Looking at zoological gardens, private menageries, circuses, and natural history museums, this fascinating account explores the surprising extent of the exotic-animal trade in 19th-century England and its colonies. Filled with entertaining anecdotes—from the tiger that prowled down St. George’s Street in London with a boy in its mouth and the polar bear that killed a dog in Liverpool to the kangaroos hopping around the lawns of stately homes and the boa constrictor who got loose in Tunbridge Wells—this book also shares how the animals played a key role in the project to ensure that leisure was educational. As it demonstrates how the trade was intimately connected with the tides of Empire, it will be of interest to academics and general readers alike.
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About the Author
John Simons is the executive dean of arts at Macquarie University and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Zoological Society of London. He is the author of Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation and Rossetti’s Wombat.
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The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy
Exotic Animals in Victorian England
By John Simons
Libri PublishingCopyright © 2012 Libri Publishing
All rights reserved.
Jaguars Make Awkward Pets
One fine day in early 1881 the mist was still hanging like Spanish moss between the trees in Windsor Great Park and the deer were venturing out to graze and to display themselves in groups which owed much to the compositions of Sir Edwin Landseer. For these were cultivated deer, members of the Royal household and they knew that although they might one day furnish the tables at the great banquets of state held in the castle they had, in the meantime, to preserve the standards expected of their high position. The Great Park was, in any case, a safe place for them. The wild creatures that had occasionally prowled there in the days of George III had long been banished to the Zoological Gardens, the kangaroos that had bred there so successfully – and so recently that the oldest stags could still remember them – no longer roamed and all was peaceful domesticity. So the deer munched away without much thought to past or future and looked forward only to another day of mild weather and nothing to make them anxious or frightened. Suddenly one of them looked up. The others followed suit and before they could even comprehend the ghastly event that was about to overtake them a gorse bush seemed to catch fire or rather fire flew from a gorse bush. But it wasn't fire. It was an animal. To be exact it was a jaguar and before the deer could gather their thoughts three lay dead and gory while another was dragged away into the fiery gorse bush by the fell predator.
One fine day in early 1881 Queen Victoria was strolling on the battlements of Windsor Castle. She looked down the Chase and approved the lacy mist which sparkled between the trees like the lamps that had been lit to celebrate her marriage to Albert. She approved still more the timid decorousness of the deer which were beginning to make their way out of the trees to feed and arrange themselves solely for her pleasure. She loved the deer and her dear Albert had often remarked to her how their presence not only gave the clipped landscape of the Great Park an air of their sweet Balmoral and a premonition of their annual retreat to their beloved Highlands but also in their gentle domestication reminded everyone that through familial love nature could be tamed and even landscape itself become a model of the ideal home.
As Queen Victoria mused happily a strange thing happened. A thing so strange she initially assumed that she had, in her contented but bittersweet memorial of Albert, begun to dream. But she soon realised that this was not a dream. She saw what at first she thought was an orange dog leap from the shrubbery and grasp first one then three more of her pets by the neck, bringing them to the ground and leaving them lying still in widening pools of blood. As she watched, the dog – which she now could see was a big cat – dragged one deer off and out of sight presumably to eat it.
"John," she cried out, "John." In less than thirty seconds a huge man in full Highland dress came running and stopped a respectful distance from his monarch, his face both puzzled and anxious as he looked around for the source of her alarm. His eyes followed hers and he saw the dark patches spreading on the Chase and the still bodies of the deer now surrounded, as if they were being boiled, by the vapour which rose from the hot blood as it met the cold morning air. In that instant Brown grasped the whole matter. John Brown said nothing but grimly strode away and the Queen watched as he emerged from the Castle gates and strode angrily towards the scene of the massacre clutching a massive walking stick, his kilt swinging as he walked, like the tail of an angry tom cat.
"Dear John," thought Queen Victoria, "no thought for himself but only for me."
