George Wombwell, menagerist,
part 1

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:
“EXTRAORDINARY REPTILES
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

WOMBWELL,
Wild Beast Merchant,
All sorts of foreign Animals, Birds etc. bought, sold, or exchanged, at the repository of the Travelling Menagerie,
Commercial Road,
London.
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……

24 Responses to “George Wombwell, menagerist,
part 1”

  1. Subject: George Wombwell

    Hello Terence,

    I have just seen your article in the Who Do You Think You Are magazine. I’ve
    been doing some research myself this past year or so and have discovered my
    great great great great grandmother was George’s sister, Ann Wombwell. I’ve
    tried to find out more about him but sadly can’t find any books on the subject
    so I’ve only had whats on the internet to go by.
    I live in the area where George and Ann were born and have seen Wallace the lion
    in the local museum many times as a youngster but never imagined there was a
    connection.
    I checked the link to your website and was pretty impressed with your music. I
    am a big Bowie fan also so I am a bit jealous that you got to see him in ’73 – I
    got to see him much later.

    Regards,

    Michael Richardson

  2. Dear Terence,

    This is not a blog entry but a contact e-mail address if you would like it

    Our Wombwell-Robinson family come from Richard Wombell, I believe to be the cousin of George Wombwell.

    My relatives have been searching for a possible Geroge Wombwell connection for years but to no avail. Not being given to ‘force’ a connection where there is none – they gave up the search.

    However, in Richard’s wife Maria’s will, there is a constant reference to a George Wombwell who she entrusted a lot to, including a special picture of a tiger.

    Now, after many years work, I come onto the tree hunting system and managed to prove, i think, the connection.

    If you would like to see any of the information I have, then please do contact, other wise, all the best

    Andrew Parsons

  3. Hi Terrence,

    My brother in England (I am Canadian now) sent me a copy of the Who do You Think You Are? March 2010. There is a lot of stuff on the internet about the Wombwell clan which was very prolific!! My great great great grandfather was John Wombwell b 1775 who married Honor King in 1795, the parents of George Wombwell the menagerie owner. My great great grandad (John Wombwell)would have been the brother of your ancester George.

    There is a book ISBN 1 870253 10 8 called A Zoo On Wheels, Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie by Dr. J.L. Middlemiss.

    There is i believe a restored steam engine at a museum in the north of England. There is also one at the World Circus Museum in Wisconsin U.S.A.

    My uncle Stan provided Dr. Middlemiss with a fair amount of the information in the book. Unfortunately my Uncle Stan died about 15 years ago, and my mom, the last of that generation of Wombwell’s died in 1996.

    There is a web site http://www.wombwell.eurobell.co.uk that has a lot of information. I believe the man who did the research is also a George.

    Happy hunting,
    Prunella

    (daughter of Grace Reynolds nee Wombwell)

  4. Terrence, just been double checking my information here. John Wombwell m Honor King (parents of George, menagerie owner) had 15 children, in order:

    George
    Sarah
    Honor
    william
    Hannah
    John
    Eliza
    Maria
    Charles
    Emma
    Ellen
    Peter
    Peter (the first one died )
    Joseph
    Elizabeth

  5. I’ve emailed Prunella and straightened her out re GW’s parents(James Wombwell and Sarah Rogers)hoping she’ll be pleased to find her connections with the menagerie are closer than she thinks……….

  6. My grandfather was Frank Wombwell, His father was David wombwell, his father was John wombwell,whose father was John wombwell married to honor king. his father was James who married sarah rogers He was the father of amongst others George wombwell the menagerist who never married but lived with his niece.ANN Wombwell no issue as far as I am aware.

  7. I have enjoyed reading the history you have written
    regards Jill Perry

  8. Of course George Wombwell did have a wife. Probably….and her name was Mary……or Ann!
    Thanks to Karen Ramon’s brilliant research and lucid thinking this matter is up for serious debate.Watch this space……..and check
    http://wombwell.net/wombwell/index2.htm

  9. Hello Terence,
    I have been looking up my ancestory in previous weeks and have found so much on George Wombwell. George Wombell’s brother Charles had a son Abijah ( 6th child out of 13) who was married to Emily Harris Wombwell who gave birth to my Grandfather John McCurdy. We live in Australia and to track back this information is so amazing. I have a Wombwell family history book which starts at Charles and his wife Susanah’s(Reed)children but would love to hear from you.It states that they came to Australia for reasons unknown but would love to find out more info if possible.
    Cheers
    Lynne

  10. Hello again Terence,
    Lynne back again. Sorry but I got my wires a little bit crossed. Abijah & his wife Emily Sarah Harris had 7 children. Their third child was a daughter also named Emily who in turn married my Great Grandfather, John McCurdy who gave birth to my Granfather whom was also named John (Jack), he was number 4 out of 8 children. They then gave birth to my mother who is an only child. She in turn had three children. My brother Greg who is 50 and my sister Cheryl whom is my identical twin sister,we are 44. I think that you would find this book very interesting. I will try and contact Pat Wombwell and get you a copy of this book
    Regards
    Lynne

  11. Hi Terrence and all

    interesting site and comments. George did not have any children. Ann had a daughter by a previous marriage(?).

    Ann was about half George’s age (a minor in fact) when they married.

