George Wombwell, menagerist,
part 2


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 this should keep any Wombwell scholar rather busy for a while, God bless!

28 Responses to “George Wombwell, menagerist,
part 2”

  1. ‘The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed I am no longer calling GW my gg grandfather. He was infact 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………….’

    Wow I just read part two Terrence. We are closely related I think! Same family tree!

    Are you in the UK?

  2. Thanks Shaun, your first comment said so much, especially the bit about the hearsay surrounding George.
    I’ve tried to email you, to no avail, Yahoo just bounces your mail back.
    Please forward me a copy of your article via this site, and I will respond.
    Many thanks, Terence.

  3. I know you have spent many many hours researching,emailing,and writing this story and Im proud of you for delivering such a interesting piece,so what if GW wasnt our ggggrandfather,we can still be proud of our heritige.

  4. Hi I’ve posted the email address again and also this one: and

    Hope you get through this time! When you respond I’ll send the article straight to you (it has some photos).

    Liked the page on B&W. and those photos/memorabilia. Willie Layzell also fascinates me but as you have said it’s an entirely new story to tell.

    I research Wombwell for probably the same reasons as yourself and hope to have a complete history over the next few years. This is not easy since it relies on goodwill, not least of all those that have responded to your pages.

    There is also another video from Mitchell and Kenyon collection via the BFI, I don’t know whether it is freely available as such. Dan Cruickshank showed it a couple of years ago.


  5. I had an email from Heather today.
    She’s still researching GW and the families.
    Heather raised an interesting point, where did GW get the money(a fortune in those days) to buy the Boas?
    The question of George’s financial ability to purchase the snakes has come under scrutiny before, Andrew Parsons raised this question in an email.
    Andrew Parsons and another believe GW had an older cousin called Richard, who married a rich Irish landowner called Maria West who’s will mentions GW as the executer. Also GW gave her a woodcut which sounds like the original illustration on his business card, a yellow Tiger.
    Richard and Maria had lived in Commercial road some years prior to GW moving to London, the theory is he borrowed the money from her and repaid the debt handsomely, hence GW is mentioned in Maria’s will.
    The only flaw in this lovely tale is that no-one can find Richard in any parish records.
    Ok, enough already!!!

  6. Having been guided to your site by a second cousin, I find myself very interested in the Wombwell story as I too am a decendant. My Mother Dorothy was the 3rd child of Georgina Wombwell, who was a great(dont know how many greats) niece of GW. My Mother was born in Prestwich near Manchester in 1909. She used to relate stories to me about how her Mother would be scrubbing floors, complaining that she should not be doing that with all the money that was in Chancery(in Manchester). No one had a legal(paper wise)right to GW’s money. Hope this helps you in some way,

  7. By the way, my Mother used to say GW only bought one Boa for a shilling, that was found on a banana boat in the London docks. She said he charged curious people a halfpenny to view it, thats how he started his eventual menagerie.

  8. Hi There.
    George Wombwell did leave a will, I have a copy. His so called wife is described as single and seems to be his niece who had a daughter from her marriage to a hat maker who played in the Menagerie band. He died and I think GW took her under his wing. Lots more to tell, Richard was his cousin born in Arkesden Essex. amongst other brothers. Father John & Mother Mary nee Hare. GW real name is believed to have been Josiah 1st born to James and Sarah about 1771
    Hope this helps a little. Jill Perry

  9. I have been researching the family history of my famly for the past 5 years or more.
    When it comes to george, of menagerie fame I was told by my Grandfather there was a connection.
    As far as I can see he was my 3xgreat grand uncle,should
    anyone doubt where he died it was in Northallerton Market
    Place in North Yorks At 9pm 16 11 1850.
    Present at the death was Elizabeth Blight,I am in possesion of his Death certificate,any further info to me would be more than welcome.

  10. In reference to the elephant at Coventry:

    My great, great grandmother Elizabeth Carding b. 1826 married William Wombwell. They had one child Harriet Wombwell 26 December 1848 and registered 11 January 1849. Elizabeth (Carding) Wombwell married George Anthoness who served as a musician and booking agent for the Wombwell menagerie. He and Elizabeth had two children Charlotte b. about 1852 and Charles my great-grandfather b. 1854.

    Harriet was often listed as Harriet Anthoness in the census records (probably because the census takers asked the childrens’ first name birth dates, Harriet used her birth name Wombwell in her marriage record to James Tucker in 1866. The Tuckers had one child Ellen. James died in 1870.

