susanah’s journal – wild beast show

From the journal of Miss Susanah Wellington (1819-1838) of Yeovil, Somersetshire.

SW_DIARY_p4a

Frederick went to Sherborne School July 1836. In October 1836 there was a wild beast show here the animals were very good though the collection was small.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Susanah’s younger brother Frederick George Noble WELLINGTON (1824-1887), was sent to boarding school at Sherborne in July 1836, a few months before his 12th birthday.

A short history on the school’s website tells us Sherborne School was founded in the mid-16th century under the auspices of the monastery at Sherborne, and survived the Reformation to become established as a Free Grammar School during the 17th and 18th centuries. The school took on its current form as a boys’ boarding school in the early 19th century.

Rachel Hassall, Archivist at Sherborne School provided me with information she had from the school registers:

  • Frederick George Wellington, son of G. Wellington, Yeovil. Arrived 1836 – left 1839.
  • William Wellington, son of George Wellington, Yeovil. Arrived ? – left 1830.

William Edwards WELLINGTON (1813-1850) was Frederick’s elder half-brother. William was 17 when he finished his education at Sherborne. We went to work in his father George’s chemist shop in Yeovil and took over his uncle John WELLINGTON’s (1774-1845) chemist and grocery businesses in South Petherton and Martock in 1845.

Frederick was 15 years old when he left school and was apprenticed to his father and half-brother William. Frederick George Noble WELLINGTON took over the business in South Petherton after William’s death in 1850. You can read more on Frederick here.

Watercolour of Sherborne School by Walter Tyndale

Watercolour of Sherborne School by Walter Tyndale (1855–1943).

What a shame Frederick missed the wild beast show in Yeovil in 1836. I wonder what animals they had on exhibition?

The University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive has a wealth of information on the history of fairs, circuses and travelling menageries, here are some of the highlights:

The travelling menagerie evolved at the town fairs. A canvas was usually erected on poles with the animal cages or trailers lining the sides. The public paid for admission to view the exotic species. Most visitors to these wild beast shows would never have the opportunity to see such animals in their daily lives so their arrival in a town would cause great excitement.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century there were several menageries travelling – amongst the better known are Polito, Ballard, Pidcock, Miles and Wombwell.

Animal_Bear

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.

Animal_Tiger

As colonial expansion brought further and more regular contact with remote regions, birds and animals unseen in Europe arrived at the ports. Collectors encouraged sailors to return with animals from the exotic ports they visited. It is believed George Wombwell started his menagerie with two snakes bought from a sailor at the Port of London.

Animal_Reptiles

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.

Animal_Parrots

As the trade in exotic animals developed they were stocked in dealers’ yards forming the basis for permanent animal exhibitions in zoological gardens. The exhibition of new and bizarre animals was seen as both entertaining and educational. Scientists and naturalists found that observing live animals was a much better way to classify the variety in the natural world than studying long-dead and stuffed specimens. This gave impetus and respectability to the menageries.

Animal_Kangaroo

The exhibition practices of the menageries changed over time, as the population grew more accustomed to the species on display, a variety of extraordinary gimmicks and tricks were required to draw the crowds. Entertainments such as the following were reported in the Clifton Chronicle and Directory of 3-6-1868:

Musical Prodigy
Of all Modern Prodigies 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.

Animal_Elephant

By 1850 the travelling menageries, with their big cats, trumpet-playing elephants, dancing stallions and boxing kangaroos, were amalgamating with acrobats, strong men, bearded ladies and clowns from fairground sideshows. They formed the big top circuses such as Astley’s Amphitheatre in England, Barnam & Bailey in the United States and Ashton’s Circus in Australia which began in Tasmania in 1847.

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Sources: Susanah Wellington’s Journal, BUCK family collection. You can read more about it here: susanah’s journal – somerset to sydney.  Rachel Hassall, Archivist, Sherborne School Archives. Transcript of travelling menageries is taken from The University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive websiteThe nineteenth century animal illustrations are from Designs of Nature, Pepin Press, 1997.

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two penny worth of arsenic

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the chemist shop that time forgot

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7 thoughts on “susanah’s journal – wild beast show

    • Lions and tigers and bears . . . oh my!
      Hi Gail, I did notice you had been very busy lately with your writing. I’m really enjoying your intermission stories. Cheers Susan

  1. This is really interesting. In my grandmother’s diary she wrote about going to the circus–which came to town on a train and then paraded out to the fairgrounds. I have a hard time picturing the logistics of how it all worked. She also wrote once about attending some sort of traveling natural history exhibit that was in train car that I think was parked on the railroad siding.

  2. Pingback: frederick george noble wellington | branches of our family

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