* * *
Although I can't be sure that the incident I have just described happened quite as I've described it – in fact, I can be pretty sure it did not – I can assure the reader that it really did happen. A jaguar really did attack and kill deer in Windsor Great Park and Queen Victoria really did send her faithful servant – some say her secret husband – John Brown to deal with the problem. We even know the name of the jaguar: he was called Affums.
Affums belonged to Lady Florence Dixie (neé Douglas) sister of the Marquess of Queensberry and therefore aunt to Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's beloved "Bosie". Wildness ran in the Queensberry family and Lady Florence was an enterprising soul. During her life she visited Patagonia (which is where she acquired Affums and where a hotel is still named after her), was a war correspondent in South Africa and Zululand and she organized the first English ladies' soccer tour of Scotland. She also clearly had a way with animals as when she was attacked by knife-wielding Fenians she was saved both by the trusty whalebone of her corsetry which deflected their treacherous blades and by the unexpected intervention of a St Bernard dog who just happened to be passing and who pitched in on Lady Florence's side. The invincible alliance of a whaleboned corset and a huge infuriated dog on the lookout for someone to rescue proved too much for the attackers – in later life Lady Dixie claimed they had actually kidnapped her although no one believed her; indeed, hardly anyone really believed she was attacked at all. She was that kind of woman. In spite of the wild household in which he found himself – clearly a far more eventful place than his native Patagonia – Affums appears to have been a docile and peaceful creature. Lady Florence and her husband often used to sit in his cage and chat to him of an evening although she discouraged Bosie from getting too close even when Affums was chained up.
As we have seen, Affums eventually escaped from his domestic prison but what is interesting is that after due apologies had been made to Queen Victoria and Brown had been pacified – these must have been tricky conversations – Affums was not destroyed as he certainly would be today. He was sent to the zoo. But given that Lady Dixie spent much of her time in Patagonia hunting what passes for big game there, Affums was lucky to end up in the zoo and at least he had the memory of that gloriously gory morning in the Great Park.
Had Lord Baden-Powell known about Affums he might not have been so keen to acquire Squirks his pet panther. Like Lady Dixie, Lord Baden-Powell loved to shoot wild animals – he also loved executions and would travel miles to see one – so Squirks was a lucky survivor and the kind of creature that many a young British officer posted to India acquired after the First War of Independence (or the Indian Mutiny as they would have called it) precluded the kind of relationships with Indian women that a previous generation of officers had enjoyed in the heyday of John Company. When Baden-Powell left India he made several attempts to find a new home for Squirks. But Squirks would have none of it and after much smashing of china and tearing of soft furnishings and bed linen he was always returned with thanks. So Baden-Powell sold him to Mr Jamrach about whom we shall hear a great deal later.
What these two anecdotes are intended to establish is that among a certain tier of the population there was nothing exceptional about owning an exotic animal. It may not have been common but it was by no means unusual and the increasing reach of the British Empire made it easier and easier to acquire such creatures either for yourself when you visited, like Lady Dixie and Lord Baden-Powell, or through purchase from one of the London- or Liverpool-based animal dealers. This was how the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti acquired the menagerie he kept in the garden of his house at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea and how the great aristocratic naturalists like Lord Rothschild at Tring or Lord Stanley at Knowsley developed their massive collections.
However, it was not only the aristocratic and well to do who had the chance to enjoy exotic animals and this book starts from a very simple question which occurred to me one day while I was thinking of something else:
If you were born in, say, Grantham in Lincolnshire in 1837 and lived until 1901 (the dates of Queen Victoria's marvel-filled reign which form the chronological brackets for this study) and never travelled more than thirty miles in any direction how likely was it that you would have seen a hippopotamus at least once before you died?
The answer, as this book will show, is highly likely. And if it wasn't a hippopotamus you saw then it would certainly have been an elephant or a lion or a North American bison.
