“Menagery is a Place where they
Animals of several Kinds for Curiosity”
(Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition)
The Travelling Menagerie, also known as the Beast Show,
is the term commonly used to describe itinerant animal exhibition as it
developed during the nineteenth century. The expression travelling zoo
was also used, and as well as exhibiting on the fairground, they were
a stable feature of the circus. The travelling menagerie reflects the
increasing wealth and influence of fairground showman in the nineteenth
century, interest generated by new knowledge in the natural sciences and
the publics’ fascination with the exotic and the dangerous.
The origins of menageries themselves, as collections
of both domestic and exotic animals, can be traced to classical times.
Both Roman Emperors and, later, European Royalty, kept menageries for
entertainment and prestige becoming regular additions to wealthy homes
throughout Europe from the seventeenth century onwards. Animal exhibition
itself is recorded from the very earliest times, taking the form of ‘dancing’
bears, ‘sapient’ animals or, as in Elizabethan London, Bear Baiting. However,
though its origins may lie in the spectacles of the Roman amphitheatres,
the Travelling Menagerie itself is a peculiarly modern phenomenon.
Bostock and Wombwell's Show Snake Charmer. Nottingham
Goose Fair. 1924.
As colonial expansion brought further and more regular
contact with remote regions, birds and animals unseen in Europe arrived
at the ports. Here, collectors searched, encouraging the sailors to return
with animals thus supplementing their income. By popular legend, George
Wombwell started his menagerie with two snakes bought from a sailor at
the Port of London. 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
As this trade developed,
animals were stocked in dealers’ yards forming a further basis for animal
exhibition. The same period saw the growing popularity of pets and regular
exhibitions of domestic animals, for example, the Durham Ox demonstrating
the success of new breeding technologies.
The exhibition of new and
bizarre animals was seen as both entertaining and educational. The search
for a methodical way to account for variety in the natural world and to
establish an order and classificatory system gave impetus and respectability
to the menageries.
The Classic Years
The travelling menagerie was, alongside portable theatres
and waxworks, the great fairground attraction of the nineteenth century.
Even as late as 1907, The World’s Fair reported the following from
THE WILD BEAST SHOW
The greatest attraction this year, as in past years, is undoubtedly
the Royal Menagerie of Messrs. Bostock and Wombwell. To quote the words
from the posters:-
'The days they come, the days they go,
But there still remains the grand old show.’
Sedgwick's Menagerie. c.1909.
The travelling menagerie evolved on the fairground.
It was first and foremost a show characterised by the exhibition of ‘wild’
and ‘exotic’ animals. Thomas Frost, in The Old Showmen, and the Old
London Fairs (1875) cites the following example from 1743:
This is to give notice to
all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, that Mr Perry’s Grand Collection
of Living Wild Beasts is come to the White Horse Inn, Fleet Street,
consisting of a large he-lion, a he-tiger, a leopard, a panther, two
hyenas, a civet cat, a jackal, or lion’s provider, and several other
rarities too tedious to mention. To be seen at any time of the day,
without any loss of time. Note: This is the only tiger in England, that
baited being only a common leopard.
In the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth century there were several menageries travelling; amongst
the better known, documented by Frost, are Polito, Ballard, Pidcock, Miles
and Wombwell. As can be seen from a reading of the excellent work of Clifford
Keeling, there are many travelling menageries yet to be revealed.
Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie. Calne, Wiltshire.
The shows were built up in
a particular fashion with highly decorative front displays and the ‘beast
wagons’ placed behind in a rectangle, thus forming an enclosed area.
The menageries often boasted “A SPLENDID BAND IN ATTENDANCE”, the menagerist
becoming highly regarded by the public through their displays and educational
commitments. By the time of his death in 1850, George Wombwell was so
well known that his obituary was published in local papers the length
and breath of the country indicating quite how great was the popularity
of the menageries.
The exhibition practices of the menageries changed over
time, as the population grew more accustomed to the species on display,
a certain variety was required resulting in entertainments such as the
Of all Modern Prodiges certainly the most prodigious is the Royal Modern
Musical Elephant at Wombwell's which plays several popular airs and
polkas, by Handel, not known to be by that immortal composer, a fact
which beats "Creation" or any other Oratorio - or Menagerie.
(Clifton Chronicle and Directory.
Through the nineteenth century the number of menageries
multiplied. Some few survived, but many were founded in the latter 1800s
as the increasing wealth of the urban communities saw a further renaissance
for the fairground. The exhibition of animals as a performance between
keeper/trainer and ‘wild’ animal, in parallel with their presentation
as natural curios or oddities, had been introduced by Van Amburgh in the
United States in the 1820s. The circus itself, established in the late
eighteenth century principally around equestrian skills, evolved gradually
through the nineteenth century, into a spectacle which included a significant
element of animal acts and animal exhibition in the form of circus menageries.
Similarly, travelling menageries, which at first had been largely devoted
to the exhibition of exotic animals and new species began to incorporate
animal acts, in particular lion-taming. A contemporary development saw
variety acts involving animals as actors and comedians gain popularity.
When the menageries at Exeter
Change and the Tower of London had closed, their collections moved to
the Surrey Zoological Gardens (1829) and the Zoological Society of London
(1831/2) respectively. Similarly, travelling menageries played a role
in furnishing zoological gardens. Edward H. Bostock, a great-nephew of
George Wombwell for example, opened The Scottish Zoo on 12th May, 1897;
while later, in 1932, he sold his collection to London Zoo at Whipsnade.
Animal dealers such as Hagenbeck in Germany were instrumental in providing
a network for the provision of menagerie animals.
Day's Menagerie. Oxford St Giles Fair. 1895.
In the latter nineteenth
century and early twentieth century the constant search for variety led
to the mixing of the menagerie in some seemingly unlikely combinations
with the Cinematograph, for example Crecraft’s Wild Beast and Living Picture
Show, and Hancock’s Living Pictures and Menagerie. The twentieth century
saw the gradual decline of the travelling menagerie on the fairground,
yet as late as 1928 The World’s Fair carried adverts for ground
to let at North Park Bootle for the May Day where the menagerie is at
the head of the list of invited entertainments, the same issue proposes
that Wild Beast Shows take up spaces to let at Grimsby Statute and Pleasure
Fair. There were shows travelling till the 1960s that were essentially
menageries, often travelling under the name of Lion Shows.
The most famous travelling menagerie had been founded
in the first years of the nineteenth century by George Wombwell and its
reputation was such that the name was still travelling until December
1931 when Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie showed for the last time at
the Old Sheep Market, Newcastle, a moment captured in photography.
Bostock and Wombwell's last build up. Newcastle.
The National Fairground Archive Collections
There are over 400 images of menageries and related
animal exhibition on the National Fairground Archive photographic database.
These cover the years 1885 to the present day and are a remarkable visual
record of this hugely popular and long lived attraction. The NFA and Circus
Friends Association book collection carry numerous works that refer to
menageries as well the autobiographies of Bostock, Sanger and Hagenbeck.
There are also a number of menagerie catalogues as well as a fine poster
for Whittington’s Menagerie from 1885.
For a translation of this article into French please click here.