In the last five months, I’ve driven myself to utter distraction researching GW’s life. I responded to a posting on the US circus site by Clare Mulley. Beneath her post is a comment by Fred Dahlinger who advises checking parish records, birth and death certificates, school records and other official documents for material. Simply put, newspapers are unreliable and usually inaccurate. As John Lennon once said “the only truth in newspapers is their title”.
So with this in mind, I’ve tried to gather information which is verifiable via several sources. Thomas Frost I believe to be the most credible, along with EH Bostock of course. But the truth of the matter being GW’s personal life had little documentation.
George gave several Royal command performances, the first being for King William the fourth in 1834(and from then on in was a “Royal menagerie”), and in 1842 and 1847 for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, at the Quadrangle in Windsor castle. George was later summoned by Prince Albert, to try and find the cause of his Harrier hounds sickness. George suspected it was their drinking water, and when the water was changed the hounds recovered. The Prince was delighted and as a gift of gratitude presented George with a nail free coffin made from timber recovered from the “Royal Oak” warship, which sunk in 1762. George promptly put the coffin on display in his show, and was eventually interred in it.
As a result of these “Royal command performances” GW was given Royal consent, which meant he could park in any market place for 3 consecutive days without charge.
Apart from the entertainment value travelling menageries were also looked upon as educational. The proprietors of such shows were regarded as men of wisdom, as this excerpt from the Scotsman newspaper (1872) makes clear when talking about George Wombwell , whose collection was: “Certainly the largest travelling, and the one which has done more to familiarise the minds of the masses of our people with the denizens of the forest than all the books of natural history ever printed during its wandering existence.”
Wombwell was described by Thomas Frost as “a man of strong will and great courage. He thought nothing of entering the den of the most ferocious beast; and he invariably, when any of his animals were sick, got beside them and administered with his own hands his unfailing remedy – a dose of castor-oil. Fear was something that never entered GW’s mind.”
“In two articles of dress he was particular almost to eccentricity. He would only wear the finest linen ruffled shirts, and he would never put on a pair of mended boots. His boots at all times had to be kept scrupulously clean, but of the remainder of his wearing apparel he was absolutely careless!”(Thomas Frost)
I find the remark about George’s boots incredible, as Alfie loved his shoes to be clean and shiny, and I’m afraid it’s an obsession of mine too!
Various sources talk about George’s success in breeding Lions. It’s said he bred over 20, and also reared 5 Elephants.
He had a yard in Commercial road, in London, where he kept the various beasts he bought before the were assigned to one of his three menageries. He is described as being “the most successful showman ever”, and his popularity was shown by an obituary in the Times newspaper.
Much was made of the rivalry between George and Thomas Atkins, but there’s also evidence to suggest they never stepped on each other’s toes in terms of where either menageries were shown, and never encroached on each others territory. Indeed JL Middlemiss in “A Zoo on wheels” quotes a letter George wrote to Thomas in 1848 “I wish you would have mackerel boiled, stewed kidneys, neck of roast mutton, asparagus, for me and a friend at 8 o’clock”.
I’ve read on several sites that George “owned” or “kept” the Elephant Man, but this is complete myth. Tho’ in his book EH Bostock recounts borrowing several of “Barnum’s Freaks” in the winter of 1890.
But then, George’s story is fraught with myth and half truths. Several obituaries say he left his number 1 menagerie to a “wife”, some say he had 2 wives, but there’s absolutely no documentation to substantiate this. Again some obituaries say George died after the death of his only son, but there’s no concrete evidence of him having a son, let alone a daughter, which some sources mention.
I don’t want to tell my readers “facts” about George that I can’t substantiate, and to that end………….
George died on November the 16th 1850, aged 73, in his caravan, at Richmond in Yorkshire. “In the saddle”, as showmen say.
To quote the words from the posters:-
‘The days they come, the days they go,
But there still remains the grand old show”.
Firstly, I’d like to extend heart felt thanks to Karen Ramon, not just for her relentless researching but for showing me I was reading JL Middlemiss’s Wombwell family tree wrong, which changed the whole picture of my family tree.
The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed I am no longer calling GW my gg grandfather. He was in fact my ggg uncle, and Karen opened my eyes to this.
My ggg grandfather was William Wombwell ( GW’s brother ), my gg grandfather was Charles Wombwell, William’s son. My great grandmother is Eliza Wombwell. Charles’ daughter ( not William’s daughter! ) and the rest as they say………….
I’d also like to thank EH Bostock’s granddaughter Heather Payne, for her wit and panache, valuable snippets of information, and for her serious credibility, being as closely connected with the menagerie as anyone could be.
Lastly I’d like to thank everybody that’s commented or emailed me.
Thank you and God bless you all.
George Wombwell has taken up many hours of my life these past five months. And as Karen rightly said after all our research, still George Wombwell remains an enigma……
Post script, February 2011: Having had a lot of people searching for it, I’m posting JL Middlemiss’s Wombwell family tree. Along with the Wombwell pages http://www.wombwell.net/ this should keep any Wombwell scholar rather busy for a while, God bless!