How might this have happened? Well, you almost certainly would have been somewhere within striking distance of one of the many travelling menageries which criss-crossed the roads of England throughout the nineteenth century. Some of these were enormous with up to 2,000 animals of all varieties. You might have been to a circus although in the Victorian era circuses were largely horse-based (a travelling version of the "hippodramas" which were a spectacular fad in London and Paris) except for the odd lion-taming act or you might have been lucky enough to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it passed nearby. You might have lived near one of the great houses where the local lord kept a private menagerie – I have mentioned Tring and Knowsley but there were many others. You might have lived near a great house where the owner was an enthusiast of the acclimatisation movement and was attempting to breed and maintain a herd of exotic creatures (elands and kangaroos were popular) as a contribution to the social problem of finding protein for an increasingly urbanized and increasingly numerical working class. You might have known a soldier or sailor returned from Imperial duties with a parrot on the shoulder or a leopard on a lead. You might have known a comfortably off village doctor or genteel lady naturalist who kept just one or two interesting pets; a pair of budgerigars say or a tortoise. You might have caught the end of the tradition of wandering Romany bear keepers or one of the new generation of itinerant Savoyard musicians with his marmoset in a revolving cage. Depending on where you lived you might have seen the warehouse of one of the main traders in exotic creatures. You might have seen stuffed rarities displayed in the local museums which were springing up out of the philanthropic efforts of local Philosophical Societies or private benefactors. Finally, you might have met one of the odd animals who just turn up from time to time: the tiger which prowled down St George's Street East in London with a boy in its mouth, the polar bear that rampaged up Bold Street in Liverpool and killed a dog, the kangaroo which terrified the citizens of Budleigh Salterton, the panicking tapir which cleared a crowd from Rochdale town hall more efficiently than a water cannon or, indeed, Affums on his way home, bloody-mouthed, from his excursion to Windsor Great Park. All of these sites of encounter will be dealt with in more detail in subsequent chapters.
The fact is that Victorian England (and Scotland and Wales) was alive with all manner of creatures that shouldn't have been there and these were not only in the zoological gardens which the concerned and enlightened civic leaders of the big cities founded to offer an educational and cultural space for the improvement of the working population as well as the informing of the middle classes and gentry. The animals of the Americas, Australasia, India and Africa walked the lanes of England or travelled in vast mobile animal houses. They wandered the parks of the aristocracy and they lived in the corners of the ornate drawing rooms and fussy conservatories of the middle classes. And around them and between them moved the labouring poor, the domestic servants, the miners, the mill hands, the soldiers, the sailors and the hard-pressed clerks that kept the whole Imperial show on the road.
This book is, then, about exotic animals in Victorian England. But what is an exotic animal? For the purposes of this study I speak about exotic animals not solely when I mean an animal which is not indigenous to the British Isles but mainly and more commonly when I mean an animal from a distant country that has been imported into England for the purposes of education, entertainment, acclimatisation or sheer exuberance. So for the purposes of this book rabbits do not count as exotic animals. They are so much part of the English rural scene that people forget that they are not indigenous and came over with the Normans in 1066. But no one would, I think, wish to claim rabbits as exotic in the way that an escaped boa constrictor slithering around on Tunbridge Wells Common (never found as far as I can tell) or, indeed, a llama living on Lady Angela Burdett Coutts's lawn in Hampstead is exotic.
There is some awareness of the outsider nature of introduced species of course. For example, the grey squirrel is well known as a non-indigenous immigrant and most people can weave a narrative which combines ecological concern with xenophobia in equal measure around the greys' fatal assault on the native red squirrel population. The rat-like and ruthlessly efficient American interloper tears the nuts from the trees before the gentler, fluffier, Beatrix Potterised and, above all, English, red can get at them. Now the even more fearsome black squirrel is at large and this is threatening the greys in their turn. In Australia and New Zealand introduced animals – the rabbit in Australia, the possum in New Zealand, and feral cats, dogs and foxes in both – have done astonishing amounts of damage to the indigenous flora and fauna. But again, these creatures would not be seen as exotic in the way that, say, the first elephant to visit Australia was seen as exotic or even the way in which the copy of Frémiet's notorious sculpture of a gorilla making off with a naked woman was seen as exotic (among other things) when it was exhibited in Melbourne in 1897. This is partly because the dominant populations and the residual dominant culture in both of these countries are European and specifically Anglo-Celtic and so although these animals are introduced they are also familiar. The same applies to merino sheep or Charolais cattle in England. These are both introduced but it's difficult to see a farm animal as exotic. While in Australia and New Zealand, sheep, cattle, horses, deer and trout – the introduced animals that have not destroyed the eco-system (although in the first two cases they have, in fact, profoundly changed it to the point of destruction) – would rarely, if ever, be seen as exotic by the non-indigenous human population.
