I'd long been aware that the internationally famous travelling Wombwell's Menagerie, which operated from circa 1805 up to the 1930s, had links with the Wombwell family living in Tollesbury and thought I'd like to know more!
How do the Wombwells buried in St. Mary's Churchyard fit in, if at all, with the history of the menagerie and did the menagerie ever come to Tollesbury? What connection did George Henry Wombwell who lived at Tollesbury Hall and was licensee of the Kings Head have to the menagerie's founder? But first I will give a history of George Wombwell 'the great' and his three touring menageries.
George Wombwell, the first proprietor of the menagerie bearing his name, was born in 1777. He is believed to have come from a small hamlet called Duddenhoe End in the parish of Wenden Lofts in the North West corner of Essex. There are Wombwells recorded in the Clavering area, nearby, going back several hundred years.
An assistant surgeon who knew Wombwell's mother in the late 1840s wrote
At the village of Duddenhoe End, near by [to Saffron Walden] a boy, by the name of Wombwell was born, and became devoted to
natural pursuits. He collected animals of all kinds, showed them about, and in the end became well-known as the owner of the
finest travelling menagerie in the kingdom. Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (1828 - 1896) Vita Medica
George Wombwell learned the trade of a cordwainer and made leather goods including shoes. It was upon his removal to London, where he ran a shop selling caged birds and leather goods that he started to make a collection of exotic animals which were to feature in his famed travelling menageries. Around 1805 he spent a huge amount of money for the time - £75 - on two boa constrictors brought in to the London docks and proceeded to charge the public to see them. Within only three weeks he had recouped his outlay and this set him on the path of running his own incredibly successful menagerie. In fact, so successful, that by his death in 1850 there were three menageries on the road managed by him and other family members.
George Wombwell framed picture [Wombwell Family Collection]
We are told in Popular Entertainments Through the Ages [Samuel McKechnie publ. 1931] that in 1828 at the St. Bartholomew Fair (albeit one of the biggest fairs) Wombwell's was top of the list for attendance with an income of £1,700; at 6d for admission this translates to 68,000 people.
'Wombwell's', then 'Edmonds (late Wombwell's)' and 'Bostock & Wombwell's' menageries can all be traced back to this famed showman, over a period of 126 years.
Precursors of zoos and circuses, these menageries travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, and without today's sensibilities regarding the capture of wild animals and animal welfare, the population flocked to marvel at hitherto unseen exotic and, in many cases, dangerous animals shipped in via the docks. Wombwell's became the largest menagerie in Britain, touring the British Isles and the Continent, followed by America from coast to coast, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand and later India and the Far East.
Posters for the menagerie reveal it started in 1805 and the earliest newspaper advert I have found reports that by 1808 Wombwell was living in Piccadilly and advertising his menagerie at his premises; admittance was 1 shilling, between the hours of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The 'exhibition' included
the Male Slama [Llama?] from Mount Verdes ... the Great Mufalon [Mouflon?] ... with two living Crocodiles, and a number of other
rare animals and birds, not to be equalled in any other Exhibition in London. [The Morning Post 13th May 1808]
Newspaper biographies refer to him later obtaining premises in Commercial Road, Limehouse, London
where he kept his purchases and built wagons for the transport of his animals. He was 30 years of age when he started his
venture . In order to obtain animals he kept in touch with the pilots on the Thames and elsewhere so that when East
Indiamen and other sea-going ships entered the Downs with such things aboard he was promptly notified and secured the first
chance of buying them. Later he engaged agents to watch the ships' arrivals. Herts and Essex Observer 5.12.1931
He used these premises as his base, their proximity to the docks being ideal and from 1807 he started to take his collection on the road. His business card bearing a woodcut of a tiger read
Wild Beast Merchant
All sorts of foreign Animals, Birds etc. bought, sold,
or exchanged, at the Repository of the
From the outset, maintaining a menagerie was a dangerous business and there were a number of serious injuries and even fatalities. In 1809 a visiting tradesman, Tom Soaper, was fatally bitten by a snake and, over the years, several employees were badly maimed or killed. In 1849, Wombwell's own great nephew and great niece were savaged to death six months apart, William Wombwell, attacked by an elephant and Ellen Blight savaged by a tiger when performing in its cage. The menagerie regularly made the national press with stories of escapes by some of the most dangerous animals and the savaging and deaths of several members of staff, the public and farm livestock. It appears there was no such thing as bad publicity because people would flock to the menagerie to view (for example) the lion that had savaged its keeper!
In her novel, Cranford, which appeared in episodes between 1851 and 1853, author, Elizabeth Gaskell makes reference to Wombwell's
such a piece of gaiety was going to happen as had not been seen or known of since Wombwell's lions came, when one of them ate a
little child's arm. [Cranford Chapter 9 p. 128 Penguin Classics]
Accidents with equipment and wagons were fairly common. The burial register of White Colne, Essex notes the death of John Cuff from Frome in Somerset. He was buried on 28th October 1878 aged 68 years leaving a wife and children in Somerset, and it is noted
He was one of Wombwell's men who slipped and fell under the wheels of the elephant caravan and was killed on the spot.
[Essex Family Historian Number 104 May 2002]
Wombwell toured his menagerie in wagons which he built and stored in his Commercial Road yard and appeared at many of the established country fairs until his burgeoning reputation also ensured an audience for his menagerie alone. The wagons were pulled by up to sixty horses and sometimes by an elephant, later on supplemented by steam-powered traction engines to pull the largest of wagons.
On the March
[Wombwell's Illustrated and The Life of George Wombwell - Wombwell Family Collection]
Between 1842 and 1850 Wombwell founded two more menageries, No. 2 and No. 3, and by the time of his death the three menageries were all on the road at the same time managed by family members. Wombwell himself tended to travel with No. 1 Menagerie. At some point in the 1820's or '30s the menageries started to be accompanied by a brass band.
Sadly, many of the animals died. Little was known about how to care for them and some animals could not cope with the British climate. However, Wombwell and those who followed him in the family business, took their animals' health very seriously and often used the services of top veterinarians when the animals took ill. Wombwell is credited with being the first man to successfully breed lions in captivity and also had success with breeding tigers and elephants.
Although he took the keenest interest in animal welfare, George came to regret his decision to stage a fight at Warwick between his lion, Nero, and six bulldogs. Tickets for this 'Great Lion Fight' with a picture of Nero at the top were sold for between one and five guineas. The fight was held on 26th July 1825 and bets were placed. Nero, to the assembled crowd's disappointment, wouldn't fight, but at a re-match with the younger lion, Wallace, the lion quickly despatched all the dogs. The ensuing uproar at animal cruelty led to Wombwell disputing the accusation of cruelty saying that neither lion was harmed beyond a few scratches (which is more than can be said for the dogs). I quote part of the letter he wrote to The Times.
Now Sir, can any man in his senses suppose that I would risk the loss of my two lions, the finest ever seen in this country, for
he purpose of gratifying a cruel propensity? No, Sir, I never formed such an idea and I further say that another exhibition of
such a scene shall never be engaged in, or encouraged by, Sir, your most obedient servant. [The Times 1st August 1825]
It didn't, however, stop him from using the incident to promote the menagerie.
William Hone, who visited St Bartholomew's Fair in 1825 only a year after the Warwick fight noted
the painted showcloths representing the animals, with the proprietor's name in immense letters above, and the words The Conquering Lion very conspicuous. There were other showcloths along the whole length of the side, surmounted by this inscription stretching out in one line of large letters
NERO AND WALLACE, THE SAME LIONS
THAT FOUGHT AT WARWICK
[Hone's Every-Day Book William Hone publ. 1825]
From the diary of Sir Walter Scott in 1825 we also get a reference to the lion fight.
" Returning from the [Law] Court, looked into a fine show of wild beasts, and saw Nero the great lion, whom they had the brutal
cruelty to bait with bull-dogs, against whom the noble creature disdained to exert his strength. He was lying like a prince in
a large cage, where you might be admitted if you wished. I had a month's mind - but was afraid of the newspapers. I could be
afraid of nothing else, for never did a creature seem more gentle and yet majestic. I longed to caress him. Wallace, the other
lion, born in Scotland, seemed much less trustworthy. He handled the dogs as his namesake did the * southron "
[The Diary of Sir Walter Scott 8th July 1826]
* a reference to William Wallace's revolt against English occupation of Scotland, 'southron' meaning 'people from the south'.
The costs of purchasing the animals, their food, and the expense of keeping such a large outfit with numerous employees on the road were huge. When the worst happened and a valuable animal died George would often display the carcass to a public who had an appetite to get up close before he sold the body to a taxidermist or museum.
