Elephant’s waggon alone requiring at least 12 horses to pull it. This waggon was 30 feet long, 13 feet in height, and 9 feet wide. It had 6 wheels, each of the tyres being 18 inches wide, each wheel weighed 7 cwt. Dragging this waggon up a steep hill often required the efforts of more than 30 horses. On arrival in London both horses and men were spent, and the next morning George discovered his Elephant had died.
Atkins countered this by advertising “the only living Elephant at the fair”. George responded by saying ‘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!’ and did much better business than Atkins who eventually became proprietor of the Liverpool Zoological Gardens.
George had a pet Lion called Nero, who by all accounts was a friendly beast who would let children ride on his back, and apparently slept at the foot of George’s bed! Perhaps he’s the Lion talked about by Susan Tebby?
Wallace, his other pet lion, was an all together more aggressive animal. During King James’ reign there were Lion fights at the Tower of London. There had been a Royal menagerie at the Tower from the 13th century. In 1825 whilst in the Midlands, George overheard several chaps discussing this. Two separate fights between dogs and the two Lions were organised.
“The combats were said to have originated in a bet between two sporting gentlemen, and the dogs were six bull-dogs, and attacked the lion in “heats “of three. The first fight, was between Nero and the dogs, and took place in July, 1825; at which time the menagerie was located in the Old Factory Yard, in the outskirts of Warwick, on the road to Northampton. This not being considered satisfactory and conclusive, a second encounter was arranged, in which Wallace,the younger animal, was substituted for the old lion, with very different results. Every dog that faced the Lion was mauled and disabled, the last being carried about in Wallace’s mouth as a rat is by a terrier or a cat”. (from Old showmen and the old London fairs by Thomas Frost).
Among the more bizarre items in the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex is a stuffed lion, George Wombwell’s Wallace! Born in Edinburgh in 1812, Wallace was the first African lion to be bred in England and was perhaps named after William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter.
Wallace’s temperament remained something less than meek throughout his life. Two years after the Warwick fight he attacked a man named Jonathan Wilson who (as the Leeds Mercury noted) “imprudently and incautiously” placed his hand upon the bottom of Wallace’s cage between the grating. Wallace attacked and seized the man’s arm with his fangs. Fortunately the keeper was at hand, “and by his prompt, spirited and efficient exertions” – what ever those might be – succeeded in saving both the man and his arm from Wallace. A week later the Leeds Mercury posted the following:
“Jonathan Wilson, whose arm was severely bitten and torn at our fair, by Wombwell’s lion, Wallace … continued in a favourable state until Saturday, when the arm was suddenly attacked by violent inflammation, followed rapidly by mortification [of the arm, not Wilson]. In this state he continued till Wednesday morning, when he died at his own home, having, the day before, requested to be moved thither from the infirmary.”
It was almost certainly this particular Wallace ( the name became a popular one for lions ) that inspired Marriott Edgar’s poem “The Lion and Albert” which relates the quaintly vicious story of a young boy named Albert who was eaten by a lion at the zoo:
There were one great big Lion called Wallace;
His nose were all covered with scars –
He lay in a somnolent posture,
With the side of his face on the bars.
Now Albert had heard about Lions,
How they was ferocious and wild –
To see Wallace lying so peaceful,
Well, it didn’t seem right to the child.
So straightway the brave little feller,
Not showing a morsel of fear,
Took his stick with its ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear.
You could see that the Lion didn’t like it,
For giving a kind of a roll,
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im,
And swallowed the little lad ‘ole.
By early July in 1838, Wallace was in sad decline. A journalist for the local Wolverhampton newspaper noted the difference in the lion from his last visit: “Numerous persons who have visited the Menagerie over the past week have had their feelings unusually excited by the worn out appearance of their old favourite lion, Wallace. This once fine and noble creature seems to be gradually sinking from premature old age and is at times so weak as scarcely to be able to support his own weight.”
After Wallace’s death in 1838, he was sent to the Saffron Walden Museum by stagecoach. A framework for his body was made of wooden struts and wires, over which his skin was stretched and stuffed with wood shavings. He was mounted with his left front paw theatrically posed on the figure of a dog, in remembrance of his triumph in the fighting pit. The first museum catalogue published in 1845 reads:
“Lion Barbarus Grey (The Lion Wallace) Presented by Mr. G. Wombwell. This animal is remarkable as the first lion bred in this country and was during his life of 25 years in collection of Mr. G. Wombwell, surviving his battle with the dogs at Warwick, several years”.
It’s also been revealed that in all likelihood the ” Big Cats” that are spotted in places like Bodmin moor are the descendants of various large felines that escaped from circuses and menageries through the years.
To be continued……