    Harriet and Her daughter were living with Elizabeth Anthoness in 1871, but sometime after that she joined the Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie. E.H. Bostock mentions her in his memoir. He notes that his cousin Harriet, an animal trainer was attacked by a hyena. He saved her, but she sustained a number of bites. It seems that they were on the back and shoulder.

    Harriet (Wombwell) Tucker married Bevan Wilkinson in 1876, and they are listed with the menagerie at least until 1891. Wilkinson came from a very musical family similar to the musical background of George Anthoness. Bevan was a musician as were his father and brother. They were listed as music professors in the census.

    I am working on Harriet in her later years, but need to get more documentation.

    Charles Anthoness used the name Wombwell when he, his wife Sarah Ann (Foxley) Anthoness, my grandfather Frederick George Anthoness(age 4) and my great uncle Charles Bevan Anthoness emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1881.

    Other members of the extended family came to the U.S. for a time, including Frank Charles Bostock the youngest brother of E.H. Bostock, but repatriated to England. My family stayed.

  11. Harriet Wombwell/Tucker and Bevan Wilkinson

    Bevan Wilkinson is a gg uncle of mine and by tracing his line came across his marriage to Harriet. I found an entry in the 1901 census where a Bevan and Harriet are in Ashton under Lyme in caravan number 5….Bevan’s occupation is traveller and caravan number 4 has Harold Berkett listed as a worker for Wombwells menagerie so this looks like them..this is where my trail goes cold..I can find nothing after this.

  12. Dear Susan,
    Thank you so much for this information. I have a picture of who I think are Harriet and Bevan. My father was the oldest of his generation and was given the family photograph album. I have a photo of E.H. Bostock at a family wedding and one of Elizabeth Bostock his wife.

    There are two pictures of who I think is Harriet when she was younger and a picture of a couple taken at Liverpool in the 1890s that is clearly the same woman older and her husband (1880s or early 90s). Do you have any pictures of Bevan or any other family members that you would be willing to share a scanned copy with me? My dad didn’t know who many of the people were and that might be because his grandfather Charles died fairly young and his father may not have remembered all the people in the album. I would be so grateful for any images you could share.

    Thanks again so much for this information, I’ll pursue it.

  13. Hi Terence,
    Not to sure if you can help me, my great great aunt was Ellen Chapman, who was a lion queen with George Wombwell, I have read a couple of articles that she was George Wombwell’s niece, could you confirm the relationship, and who her aunt or uncle would have been?

    Many thanks,

  14. Hi Richard,
    Terence asked me to comment. It seems that over the years and thanks to the wonderful world wide web, Ellen Chapman has got mixed up with Ellen Blight (sometimes mistakenly as Bright). Ellen Blight WAS Wombwell’s niece and took over from Ellen Chapman in 1848 (circa 1833-1899 – Miss Pauline de Vere, Lion Queen – to her fellow menagerie workers she was best known as Nellie Chapman).

    Sadly, Ellen Blight died at the age of 17 whilst performing with lions at Chatham, Kent.

    Ellen Chapman went on to marry George Sanger and continued under the name ‘de Vere’ for many years although not specifically with lions, more a ‘serpent’ woman. As far as I am aware she was not related to George Wombwell, the menagerist. If you eventually track down her parents then please let us know
    Shaun Everett

  15. Hi Shaun,
    Many thanks for your reply, Ellen (nellie) Chapmans parents were Henry Chapman 1803-1888, and Harriet Chapman 1805-1886. Henry and family travelled with Wombwells, in the 1841 census for Scotland, they were in Bellie, Moray. Henry was listed as a muscian. They are listed with James Edmonds, and also James Wombwell. Ellen is listed as Helen, and her brother Thomas is listed as Themis, both miss spellings.

  16. Hi again Shaun, I had forgotten that I had requested this info before, on your George Wombwell part one page.
    In the original request I mentioned two paintings of Nellie chapman, these were called the “Wild beast Tamer” and they were painted by George C Horner, I think the Landseer painting was of Ellen Blight. I came across the pictures just by googling “Madam Pauline De Vere”
    Many thanks

  17. I married into the Wombwell- Robinsons . My father in law says we are connected to George Wombwell . Apparently we aren’t as there are no descendants on his line. But are there any other Wombwell – Robinsons and do they know if we are related to this family tree! Thanks, GAIL

  18. Hi Gail
    I am related to the Wombwell Robinsons and was hoping there was a connection to George Wombwell.
    My GG grandmother was Catherine West Robinson 1842-1867
    Her parents were Charles Robinson and Harriet Wombwell and Harriet’s parents were Richard Wombwell and Maria West. I cant seem to get any further back than Richard so if anyone can help?