Believed to be George Wombwell's this sovereign case and chain has a mounted lion's claw [Wombwell Family archive]
George donated various animals, including Wallace, to the natural history museum at Saffron Walden, local to where he had been brought up. Wallace is still on display there to this day and was the inspiration behind the Stanley Holloway 1930s monologue, Albert and the Lion, where young Albert is swallowed by the lion at Blackpool Zoo.
There were one great big Lion called Wallace, his nose it were covered in scars and he lay in a somnolent posture with the side of his face 'gainst the bars.
Wombwell's lion, Wallace [courtesy of Saffron Walden Museum]
The original Wallace died in 1838 - there were subsequent lions called Wallace - and was sent to the Saffron Walden museum by stage coach. A framework for his body was made of wooden struts and wires, over which his skin was stretched and stuffed with wood shavings. He was mounted with his left front paw theatrically posed on the figure of a dog, in remembrance of his triumph in the fighting pit. The first museum catalogue published in 1845 reads
Lion Barbarus Grey ( The Lion Wallace) Presented by Mr. G Wombwell. This animal is remarkable as the first lion bred in this country and was, during his life of 25 years, in collection of Mr. G Wombwell, surviving his battle with the dogs at Warwick, several years
George also sent to Saffron Walden Museum
lions, leopards, tigers, bears, and many sorts of birds, some of which were dissected, their skeletons being set up and their
skins stuffed and preserved Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson (1828 - 1896) Vita Medica
A famous elephant story highlights the competitive spirit between George and his rivals. Determined not to let his rival, Atkins, have free rein at St. Bartholomew's Fair in Smithfield in 1836, with ten days to go until the opening of the fair, George and the menagerie made the long journey from Newcastle upon Tyne to London. They walked day and night still finding time to give an exhibition daily en route. On arrival men and animals were exhausted and the elephant fell ill and died. George's rival was able to provocatively advertise 'the only living elephant in the fair'. Not to be outdone, George advertised 'Come and see the only dead elephant in the fair!'
People flocked to see Wombwell's elephant so much so that barricades had to be erected to contain the crowds!
According to 'Lord' George Sanger's memoir there were pitched battles between menageries which would leave one fair and, en route to the next, would jostle for position on the road to ensure arriving first and gaining the best pitch.
Wombwell was to maintain a base in Commercial Road for at least two decades which clearly caused a major problem for his neighbours. The animals not required in the touring company, or newly acquired, were kept in cages there and according to a case put before the magistrates in November 1829 the howls and cries of the wild beasts meant little sleep for the neighbourhood.
The magistrate was told by a complainant that the empty caravans not needed on the road were drawn up close to our
houses and provided a perfect home for 'vagrants' who were accused of attempting numerous burglaries. However, the case was dismissed since Wombwell owned the land on which the animals were kept.
These long-suffering neighbours also had to deal with the escapes - there are reports of escapes by a polar bear and a tiger from the Commercial Road premises.
However, the public appetite for the exotic and dangerous described as half-believed-in-beasts ensured Wombwell's venture was a resounding success.
His menagerie was one of the earliest and largest travelling zoological collections in Britain and reportedly did more to
familiarise the minds of the masses of the people with the creatures of the forest than all the books of natural history ever
printed. [The Scotsman 10.4.1872]
Another account refers to the menagerists as wandering teachers of natural history.
Initially the animals were simply on display and as we have seen, there was even an appetite for viewing the corpses of these exotic species. A showman would give a 'lecture' about the animals to the assembled crowd but as time went on, the animals were trained to perform, lion-taming being a speciality. The lion-tamers, known as 'Lion Kings' or 'Lion Queens' became celebrities as did Wombwell himself.
The menagerie was usually arranged in an open square, with the painted show-front and entrance forming one side of the square and the beast wagons the other three. The square was roofed over with a canvas awning attached to the top of the wagons. Some of the tamer beasts like giraffes and camels were not caged and for an extra charge the public could have a ride on an elephant. Outside were large hangings bearing pictures of wild animals under which sat the brass band which played from start to finish.
The Menagerie Show Front [Wombwell Family Collection]
Initially light was provided by candles in bottles, then naphtha flares before, by the end of the nineteenth century, the menagerie was generating its own electricity.
On several occasions the menagerie was to appear before Royalty, before William IV and before Queen Victoria.
E.H. Bostock, son of Wombwell's great niece, Emma, tells us
George Wombwell held a Royal Decree from George IV which gave him permission to erect and exhibit his menagerie in any
marketplace in Great Britain for any consecutive three days free of cost. [E H Bostock Menageries, Circuses and Theatres]
In 1834 the Windsor Express reported on his visit to the then King and Queen
Part of Mr. Wombwell's Royal No. 1 Collection of Wild Beasts was taken into the Quadrangle of Windsor Castle on Monday for the
inspection of their majesties King William IV and Queen Adelaide and visitors. [Windsor Express 1.11.1834]
In extracts from Queen Victoria's journal the visit of George Wombwell on 27th October 1842 is described
... Mama came to luncheon, after which we walked down to the Stables..... where, in the Riding School, Mr. Wombwell brought us 2
little tigers and 5 young lions to see. The little tigers were only a fortnight old, darling little things, and I stroked
them. The lions ran about like little dogs, rolling about and playing with a Newfoundland dog, who is bringing them up The man
told us that these were the 2nd litter of both, who had ever been bred in England, & that only the other day he had sent 2 of
the tigers away, who were as big as the mother.....
In 1847 the menagerie appeared before Victoria in the quadrangle at Windsor Castle following which the posters proclaimed 'ROYAL WINDSOR CASTLE MENAGERIE'.
Back page of Bostock and Wombwell's brochure showing the menagerie's 1847 visit to Windsor Castle.
Indicated by a note from E.H. Bostock the man standing to the side of the elephant is George Wombwell and the man in the
top hat is James Bostock
The Royal Archives have the entry concerning this visit from Queen Victoria's Journal (in the handwriting of her daughter Princess Beatrice who edited her mother's journal after her death.)
Was amused in catching the arrival in the Quadrangle of Mr. Wombwell's Menagerie which had been exhibiting at the Fair and which
came up in 14 waggons! Mama joined us at luncheon, after which we went down to the Quadrangle, where the cars with the animals were drawn up on either side. On the one side were monkeys, parrots and birds - a gazelle, zebra & rhinoceros, llama etc. and at the end a very accomplished elephant, Polar Bear, jackal, hyena, a lioness, with 2 dear little cubs - a den in which there were a young lion, lioness, panther, leopard and another with a large lion, lioness & leopards. That celebrated Miss Chapman goes into both those dens. Then there was also a wolf, a very fine tiger & 2 leopards bred in the Menagerie only 7 months old. All the animals are in extremely fine condition. It was thought safer that the "Lion Queen" should not go into the dens, which rather disappointed her but we saw her ride on a handsomely decked out elephant which was somewhat unmanageable. We and the 4 children fed the elephant in its enclosure.
The proprietor of the menagerie for the 1854 visit to Windsor - by which time George Wombwell had died - was his great niece's
husband, James Edmond and the Royal Archives have letters from him in one of which he commented that this was the second time
he had appeared before the Queen.
Edmond (late Wombwell's) visit to Windsor [Wombwell Family Collection]
There was a later visit by younger members of the royal family to the menagerie while the Queen was staying at Balmoral. Her journal entry for 23 October 1869 reads
... The Childen had been to Ballater to see a menagerie of Wombwell's...
George Wombwell died in 1850 while 'on the road' in Northallerton, Yorkshire in his caravan.
This lion portrait is believed to have hung in George Wombwell's caravan. On the reverse (see below) is his signature
[Wombwell Family Collection]
George Wombwell was so well known that his obituary was published in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, indicating quite how great was the popularity of his menageries. On the day of his death an obituary reports
the melancholy fact having been announced to the visitors, who retired expressing the deepest sympathy, his fine brass band
played the beautiful 'Dead March' ... the beasts were fed, and the exhibition closed [The Era 1.12.1850]
He was buried in Highgate Cemetery and lies beneath a statue of his lion, Nero.
His coffin, described in the obituary
was a particular object of curiosity, being highly polished and ornamented with brass and gilt mouldings... manufactured of oak, recovered from the wreck of the Royal George.
The story behind the coffin was that Prince Albert had consulted George because his hounds were falling ill and some had died.