So to be exotic for my purposes an animal either has to come from a long way away from the point at which it is encountered or it has to be perceived as profoundly foreign because of its distance from any of the commonly encountered animals of the region. In practice this means that it almost certainly has to come from outside of Europe – bears and marmosets only just about count in the regard – and that means India, Africa, some other part of Asia and, more rarely, Australasia and the Americas. In other words an exotic animal has really to have come from the overseas colonies and dominions of the British Empire.
There had, of course, been exotic animals in England before any thought of the massive overseas Empire that had come into being by the later nineteenth century had begun to form in anyone's mind. Most famously perhaps there was the Tower Menagerie. This was a collection of animals kept, as the name implies, in the Tower of London. It most famously started with and always included the lions who are part of the regal arms of England – lions and the display of power go together and this can be seen from the hunting scenes on the Assyrian reliefs in the British Museum through to recent events in Libya where even when the days of the regime were clearly numbered one of the late Colonel Gaddaffi's sons made a point of visiting the lions in Tripoli Zoo. Matthew Paris records the elephant that was given to Henry III by Louis IX of France and actually drew a charming picture of it for his Chronica Majora. The elephant lived on an unsuitable and expensive diet of steak and red wine and died in 1257 after one magnum of claret too many. It was not the first in England however, as two war elephants came over on Julius Caesar's major raid in 44 BC and one drowned while crossing the Thames. Henry III also had a polar bear which was given to him by the King of Norway. This was kept in the Tower on a long chain so that it could pad down the Thames for a swim and I believe that polar bears may also have come back to England with Martin Frobisher and were exhibited for Elizabeth I at Hampton Court along with two Inuits in 1577. Subsequent monarchs expanded the Tower Menagerie which came to include really exotic animals such as kangaroos. In the Georgian period the Menagerie expanded to Windsor Great Park where kangaroos were successfully bred and where, on one occasion, a leopard, gift from a senior administrator in India, escaped after an unsuccessful attempt to stage a stag hunt (this was recorded in a painting by Stubbs who also painted – from its skin and skull – the first kangaroo to arrive in England). Princess Charlotte kept pet kangaroos and Princess Caroline kept parrots at what is now known as the Queen's Cottage. Bears were a common enough sight both as dancing bears on the roads with their Romany keepers and as the fighting bears in the Bear Garden on the South Bank. Contrary to popular belief the bears were not baited to death and we know the names of some of them – Sackerson, Old Harry Hunks and Tom a Lincoln for example – indeed it may even be the case that bears occasionally left the Bear Garden to perform on stage in one of the theatres (later including Shakespeare's famous Globe) that clustered on the South Bank in Elizabethan and Jacobean London's entertainment quarter. Certainly, a passage in George Peele's play The Old Wives Tale suggests this and what are we to make of Shakespeare's most famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear"?
Excerpted from The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy by John Simons. Copyright © 2012 Libri Publishing. Excerpted by permission of Libri Publishing.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface and Acknowledgements, ix,
Chapter One Introduction – Jaguars Make Awkward Pets, 1,
Chapter Two The Trade in Exotic Animals – The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy or Snakes (by the Mile), 19,
Chapter Three The Travelling Menageries – The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair!, 57,
Chapter Four Circus and Spectacle – A Playful Lion is a Terrible Thing, 81,
Chapter Five Zoological Gardens – I Have Known Human Lovers of the Wombat, 99,
Chapter Six The Private Menageries – Exit Pursued by a Bear, 137,
Chapter Seven Museums, Collections and Conclusions – In the Dead Zoo, 159,