  19. Oh crikey have just seen earlier post about Maria West’s will and lending GW money to buy the boas… so there is a link between the families – am absolutely chuffed!
    So glad to have found this site.

    Further down the Richard Wombwell/Maria West family tree is another fascinating story regarding the Court of Chancery and the laws on illegitimate children inheriting.

    Richard & Maria’s daughter Harriet married a man called Charles Robinson. Harriet’s sister was wealthy and named the family in her will, leaving most of her money to her favourite niece, Harriet and Charles daughter Catherine West Robinson (m Carter). But Charles had been married previously – as a master mariner he was interned on a French prisoner of war ship in the Channel during the Napoleonic wars for a few years. When he returned he could not find his first wife, presumed her dead and later married Harriet having many children.
    The will was contested because the first wife appeared thus making Charles Robinson’s 2nd marriage bigamous. In the end, the Robinson family won the case because the Court of Chancery decided that when the will was drawn up, the aunt was not aware of the 1st marriage and thought the marriage to her sister sound and all children legitimate. It set a precedent of law on illegitimate children being able to inherit.

    So what an interesting lot the Wombwell’s are

    If anyone has any more info on my side of the family do get in touch!

  20. Hi, on trying to research my circus family I came across this site. My mother now 96 lived with “aunt Mary Wombwell” for a time and looked after her caravan, she described it as ” With beautiful cut glass windows, and that everything was kept very shiny, lots of fur coats and gold jewellry. She also mentioned Fred Wombell who was a lion tamer, his enormous hands and fingers like sausages and the scars he had up his arms. Mum now cannot remember much but it was so nice that she passed on some of her recollections of her childhood. My Granddad worked for Sangers and probably Wombwells as well, his name was James Washington Durant, if anyone has any information I would be delighted to receive it. Lynn

  21. […] […]

  22. Harriet Wombwell/Tucker/Wilkinson

    I see that Harriet lived in Scotland in 1915. Her husband Bevan Wilkinson died there. Her daughter Ellen Tucker married a cornet player and they went on to have six children. I found Ellen in the 1911 census and her husband was a musician with a travelling fair.

  23. Hi Terence, I thought you would like to know I have released a biography on our George. It’s the first part and concentrates on the lion fight in Warwick, England, which is a story in itself.

    W3C Kindle ebook

    W3C Paperback format

    Hope my links work ok.

  24. I’ve just recently finished reading Shaun’s book, and I have to say, family connections aside, it’s a cracking read. Shaun’s style is very readable and entertaining, and after literally years of research he’s come up with a very credible explanation to the “events” at Warwick in 1825. Top marks for the painstaking work that has gone into this tome Shaun, now can you hurry up with volume 2 of George Wombwell’s biography please?

  25. Hi, im a Wombwell from Tollesbury in Essex, my dad was George Wombwell and he had a brother called Frank

  26. Hello from a British fh-er in France.
    I inherited a website (The Tilbury Magazine)including a tree by a GW descendant, and the whole is now incorporated into my “Tilberia” website.
    George did marry (according to the researcher) but I’m not sure he had children of his own. The only person not identified so far is the relative named DAY who was to inherit the third share of the menagerie. The widow was to have a third, and EDMONDS’ wife (GW’s niece)the other third. Nephew GW eventually managed the last third (according to the tree).
    I’ve been adding newspaper articles and excerpts from old books (including FROST) – but there’s so much myth it’s difficult to know what’s real!!!
    Links to the relevant pages are here:
    Hope to hear from you.

  27. I received this email from Shaun Everett earlier –

    Dear All,

    the last part of the George Wombwell Biography – The Real Wombwells is now available from the link below.

    Thank you for your patience and your continued interest in George Wombwell and travelling menageries.

    This edition contains many unpublished images from the collection as well as an events calendar for Wombwell menageries from 1800 to the end of the century.

    Shaun Villiers Everett

  28. Anyone able to get me in touch with Keith Campbell who commented on here.

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