George identified that their drinking water was contaminated and after changing the water source they made a full recovery. A
grateful Prince Albert pressed George to choose a gift and he requested timber salvaged from the * Royal George with which to make a coffin. It was reported that George promptly put the completed coffin on show - held together by joints with no nails at his request - and he charged the crowds extra to see it, subsequently keeping it in his private residence in Commercial Road as part of the furniture!
* The Royal George was the largest warship in the world at the time of its launch in 1756 having taken ten years to build and capsized off Portsmouth in 1782.
George's vault at Highgate cemetery
The National Archives have George's will and in it he leaves his Menagerie No.1 to Ann Morgan 'now living with me' who was also known as Mrs. Wombwell, which, most likely, was her maiden name. It is believed she was his niece - more of that later - and had been married to Henry William Morgan, who died circa 1815 leaving her with two young daughters. No marriage has been found between Ann and George and it is believed that Wombwell was in fact already married but estranged from his wife. Ann was subsequently buried with him.
Menagerie No. 2 was left to Harriet Edmonds née Wombwell and her husband, James. Harriet was George's great niece * and she and James continued running the menagerie which was advertised as 'Edmonds' (late Wombwell)'.
* both Harriet and her sister Emma Bostock née Wombwell are described in all the publications I have read as Wombwell's nieces -
indeed George refers to them as his nieces in his will - whereas I believe in fact they were his great nieces. However, they
would have been Ann Morgan's nieces! [See Appendix 1 Family Tree]
Menagerie No. 3 was left to George's nephew, George Wombwell, who was the son of George's brother, Zachariah.
In all three cases, from the wording of the will, it is clear his beneficiaries were already running their respective menageries and were bequeathed
all that my menagerie or collection of animals now managed and conducted by her/him together with the horses, caravans,
furniture, fittings up and all other appendages ...[T.N.A. PROB 11/2126/233]
Menagerie No. 1
Ann Morgan [detail of menagerie brochure cover - Wombwell Family Collection]
As the owner of No. 1, the largest menagerie with which its founder and owner, the late George Wombwell, was most associated, Ann Morgan née Wombwell advertised that the menagerie had doubled in size only a few years after George's death
In the censuses following George's death, Ann Morgan gave her name as 'Ann Wombwell, widow'. On the road, in 1851 she is recorded as being in a caravan at the Town Head, Wardleworth, Rochdale, Lancashire, 'a wild beast merchant'. Two other caravans are listed there housing her musician brother-in-law, John Blight, (married to her sister Elizabeth), while next door to him is the master of the band. Ann herself has a niece and nephew living with her.
In 1861 they are in Doncaster; the census records they were sleeping in their caravans in the market place and Ann, aged 73, is described as a 'proprietor of a menagerie'. Her sister and brother-in-law, the Blights, are living with her with their six children.
By 1871 Ann, at 83, had retired, and was living with her daughter, Amelia Bramston née Morgan, in Hampstead along with four younger relatives.
Ann Wombwell's scarf still treasured by the family
It is believed Ann retired in 1866 handing the menagerie over to her sister, Elizabeth's daughter, Harriet, and her husband - the Fairgrieves.
Edinburgh-born Alexander Fairgrieve and his wife Harriet née Blight (who in 1851 at the age of 15 was living in the caravan with her aunt Ann at Rochdale) are found in the 1871 census touring the show. The entry for Kingston on Thames reads
These persons who are travelling with Wombwell's No. 1 Menagerie slept in Caravans in the Cricket Field, Kingston on Thames
Alexander is described as the Manager of Wombwell's No. 1 Menagerie (33 men)
Along with them are Harriet's father, John Blight, aged 71, now a widower, and her unmarried sister, Emma.
Fifteen people are listed as staying in the caravans on the cricket field in that census, their roles in the business not given except for Alexander and the elephant keeper.
By 1871 the Fairgrieves had three daughters under 10 who were presumably being cared for by relatives. Travelling with his parents was their three month old son, Alexander, who was born in Plymouth. Could having such a young family be why Alexander and Harriet too were shortly to retire from business?
In 1872 the menagerie was put up for auction in Edinburgh where we are told it had been located for some time. The animals offered for sale included various breeds of monkey and baboon, a wombat, porcupines, hyenas, a gnu, boa constrictors, zebras, a variety of bears, two elephants, eleven lions, a Bengal tiger, seven camels and three 'beautiful glossy' leopards.
Harriet Fairgieve's aunt, Ann Wombwell, died in 1876 having had to witness the end of her and George's No. 1 Menagerie. No.2, however, was to become the principal menagerie and in the meantime a new menagerie had been set up by family members, 'Bostock and Wombwell's'.
Ann Wombwell's memorial in Highgate cemetery on the side of George Wombwell's vault
Menagerie No. 2
This was the menagerie bequeathed to Harriet Edmonds née Wombwell and her husband, James Edmonds. Harriet was George's great niece and she and James continued to run the menagerie which was advertised as 'Edmonds (late Wombwell's).
In 1841, in their twenties, Harriet and James Edmonds are in the Scottish census for Bellie, Moray with three year old daughter, Amelia, and a James Wombwell (shoemaker) with them - possibly Harriet's brother and the son of William and Hannah Wombwell of Tollesbury. Described as being in 'Wombwell's Caravans Travelling the Country' it is clear the Edmonds were involved from a young age with the menagerie.
In 1851 Harriet and James do not appear in any census but their son, James Charles Edmonds, aged 4 is a 'visitor' to Tollesbury staying with Harriet's parents, William and Hannah Wombwell, and their daughter, Emma - her sister.
In the 1861 census, three caravans are in the Cattle Market at Deansgate in Manchester. James Edmonds, who we now learn is from Ireland, is the 'proprietor of the menagerie' aged 53 and his wife Harriet's birthplace is given as Cressing, Essex, she is 46.
Meanwhile, four of their children are living together in St. Albans with daughter Annie Elizabeth, at the age of 18, running the
household on an allowance from their parents and looking after James Charles (who was later to take over managing the menagerie)
aged 14, Hannah aged 12 and Margaret aged 10. Their places of birth, Annie, in Gloucester, James in Liverpool and the two
youngest in Bath gives a sense of the family's itinerant lifestyle. From a letter written by their father which is held in the
Royal Archives it appears that at this time the children were attending school at Miss Kents, in St. Peter's Street, St.
In 1871 Harriet, and her daughter Anne are in one of two vans in the Market Square at Merthyr Tyfil while her husband, James, is in 3, Somerset Villas, Lordship Road, Stoke Newington with their other daughters, Hannah, Margaret and Amelia, the latter with her husband and children, the Cross family. The house in Stoke Newington was to be in the family's possession for some decades.
In 1881 twenty three show vans are camped at Grantham Market Place and the Blue Lion Yard. Harriet, now a widow, is the 'proprietor of Wombwell's menagerie' and her unmarried daughter, Anne, is still living with her. In the caravans are also proprietors of rifle saloons, shooting galleries, steam roundabouts, donkeys, waxworks, photographers, a conjuror and musician. Not all of these were necessarily part of the menagerie; the big fairs would attract different showmen and stallholders. In the same census, her son James Charles Edmonds, is described as the 'manager of Wombwell's menagerie' and is also in Grantham along with seven showmen.
James Charles Edmonds in 1875 had married Albertina Jamrach the daughter of another menagerie proprietor, Charles Jamrach, who was described as 'the world's foremost importer of wild animals' and ran a menagerie in London. Jamrach described himself as a 'naturalist' and it is interesting to note that his son-in-law, James Charles Edmonds, also described himself as a 'naturalist' in his application to join a Masonic Lodge in 1875, his address given as Stoke Newington.
Early on, the Edmonds were assisted by James Bostock who had worked for George Wombwell since 1839 and married Harriet's sister, Emma Wombwell in 1852 in Tollesbury. He had become George's contracting and advertising agent and the travelling show was his and Emma's life as it was for the Edmonds. James Bostock was also instrumental in gaining the Royal Command performances at Windsor Castle in 1847 and 1854. According to his son's memoirs, James worked for the No 1 menagerie for nineteen years and by 1859 James Bostock was assisting the Edmonds as manager of 'Edmonds' (late Wombwell's)', the No. 2 menagerie, which he worked for until 1867.
By 1866 it appears James had set up his own exhibition, initially in a booth adjacent to Edmonds'. By 1867 James and his wife,
Emma, were running what could only be construed as a rival concern, 'Bostock and Wombwell's'. James did, however, continue to
buy horses for the Edmonds being, according to his son, a great judge of horse-flesh.