    Since George had no direct descendants it is left to the rest of us to fill in the gaps. Luckily my mother (deceased 2009) descended from George’s brother William, farmer who lived in south Essex around Tollesbury.

    Mum remembered some things related to the Bostock & Wombwell outfits since that was what was around from the late 19th century till about 1933 when they folded completely. Mum was given a tour by Elisa at the age of about 5 she recalled once when B&W were in Maldon, Essex.

    I have attempted to research the Wombwell Menagerie quite extensively but much information is either completely wrong or relies heavily on hearsay.

    If you want some interesting information about the menagerie I published an article in a local magazine in London a few years ago.

    If anyone wants a copy please email me: shaun.everett1@gmail.com

  12. Hi Terrence.
    I have a photo copy of George’s will where it states that although referred to as Mrs Wombwell he states she is a spinster, untrue, she married a Henry ? who worked for the Menagerie.They had a daughter, Amelia. He died and I believe Ann Wombwell was George’s niece moved in under his wing with her daughter. As I understand, however I could be wrong also.
    Jill Perry

  13. My name is Michael Powell. I am a descendant of George Wombwell, on my great, great, great grandmother Powell’s side. She married into the Wombwell’s.
    Many years ago, when my father went to visit Georges Wombwell’s grave at (West) High Gate Cemetery, he was informed on the tour that part of the show involved the lion trainer putting his head into the lion’s mouth. The guide said there was no danger, as the lions teeth had been removed.
    My fathers great, great grandmother had told him that what actually happened was, that as the lions jaws began to close, the trainer, who had been chewing tobacco, would spit some of the tobacco juice from his mouth to the back of the lions throat. This would burn a little and the lion would open its mouth wider and back away… I think the trainer was George Wombwell himself.
    My dad did pass this information on, and was told that that made more sense, because if the lions teeth had been removed, it wouldn’t be able to eat.
    The guide said they would change the information in the archives.
    Michael

  14. Fred Wombwell is my great great great grandfather if anyone has any information or documents I would be grateful if you could pass them,thanks

  15. I am researching my gg grandfather William Wombwell Charters (b. 1855 maybe in Cheltenham d. 29 Jan 1930 in Christchurch, New Zealand). I live in New Zealand and my great aunt told me the story about the toothless lion, a story she had heard it from her grandfather William Charters. It is amazing how this story has gone around the world! The family stories and his name suggests a connection between my William Wombwell Charters and the George Wombwell family. i would really appreciate it if anyone shed light on that connection. Please email me at huntj@clear.net.nz

  16. Hi All

    Just found this! I’ve always been told that George Wombwell was my ggg Grandfather, reading this he can’t have been. My great grandmother was Georgina Wombwell before she married an Oliver (surname) my Grandma was Lily Oliver b 1907, and her siblings were John, Edward, Sally and Dorothy. Anyone know who Georgina’s father was?

    Teri

  17. Hi,
    My GGG Grandparents were George and Elizabeth Anthoness. Elizabeth was the widow of William Wombwell who was killed by an elephant (although he was a lion tamer) in 1849. My Great Grandmother was fond of telling the story of the demise of William but unforunately was not believed. My father researched my mother’s family and made the connection
    Debbie

  18. Hi Terrence,
    My 2x great aunt was Ellen Chapman, who was a Lion Queen with GW’s menagerie in the late 1840’s, she used the name of “Madame Pauline De Vere, Lady of the Lions”.
    Whilst I was researching the her part of the family tree,
    I came across two paintings of her, titled “wild beast tamer”, painted whilst she was with GW, but in the article it said she was his niece, do you know of the family connection, between her and GW.
    Many thanks, Richard.

  19. Ellen Chapman was known as ‘Lion Queen’ in George Wombwell’s Menagerie. She met George Sanger, another Showman, and in 1850 married him. Probably the most reliable reference is in a Charles Dickens account who frequented Menageries on more than one occasion.

    You can find the reference in ‘Dickens and Popular Entertainment’ By Paul Schlicke

    It was apparently, Dickens that suggested that a portrait of Ellen be commissioned from Landseer.

    ‘I think the Duke of Wellington must have her painted by Landseer’ he writes to one correspondent.

    I would love to have a reference to that or those paintings Richard if you have one please.

    I am not aware of her connections to George’s family.

    Shaun

  20. What is the source of your statement that George Wombwell imported two giraffes at a cost of £1800? Another source states that he only bought one (in 1810) for £1000 which died ahortly after.

  21. I believe the source to be Thomas Frost, tho’ I might add, there’s so many unsubstantiated facts about GW, we’ll simply never know for certain. See Shaun Everett’s site for further info.
    I’m no longer banging my head against this particular wall……

  22. […] http://terenceruffle.co.uk/20100213-my-great-great-grandfather-george-wombwell-part-1 […]

  23. My Grandmother Alice Wombwell born Lower Holbrook, Suffolk 1908 and her father Robert Wombwell (born around 1870 ish) also of Holbrook who was a thatcher always said we were from “circus people” and my grandmother remembered the Menagerie.

    She also said our family were from Saffron walden area Essex.

    I am not sure where to start to see where I fit into the family tree can anyone suggest a good place to start?

  24. Hi Terence, just thought I’d put a link on to a new biography of George. Part one is about the lion fight in Warwick England. It’s a story all of itself.

    W3CPaperback format

    W3CKindle ebook

    Hope the links worked this time!

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