The cover of the menagerie brochure with George and Ann Wombwell/Morgan at the top and Emma and James Bostock at the
bottom. Emma's likeness to Queen Victoria was often remarked upon! [Wombwell Family Collection]
In 1873 we learn of Harriet Edmonds' retirement - for the first time! By then a widow, it was reported Harriet's husband, James,
had run the collection for upwards of 40 years Carlisle Patriot 23rd May 1873.
However, all did not go to plan, for two years later the Yorkshire Post reports a court case Edmonds v Day where it transpired Mr. Day had bought some of the stock from the Edmonds and begun to tour his own menagerie, billing it as 'DAY'S late WOMBWELL'S Royal No. 1 Menagerie'.
It is clear that the family would not stand for an outsider, in competition with them, capitalising on the Wombwell name.
The York Herald of 24th November 1875 prints an advertisement carrying a statement from the family as they prepared to appear at the Martinmas Fair in York.
As there are Small Menageries travelling that have the impudence and audacity to use the name of Wombwell because they bought two old caravans formerly belonging to Mr. Wombwell and an old blind camel at Mander's sale for £4 10s; the proprietors deem it necessary to caution the public against such an imposition. Mrs. Edmonds and Bostock and Wombwell are the only representatives of the great and original Wombwell and all others are base pretenders trying to mislead the public.
When Harriet's son, James Charles Edmonds, became the manager is not clear but it is likely that Harriet stopped travelling with the menagerie in 1873 but remained the owner and figurehead. James Charles doesn't appear in the 1871 census but is listed as the manager of the menagerie in the 1881 census in Grantham. In 1891 in West Ham he is listed as a 'retired menagerist' and by 1901 he is a farmer in Rayleigh, Essex and then later, in 1911, a farmer in Purleigh.
In 1884 we hear of Harriet's retirement... again! However, this time the menagerie is being broken up and sold off.
It is announced that Edmonds' (late Wombwell's) Royal Windsor Castle Menagerie will be sold by public auction at Liverpool
towards the end of July... [it] has been owned and successfully managed for the last 50 years by his niece, Mrs. Edmonds who is
now retiring from the business. Among the animals to be sold are an African elephant, stated to be only a few inches smaller
than Jumbo, 8 performing lions and lionesses, a lioness and her litter of baby cubs, leopards, hyenas and serpents. Evening
Gazette (Aberdeen) 18th July 1884
Later that year 'Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie' is reported as acquiring stock at the auction,
recently enlarged by collections from the celebrated menagerie of the late Mr. George Wombwell Aberdeen Evening Gazette 25th
James Bostock died in 1878 in Farnham, presumably while on tour, and his wife, Emma, then became sole proprietor while James William Bostock, her son, became manager. James William issued a further statement to the press.
On July 29th, 30th and 31st 1884, 'Edmonds' (late Wombwell's) Menagerie' was sold and dispersed by Public Auction and at the
sale the Messrs Bostock were purchasers to the greatest amount of money. Be particular not to be misled by unprincipled persons
using and trading under the above name and title,' Edmonds' (late Wombwell's' Windsor Castle Menagerie is a thing of the past
and the Royal National menagerie is the only genuine establishment whose owner is directly connected with the Wombwell family.
Royal Cornwall Gazette 15th May 1885
In 1888, an advertisement for Wombwell's Royal National Mammoth Menagerie announces that it is owned by 'Madame Bostock née Wombwell'.
The LARGEST, GRANDEST and most complete ZOOLOGICAL COLLECTION that ever travelled this or any other country
22 Monster Carriages (all new)
63 Magnificent Cart Horses
55 Employees and over
700 valuable Animals and Birds Gloucestershire Echo 8th October 1888
One of the menagerie wagons on the road while the elephant drinks from a horse trough [Wombwell Family Collection]
However by the next year Emma had retired and her sons took on 'Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie'. The Era newspaper 12th April 1884 printed the following
This superb collection was started in 1867 by the late Mr. James Bostock who for 28 years previous had well and truly played the
part of advance manager to 'Edmonds' (late Wombwell's) Royal Menagerie' In 1867 he styled his show 'Bostock and Wombwell Royal
National Menagerie' by which name and title it has ever since been known, is now, and will be till its termination. Mr. Bostock
dying in 1878 the management of his concern fell on his sons James William Bostock and Edward * Charles Bostock under whose
auspices it has been most successfully carried on. Mr. Edward * Charles Bostock having acquired sufficient capital and experience organised last year a menagerie of his own - thus the entire management of 'Bostock and Wombwell Royal National Menagerie' is now vested in Mr. James William Bostock.
* presumably this is a mistake and should read Edward Henry Bostock
It goes on to say that the menagerie is 'the sole property' of Emma Bostock (née Wombwell) sister of Mrs. Edmonds, both nieces of the renowned Mr. George Wombwell of world-wide celebrity and her son James William Bostock is 'responsible business manager'.
A third brother, Frederick Charles Bostock toured with the menagerie and became a famous lion tamer, we will see later he was appearing with the Menagerie on one of its visits to Colchester but later he was to
set off on his own direction touring the UK, Europe, and America
[ archives.shef.ac.uk/agents/corporate_entities/76 ]
Menagerie No. 3
The third menagerie was left by Wombwell to his nephew, also George, son of Zachariah. While called the 'smallest' it is believed it still employed about 20 staff to start with.
In 1897, the press took up the case of nephew George Wombwell's descent into poverty and the coverage was to elicit a letter to The London Mail from his relative, Edward Henry Bostock, who by then was running the most successful of the three menageries. Edward was clearly disputing the facts of the newspaper coverage and, attempting to put some distance between him and George, he wrote
It [No. 3] had a brief career, not more than three or four years when it was disposed of, thus it will be seen that it is at
least 43 years since the George Wombwell you refer to was in the menagerie business. As for performing with the animals, I hear
on very good authority that this branch of the business he never took up The London Mail (6.1.1897)
At this point Edward was to send his elderly relative 5 guineas via the newspaper.
By 1908, Edward was clearly disposed to be more generous.
PENSION FOR OLD SHOWMAN
The halo of romance which surrounds the wanderings of a showman has never been more clearly demonstrated that by the widespread expressions of sympathy for the old showman, George Wombwell, nephew of the George Wombwell who founded the travelling menageries in 1805, who at the age of 91 is at present an inmate of Edmonton Workhouse, London.
When old George Wombwell died in 1850 he left three menageries. No. 1 (the original) was carried on by his widow up till 1865,
No. 2 was left to a niece, while No. 3 (a small menagerie) became the property of the George Wombwell who is now at Edmonton.
The No. 1 was dispersed in 1872, the No. 2 menagerie (Mrs. Edmonds') came into the possession of Mr. E.H. Bostock, the present
proprietor of Bostock and Wombwell's the show that has never left the road. Mrs. Bostock, the mother of E.H. Bostock, was a
niece of the great Wombwell, and sister to Mrs, Edmonds, hence the unbroken continuity of the show and its great hold upon the
affections of the entire English-speaking race. The small Wombwell show bequeathed by the great George to his nephew was very
soon dispersed, and for over fifty years George Wombwell the younger has been a bandsman in military and other bands in and
around London. Although the aged nephew of the great George Wombwell has been out of the show business for over fifty years, and
has not been in touch with the Bostocks or in any way connected with the Royal Menagerie, Mr. E.H Bostock has promptly come to
his aid. Mr. Bostock writes to inform us that only once in his life has he seen the old man in question and that this was
thirty years ago. Mr. Bostock has asked the Chaplain of the Showman's Guild, the Rev. T. Horne, to place the old man in a
comfortable home, and he has undertaken to allow him 10s a week for life.
The Evening Star and Daily Herald 5th November 1908
George Wombwell (the nephew) died the following year.
Further light is shed on the dispersal of Menagerie No. 3 in the London Evening Standard of 1st August 1855 - only five years after the death of George Wombwell Senior. Appearing at the Insolvency Court was his nephew George.
We are told Menagerie No. 3, its stock decimated by a series of accidents then disease, had been sold months before by auction on 27th April 1855 at Hackney - the last place it was exhibited
By then there were only
5 vans, a jaguar, leopard and leopardess, a nylgau [Indian antelope], hyena, jackal, six monkeys, an Alpine wolf, racoon, baboon, civet cat, some birds, a Russian bear and two dogs
and they realised less than £200.
* * * *
The Menagerie visited Colchester several if not many times. In 1839, probably under the management of George Wombwell himself,
a monster elephant mounted on 6 iron-banded rollers and drawn by twelve horses was seen passing North Bridge which trembled
beneath its weight [from the unpublished research of S Wargent Mersea Museum - source unrecorded]
We are told the menagerie established itself behind the Moot Hall in Colchester High Street, was lit by gaslight at night, and 'had an excellent band'.
The Essex Standard of 26th November 1841 advertised the Menagerie Now Exhibiting in Colchester reporting the menagerie would visit the principal towns in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk on its way to Norwich for the Christmas holidays.
Another arrival of the menagerie in Colchester is recorded in the diary of Colchester man William Wire.
April 12 1848 Wombwell's Menagerie came into the town this morning, when a sight loving folk had their taste gratified by the
Lion Queen riding in a seat on the back of an elephant through the principal streets, followed by the caravans in train
[ERO T/A 515 Microfilm of the diary of William Wire]
The 'Lion Queen' in question would most likely have been Ellen Chapman (known as Nellie) who performed under the name Madame Pauline de Vere and had become a celebrity. Said to be the first woman to put her head inside a lion's jaws, Ellen was only a teenager when she began performing with Wombwell's and was shortly to leave, joining a rival George Sanger whom she married. Her fame was such that commemorative Staffordshire figurines were produced showing her as the 'Lion Queen' flanked either side by a lion and leopard.
In the Essex Standard of Saturday 19th December 1885 a review of the visit of Bostock and Wombwell's menagerie was published
On Friday and Saturday December 11th and 12th this large menagerie which now belongs to Messrs Bostock and Wombwell paid another
visit to the town and was located in Military Road... the menagerie is much larger than on previous occasions when it visited the town and has to be drawn by 51 powerful horses. The feature of the collection is the fine show of Lions and Lionesses, which elicited much admiration, and the group of Bengal Tigers are also large specimens of their class. The fierce looking Hyaenas and ungainly bears likewise came in for much attention whilst the Elephants (one of which is very large) were in good condition. The Lions were put through several performances by Captain T. B. Cardono and Mr. F.C Bostock in the most daring manner possible which gave rise to much applause. In fact, the whole collection is a very large and fine one indeed.
The Ipswich Evening Star advertises appearances by E.H. Bostock's Menagerie at Hadleigh, Suffolk on Thursday 12th December 1889 followed by two nights at Colchester on Friday and Saturday 13th and 14th December.
The Essex County Standard of 17th October 1891 records another visit to Colchester. Curiously the advertisement records it is 6 years since their last visit and 'Edmonds' (late Wombwell's)' seems to be far from defunct as it is collaborating with James William Bostock to form
Monstre United Shows - The Real Wombwells.
It was appearing in Sudbury on Saturday 17th and Colchester on Monday and Tuesday, October 19th and 20th 1891. Advertised as a 'Menagerie, Circus and Museum' it offered '25 wagons of Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles', a circus including jugglers, wire-walkers, clowns, sharp shooters and performing horses amongst other animals. The 'Museum' offered 'curious human beings' from heaviest to shortest to tallest as well as snake charmers and other curiosities.
In a letter from E.H. Bostock to his cousin, George H. Wombwell, in Tollesbury he mentions his No. 1 Menagerie would be appearing in Colchester, Maldon and Witham around 14th December 1900
The Tollesbury Connection
In the Essex Standard dated 2nd November 1878, mention is made of two lion clubs born while the menagerie was on the road in
Brightlingsea, these cubs were christened
"D'Arcy" and "Tollesbury" in honour of two Essex villages with which the name of Wombwell is familiarly associated
The earliest local reference to the family is in the tithe awards for Tollesbury dated 1839, in which a William Wombwell is
listed as the tenant of a field and a homestead at Oxley Green (between Tolleshunt D'Arcy and Tiptree) held by landowner Jeffery
Grimwood Esq. The field measures 1 acre 1 rood and 31 perches, the homestead contains 2 roods and 11 perches.
In the 1841 census for Tollesbury there is an entry for an 'agricultural labourer' called William Wombwell (1790 - 1854) and his
wife, Hannah (1790 - 1854) and they have children, Eliza aged 14, Charles aged 11, Frederick W aged 9 and Emma aged 6 living with
them. I believe William to have been George Wombwell's nephew but most sources indicate, I think erroneously, that they were
It is accepted that George Wombwell's parents were James and Sarah Wombwell. Researching the family baptisms has revealed they had a son called Samuel and he was the father of our Tollesbury farm worker, William. Although no baptism record has been found for Ann Morgan née Wombwell it becomes apparent by researching her sister Elizabeth's parentage that Ann was sister to William and Elizabeth. This would agree with sources saying that Ann was George's niece.
There is a Samuel Wombwell at Tollesbury in the 1841 census aged 80 and living on Independent means. He died the same year in the district of Maldon (which must surely mean he died in Tollesbury) but was buried at Cressing which seems to have been where the family had been based as we shall see. I believe this Samuel was the father of William Wombwell, Elizabeth Blight and Ann Morgan.
William's family is still in Tollesbury in the 1851 census but sadly, daughter Eliza, has died aged 17 (and is buried in Tollesbury churchyard), Charles and Frederick are no longer at home, the former was to spend his life in Tollesbury as an oyster dredger and fisherman. The 1851 census gives more information than that of 1841 and we discover the father, William, was born in Black Notley, mother, Hannah, in Faulkbourne and daughter, Emma, in Cressing in 1834. With William appearing in the tithe awards for 1839 it narrows down the time-frame for their removal from Cressing to Tollesbury to between 1834 (Emma's birth) and 1839.
An older daughter, Mary Ann, who was in service in Stoke Newington in 1841 was to move to Oxley Hill living next door to her parents in 1851 with her husband, miller and farmer, John Posford, and three young children. They were to move to the Mill house in Tollesbury.
I have not found any Wombwells in Tollesbury before William and Hannah's family moved there from Cressing - the earliest graves are those of their daughter Eliza in 1845 and son, James, in 1846.
There is a grave in Tollesbury Churchyard for Joseph Wombwell (1817 - 1873) who was also one of William and Hannah's children.
Joseph doesn't appear in the Tollesbury census until that of 1861 where he is farming Borehams Farm (Prentice Hall Lane) with 82 acres, employing 2 men and 3 boys, a tenant farmer. Joseph, his wife, Charlotte, and son George aged 11 were all born in Cressing. Their son James, aged 4 in the census, was born in Tollesbury which would indicate a move from Cressing by 1857.
Joseph's son George was to become the Tollesbury constable, later being promoted to Head Constable of Maldon.
In the 1871 census Joseph is farming a similar acreage to that of 1861 and he and Charlotte have a nephew, William Wombwell, aged 13, living with them who I believe is the orphaned son of Joseph's brother Frederick, an animal keeper in Wombwell's menagerie. Given William's birthplace of Gloucester it is likely he was born while his parents were on the road.
Joseph's grandson, Frederick Charles (1877 - 1942) son of policeman, George, was to become known as Captain Frederick Wombwell and was celebrated as one of Bostock and Wombwell's menagerie's most famous lion tamers. In the 1891 census, at the age of 14, Fred was a general labourer in West Ham living with his parents, he is nowhere to be found in 1901 presumably by then on the road with the menagerie and in 1911 he is listed in Tenbury, Worcestershire with the menagerie as a lion tamer.
An eye-witness account of Fred's appearance and performance appears in The English Circus and Fairground.
The most popular and best known trainer of my day was Captain Wombwell, who worked the lions for Mr E.H Bostock. He was a heavily built man, about 5ft. 8 in. in height, with fair hair, a long waxed moustache, and the largest hands I ever saw.
He was attired in a crimson plush jacket with gold braiding and frogs - evidently made before he became so stout, as it would not meet anywhere. It was emblazoned with many medals presented to him to record special deeds of valour - in the menagerie and not on the battlefield.
Armed only with a twisted willow whip stock and rawhide thong, he would climb slowly up the steps leading to the door of the cage. With his hands on the door-catch and his eye on the position of the animals, he would at the right moment open the door, and with extraordinary agility for such a heavy man, be inside with the door slammed behind him in a split second. Then the fun began.
The five big lions would start bounding round the 6ft-wide cage, with Wombwell unconcernedly standing in the centre. After the first mad rush round, the usual jumping and posing took place and then, to my mind, the most exciting moment arrived when the trainer had to leave the cage. Again, the exact moment had to be gauged for a hasty exit backwards, which was accompanied by a mad rush at the door by two or three of the lions.
[The English Circus and Fairground Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake publ. 1946]
Incidents where Fred received a mauling were frequently in all the newspapers. He died in 1942 aged 65 at the showground at the Swan and Bottle Meadow, Uxbridge and a brief newspaper obituary referred to him as
one of the last of the old-time lion-tamers. The funeral is at Feltham on Monday [The Advertiser and Gazette 8th May 1942]
Captain Fred Wombwell [Wombwell Family Collection]
It has not been easy tracing all of William and Hannah's children, some being independent adults before their parents moved to Tollesbury and a lack of documentation as to birth or baptism. I have come up with Mary Ann (c1811 - 1881), Harriet (c1815 - 1890), Joseph (c1818 - 1873), George (c1818 - 1909) James (c1820 - 1846) William, junior (c1824 - 1849), Eliza (1828 - 1845), Charles (c1830 - 1912), Frederick (1832 - 1869) and Emma (1834 -1904).
Five of the siblings worked for Wombwell's menagerie, Harriet, James, William, Frederick and Emma and, as we have seen, the two sisters became owners of the family's menageries.
Harriet Edmonds, née Wombwell, as related above, was a beneficiary of George Wombwell's will, inheriting his No. 2 menagerie.
James Wombwell died young in his twenties and is buried in Tollesbury graveyard. In the 1841 census he is listed as a shoemaker touring with Wombwell's Menagerie with Harriet and James Edmonds in Bellie, Moray in Scotland.
Sadly, his brother, William Wombwell, was one of the two Wombwell cousins who died young working for the menagerie. A headstone for William in the cemetery at Coventry commemorates his death in the city where, while travelling with the show, he was gored to death by an elephant. Only months later the death of his 'cousin', Ellen Blight, had to be added to the headstone. Her mother was Ann Morgan's sister, Elizabeth, and her father, John Blight, a bugle player in the menagerie band. Ellen's sister, Harriet Fairgrieve née Blight, as we have seen, ran No. 1 menagerie with her husband.
Upon the departure of Ellen Chapman, 'the Lion Queen', Ellen Blight was chosen to replace her at the age of 16. After only about 12 months as the Lion Queen she became a casualty when performing in a cage with a lion and tiger; the latter fatally attacked her. The headstone to the two cousins, erected by George Wombwell, reads
Sacred to the memory of William Wombwell nephew of Mr. George Wombwell (wild beast proprietor) he died on the 12 Jun 1849 aged 25. Sincerely respected and esteemed by all who knew him. Also in affectionate remembrance of Ellen Elizabeth Blight (cousin of the above) who died at Chatham in Kent on the 11 Jan 1850 in the 17th year of her age. The tenant of this little grave, our hope, and joy, and pride, was snatched away from our embrace in early youth she died.
The headstone of William Wombwell and Ellen Elizabeth Blight
Another sibling who toured with the menagerie was Frederick William Wombwell. In the marriage register for Tolleshunt Knights recording his marriage to Letitia Serjeant in 1852 importantly the entry tells us his occupation; he is listed as a 'Menagerie Keeper'. Fred and Lettie's children are Alice Emma born in 1854 in Tollesbury, Catherine (Kitty) born in Birmingham in 1855, William Frederick born circa 1858 in Gloucester (although not baptised until 1871 in Tollesbury), Charles James born in Northampton in 1859 and their youngest, George Henry, 1862 - 1933, born in Dundee. These nationwide birth registrations are again consistent with the family being on the road and explain the absence of the family from the 1851 and 1861 censuses.
Curiously, although Fred seems to have enjoyed a good career in the menagerie there is a 'settlement' document in the Essex Record Office, dated January 1865, which implies he, Letitia and their five children had fallen on hard times - or at least were claiming parish relief in Tollesbury when their 'place of settlement' was in fact officially Cressing.
In D/P 58/13/3 is a letter from the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of Tollesbury to those of Cressing.
complaint has been made....
that Frederick Wombwell Letitia his Wife and their five legitimate Children namely Alice aged eleven years Catherine aged nine years Frederick William aged seven years Charles James aged five years and George Henry aged two years
have lately intruded into, and come to inhabit and are now inhabiting in the said parish of Tollesbury endeavouring to settle there contrary to law, not having resided in the said parish of Tollesbury nor in any other Parish within the Maldon Union for three years next before the application for this warrant, not having produced any certificate acknowledging them to be settled elsewhere, and not having gained a legal settlement there. and not having become otherwise irremoveable therefrom. and that they are now actually chargeable to the said Parish of Tollesbury and are now receiving relief therefrom, and that the belief in respect of which the said Frederick Wombwell and his said wife and children have so become chargeable to the said parish of Tollesbury has not been made necessary by sickness or accident. And that the said parish of Cressing is the place of their last legal settlement...
It is ordered that the family is escorted out of Tollesbury to Cressing and this Justices' Order is signed by two Justices of the Peace and dated 10th January 1865.
There follows The Order of Removal within which is revealed some of the family's origins
...the said Frederick Wombwell was married to his said wife, Letitia, at the Church of the Parish of Tolleshunt Knights in the County of Essex on the sixth day of April 1852 and has by her the five children above named all being born in lawful wedlock.
That the said Frederick Wombwell is the legitimate Son of William Wombwell formerly of your said Parish of Cressing and Hannah his Wife, both now deceased, and was born in your said Parish of Cressing on or about the Twenty first day of December 1830 in a Cottage situate by the side of the Witham Road, which was the property of Mr. Tunbridge, a Brewer at Braintree and in the occupation of the said William Wombwell deceased.
The document says that William Wombwell was also settled in the said Parish of Cressing by birth. This does not agree with the 1851 census where William is listed as being born in Black Notley but it seems to be the official line that Cressing was the family's place of settlement.
Presumably the family was relocated to Cressing and it is likely Letitia and the children remained there while Fred re-joined the menagerie. His picture below, dated 1868, appears in his nephew's book.
"Fred Wombwell, uncle of E.H. Bostock, expert in the training and exhibiting of wild animals"
[Menageries, Circuses and Theatres E H Bostock]
I think it was during the early part of this tour that my uncle, Mr. Fred Wombwell, who was an expert in the training and exhibiting of wild animals was involved in an exciting episode. This occurred at Redruth. My uncle was absolutely without fear and the animals he handled seemed to know this. They all respected him, and in some cases they actually loved him. He had, however, one failing. That was the habit of taking a 'drop too much' occasionally. This failing nearly cost him his life at Redruth.
We had at that time two half-grown lions and two half-grown tigers which performed together. He entered the cage of these young lions and tigers 'under the influence' and proceeded to display much more courage than discretion. The upshot was that one of the lions suddenly set upon him and he was in imminent danger of his life when, marvellous to relate, one of the tigers immediately sprang to his assistance and attacked the treacherous lion in the rear.
This diverted the lion's attention from my uncle, and no doubt, somewhat sobered by the startling development, he promptly retreated from the cage. When I add that the lion which attacked him was the most docile of the quartet in the cage, you may conclude that a lion may be a 'pussyfoot' in more senses of the term than one. The moral for those handling wild animals is never to approach them under the influence of alcohol. [E. H Bostock: Menageries, Circuses and Theatres]
Sadly, both parents died young and Fred and Lettie's youngest son, George Henry, was only 5 when his mother died (1867) and 7 when his father died (1869). Letitia was buried in Cressing in May 1867 and Frederick in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in March 1869, presumably while on the road with the menagerie.
Death Announcement of Frederick William Wombwell [Wombwell Family Collection]
The younger orphaned children were taken in by family members - Charles James, aged 11, can be found living in Tollesbury with the family of his uncle, a fisherman, in 1871. He was to follow his uncle's trade, had a family and spent the rest of his life in Tollesbury. In 1871 William Frederick was living with his uncle Joseph in Tollesbury and later became a policeman settling in Southsea where he died in 1907. The youngest, George Henry, at the age of 10 in 1871 is listed as a 'cousin' living with an oyster dredger in Tollesbury, Joseph Pearce, and his wife, Amelia née Wombwell. Amelia was Joseph's daughter.
Fred's sister, Emma (1834 -1904), who appears with her parents in the 1841 and 1851 census living at home in Tollesbury also travelled with the menagerie before she became proprietor of 'Bostock and Wombwell's'.
At a time when agricultural workers were barely able to survive on low pay and poor conditions and, for girls, service was the only option until marriage, it is little wonder the family menagerie business appealed to William and Hannah's children. It was a little like running away with the circus while remaining in the bosom of the family!
Emma was only 18 when she married her Uncle George's employee, James Bostock, aged 38, at St. Mary's, Tollesbury in 1852. Emma and James's union began the dynasty that was to be known internationally as 'Bostock and Wombwell's'.
James Bostock (1814 - 1878), a farmer's son from Staffordshire, had started working for the Wombwell Menagerie in 1838 when the menagerie was passing through Staffordshire. Starting with George Wombwell at the age of 24, he worked his way up from horse keeper to contracting and advertising agent and became instrumental in arranging two Royal Commands for exhibitions at Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria in 1847 and 1854.
The entry in Queen Victoria's journal for the appearance at Windsor on 27th October 1854 reads
...In the afternoon there was an exhibition of Wombwell's menagerie (which had been here once before some years ago) in the Quadrangle and we went with the Prince [Nicholas of Nassau], the 7 children and Ladies and Gentlemen to see it. There was a fine collection of lions and lionesses, leopards and giraffe & a number of very droll monkeys whom we fed & who chattered away famously. There were also a big and a small elephant, which performed all sorts of tricks. They were very tame and quiet, walking about near us, & we all fed them. The big elephant afterwards dragged a cart with the Band about, the Band playing the"Hallelujah Chorus"!! What an idea!.....
Emma and James had their children while on the road with the menagerie. James William, born in 1856 in Hastings, Edward Henry in 1859 in Stony Stratford, Frank Charles in 1866 in Darlington and Fanny Wombwell Bostock in Scotland, 1875 (we are told Fanny was born in the travelling van of the Menagerie in Stevenston, Scotland).
A postcard of Emma Bostock née Wombwell signed by her daughter, Fanny Fitt
There was also a daughter, Emma Wombwell Bostock, born in 1864 in the Maldon registration area (presumably Tollesbury) who died at only 14 in 1878 in Norwich. Emma and James's first child, an infant son, Arthur James Wombwell Bostock, who was born and christened in Tollesbury in 1853 died in 1854 at the age of 14 months; both children are buried in Tollesbury's graveyard. Tollesbury clearly remained 'home' to the family.
Touchingly, in later life, their brother, E. H. Bostock wrote to relatives in Tollesbury requesting information about his sister's grave wishing to make provision for its maintenance, clearly unaware he also had a brother buried in the churchyard.
The grave of Emma Wombwell Bostock in St. Mary's graveyard, Tollesbury
As we have seen, in 1867, the Bostocks were to detach themselves from 'Edmonds (late Wombwell's)' setting up their own 'Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie'.
James Bostock [E. H. Bostock Menageries, Circuses and Theatres]
When James died in 1878, Emma continued as manager and owner of the show working together with their sons. By 1883 Edward Henry Bostock had established his own outfit 'E. H. Bostock's Grand Star Menagerie' and eventually he bought his mother's business in 1889.
Edward Henry Bostock (1858 - 1940), was to enjoy a celebrity similar to George Wombwell; he made Scotland his home and became known as 'Britain's Barnum'. He did, however, have connections to this part of Essex being educated at the school at Tolleshunt D'Arcy and then a boarding school in Kelvedon. Even while at school the children spent their holidays with the menagerie and at the ages of 12 and 15 respectively Edward Henry and his older brother, James William were taken on full-time, Edward as a 'utility boy' and James as an assistant to the advance agent. There began a life-time involvement for all three brothers with circuses, menageries, zoos and variety entertainment.
E.H. Bostock had a long correspondence with his first cousin in Tollesbury, George H Wombwell, and used to send 'passes' for any of his Essex relatives to visit his shows when they performed locally.
A pass for his extended family from E.H. Bostock [Wombwell FamilyCollection]
Emma's death in December 1904 was noted in the press
she inherited the menagerie, which she owned and controlled for many years, retiring about 15 years ago with an ample fortune, and settling down in London. Subsequently she came to Norwich where her daughter (Mrs. Fanny Wombwell Fitt) resided and for about 8 years Norwich has been her home. On her retirement the deceased distributed amongst her family the greater portion of her fortune. Among her four children, Mr. James Bostock is travelling in America, Mr. Frank Bostock is the proprietor of the Hippodrome at Paris, and also has a menagerie in America, Mr. E.H. Bostock is actively associated with the Norwich Hippodrome, and owns 'shows' in South Africa being also the owner of Wombwell's Menagerie, which is now touring in this country....
* * * *
An eye-witness account of 'Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie' coming to town was recorded by Clergyman's son George Austin. He was Nottingham's clerk of the markets and in charge of the Goose Fair for 40 years from 1904. He described the scene on one opening day in his memoirs:
"Early in the morning, barriers consisting of barrels filled with sand were placed across all roads leading to the Market Place.
"The great sensation was the arrival of Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie, the biggest show in the fair and the last to arrive. It approached by Derby Road and Chapel Bar on to the large space reserved in the western end of the Market Place.
"The show was made up entirely of large wagons, one side of each being enclosed with iron bars, over which shutters were fixed when the show was travelling. The cavalcade of wagons, drawn by fine horses, with a couple of elephants and several camels bringing up the rear, was watched by hundreds of excited children.
"The wagons were lined up in their appointed places. If a wagon was slightly out of line, an elephant, instructed by its keeper, placed its head against the side, and gently pushed it into position.
It was, for its day, a fine collection of animals in surprisingly good condition, considering the cramped quarters. There were performances with lions and tigers, sea-lions and seals, and an "educated" chimpanzee.
"When the show was not too crowded children were given elephant rides, and often there were baby animals which privileged visitors were allowed to nurse. On the front was a uniformed brass band and leather-lunged "barkers" announced the wonders to be seen within. An ancient pelican surveyed the scene with jaundiced eye."
A postcard showing the menagerie front and the band on the left: Hull Fair 1911
[Wombwell Family Collection]
Thomas Frost in his 1874 book, Old Showmen and the old London Fairs, described the band as being
gorgeously uniformed bandsmen , whose brazen instruments brayed and blared from noon to night on the exterior platform
Luke Berrington from Findon in Sussex joined the band that travelled with the menagerie as second bugler in the 1840s. His life story is told on-line by Valerie Martin, a Findon historian. He worked with the menagerie for five years.
Travelling the countryside to various sites and playing in the band, he wore a handsome uniform, a coat of red and gold embroidery.... Sometimes four six or even eight heavy horses pulled the wagons of animals behind them. Nine horses were employed to pull the oak and iron built 'elephant wagon' containing the six-ton beast as it rolled along the roads from town to town. Valerie Martin.
The bandwagon and horses pose for a picture [Wombwell's Illustrated and The Life of George Wombwell - Family Archive]
Circus World Museum in Wisconsin in America has a fully restored bandwagon from Bostock and Wombwell, believed to have been in use in England in 1856, sold at auction in New England and acquired by the Circus World Museum in the 1980s. See
circusworld.catalogaccess.com/objects/179 for a photograph showing how colourful the wagons were.
E.H. Bostock refers to his bandsmen wearing 'toppers' and frock-coats and listed the instruments played in the line-up during the 1870s,
bombardon, euphonium, 2 trombones, tenor horn, solo cornet (leader), soprano cornet, repiano cornet, 2nd cornet, and double
drums [E H Bostock Circuses, Menageries and Theatres]
A photograph showing the band in their summer outfits appeared in a souvenir brochure.
Band in summer outfits in 1910 [Wombwell Family Collection]
The band played outside as long as the menagerie was open and featured on their bandwagon in the menagerie's processions into towns. Their repertoire included William Tell and the Hallelujah chorus along with patriotic numbers.
In later years, the younger generation of Bostocks withdrew the band as a free outside show and added it to the inside attractions.
E.H. Bostock's granddaughter, Heather Bostock Payne, remembered the family's stories about her grandfather.
"I was only three and a half when my grandfather died, but I do remember that he was something of a celebrity - and whenever he came to visit us, the silver would be polished and the house all spick and span....
"Edward's mother Emma Wombwell was part of an ancient family of showmen and women and when he was a young boy, he joined her touring menagerie.
"When he was old enough, he started his own, and he took on his mother's when she retired, touring all over the globe to the likes of India and Japan," says Heather. "At the age of 18, he toured South Africa - quite something, for a young man."
At the age of 38, however, Edward was tired of travelling and decided to retire to Norwich.
"After six months, his itchy feet got the better of him and he moved to Glasgow, where a business opportunity he had heard about, seemed too good to miss," says Heather. "He and his wife moved to Burnbank Terrace, and the Scottish Zoo opened in 1897.
"My mother, Frances, was born in 1900, the youngest of his three daughters. Her big sisters were Hilda and Lucy, and EH had a son, Gus."
So well-regarded were the Bostocks, that just a few months after the Glasgow grand opening, Edward was invited to exhibit at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration in the Crystal Palace in London.
"He really was something of a celebrity, in today's terms," smiles Heather. "I remember whenever we went to the Kelvin
Hall carnival, we'd be entitled to sit in the box. It was very fancy. Glasgow Times 5th October 2022
E.H. Bostock's Scottish Zoo and Hippodrome was the first zoo in Scotland and opened on 12th May 1897 and was a tantalising centre of exotic animals, a circus big top, a theatre, cinema, a roller-skating rink and sideshows.
Three healthy, medium-sized elephants have been requisitioned from Bostock's Zoo at the London White City by the military authorities. It is presumed that they will be used for heavy draught purposes. At the end of the war the elephants will be returned to the menagerie. The Government fund the wages of the keepers of the animals, but otherwise there is no further payment; the Bostock people being satisfied to be freed for a time from the expensive upkeep of a trio of voracious appetites.
"Besides," as young Mr. Bostock puts it, "we are doing something to help." The World's Fair 22/8/1914
E.H. Bostock still kept his links with East Anglia.
E.H. Bostock of circus and menagerie fame, in 1905 also owned the Hippodromes in Norwich and Ipswich and was keen to acquire the Colchester Hippodrome but the deal fell through. In following years he built cinemas in East Anglia and was always keen to get into Colchester. The opportunity came in 1928 when the Bostock Company acquired a site in St. John's Street and built the Playhouse Theatre. He engaged John Fairweather as architect and TR Partington as builder, and his son Douglas Bostock looked after the new building's progress. All was ready for opening night on Monday March 18th 1929 for the first performance on stage of the musical comedy "So here is Love" direct from London's Winter Garden Theatre.
Lexden History Group Summer newsletter No 21 June 2011
The Essex Record Office has the building plans for the site in St. John's Street owned by E. H. Bostock dated 1928. Although the Playhouse opened as a theatre it was to quickly be sold to Associated British Cinemas [which became ABC]
The Playhouse, Colchester, built by E H Bostock [Tony Millatt]
As for the travelling menagerie, 'Bostock and Wombwell's', it showed for the last time at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle at the end of 1931.
Bostock & Wombwell company was perhaps Britain's most successful travelling menageries, lasting till 1932 when it sold its stock to London Zoo. At the time of the sale, the menagerie comprised 25 monkeys, 50 parrots, two elephants, two brown bears, one polar bear, two spotted hyenas, one striped hyena, 13 lions, two tigers, two wolves, five leopards, two camels, a pelican, a crane, a kangaroo and a sealion. British Library
Many of the animals went to the fledgling Whipsnade Zoo which had opened in 1931.
"Menagerie train mobbed - cheered on its 400 miles across Britain" were the headlines in the Daily Express as the B and W menagerie, which gave its last performance in Glasgow on 16 January 1932, was taken on its final journey to Whipsnade Zoo... At Carlisle we stopped to feed. The lions were thrown 14lbs of meat each... people ...paid a penny to be admitted to the platform to see the fun. There were 730 of them the stationmaster told me, it was a triumph. Barriers were put up. Police had to lock the station doors. We steamed out to ringing cheers. Only to see the King going to Balmoral do the Carlisle people throng the station normally... it was the same everywhere. The train drew up at stations and masses of the boys and girls cheered the bright yellow cages strapped to the railway wagons. [article from The King Pole magazine 'The Wombwells and the Bostocks']
It is believed Bostock went off to South Africa to avoid seeing the menagerie broken up; he died in 1940, aged 82, and is buried in Old Kilpatrick Cemetery.
Dr John Middlemiss, in his book 'A Zoo On Wheels', refers to the will of James Bostock the founder of Bostock and Wombwell's.
[He] had stipulated...that when there was no Bostock to control the show it should be disbanded - and every animal and board, every item of equipment, should never be used again as Bostock and Wombwell had used them. Livestock were not to be sold to any one private individual...all lettering [on the 'Show Front'] painted out by two coats of paint; paintings to be removed; the front never again to be used for circus or menagerie purposes....
* * * * *
A few stories persist about the menagerie in Tollesbury.
A tale is told of part of the show being presented in Tollesbury in a tent in Hall Road in the 1880s. The Main attraction was a large lion. The audience was invited to come up and put their heads in the lion's mouth whereupon some ladies fainted!
Tollesbury to the year 2000: Ann Crossley
It is believed that in fact the lion was toothless and so tame it slept at night under its trainer's bed!
The school logbooks record occasional holidays being given to the school children because there was a local Fair or Fete...
or a visit to the locality of Wombwell's Menagerie. Plough and Sail: David Thornton
It is also possible that animals from the menagerie were kept on land purchased for the purpose in Tollesbury when not touring. There is anecdotal evidence that school children were allowed to visit the animals 'if they were very good'.
However, perhaps the presence of the animals in Tollesbury was not always welcome for we are told
any purchaser of a plot of land in Mell Road must sign a covenant 'forbidding the presence of performing lions or other menagerie animals on the site' Tollesbury to the year 2000 Ann Crossley
George Henry Wombwell (1862 -1933), the youngest son of Fred Wombwell was to make his mark on the village of Tollesbury despite such a bad start in life, losing his parents so young. He bought Tollesbury Hall and lived there until his death. He also bought The King's Head in 1901 and the Red Lion in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, set up brickworks, farmed, built 'Woodup' Pool, an outdoor salt-water swimming pool, and played an active part in bringing the railway to Tollesbury.
George Henry Wombwell, his wife, Caroline, and two of their children early 1900s [Wombwell Family Collection]
In an interesting exchange of letters between him and his cousin E. H. Bostock it would seem that in the early twentieth century George had business troubles caused by over-stretching himself financially and had asked his cousin to buy shares in a field in Tollesbury. I believe this to be 'Brick Field'. In an undated copy of a telegram to E. H. Bostock at Glasgow Zoo George wrote
Can you come and take over my Farm and Brickmaking Business pressed for Capital absolute Success otherwise must fall
Do please come to my rescue & take full ownership
The clay turned out not to be suitable on account of warpage and shrinkage in the kiln and eventually George's brick works ceased.
Embossed brickworks stamp [Wombwell Family Collection]
In another letter to his cousin, it is clear George had high hopes there would be a demand for gravel extraction by the Great Eastern Railway when laying the light railway to Tollesbury.
This photo was taken shortly after the opening of Tollesbury Railway Station in 1904 [Cedric Gurton].
George had the swimming pool constructed in Tollesbury known as Woodrolfe Pool or 'Woodup' Pool which is still enjoyed today by the village. The family has the framed plans for the pool
Framed plan for the swimming pool at Tollesbury [Wombwell Family Collection]
'Woodup' salt-water pool made by George H Wombwell in 1907 - to be enjoyed by his family and neighbours.
George H's children from left to right: Elsie, Fred (hands on hips), Lilla, George, baby Claude, Dollice, Ted
High Street, Tollesbury. The Kings Head showing G.H. Wombwell as the licensee - before 1911 [Cedric Gurton]
This entry from Cedric Gurton's article about Tollesbury at War would imply that George Henry Wombwell had, prior to WW1, allowed his family's menagerie to camp and perform on his land called 'The Mount'.
Possibly the most shattering thing so far as we children were concerned, was the fact that our sand-pit and toboggan runs on The Mount indulgently allowed us by Mr. George Wombwell of Tollesbury Hall had now been confiscated for military purposes.
No more would we see the outline of Bostock and Wombwell's circus ring or the traces of Messrs. Dolman's "Hippodrome", as concrete platforms for ablutions (soldiers for the use of), latrines and gantries from which bags of straw were suspended for bayonet practices, were quickly constructed. Tollesbury was just benefiting from a piped water supply, most houses still used their wells and the village pumps, but running water at the turn of a tap was startling and was quickly brought into use by the military. The Mount was covered by large canvas marquees and bell tents.
[ Tollesbury in War-Time WW1 by Douglas Gurton ]
George Henry died in 1933 and was buried in Tollesbury churchyard as was his son and heir, Frederick Edmonds Wombwell (1890 - 1958).
Fred Wombwell - Wombwell Family Collection
Frederick Edmonds Wombwell
Frederick sold Tollesbury Hall after WW2 and like his father contributed much to the village, being a JP, School governor and a director of the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Company.
Wombwells still live in the village, namely Frederick's grandson, Adrian, a boat builder and restorer.
No doubt there are villagers in Tollesbury today who remember family stories of the show and the animals coming to the village, if so I would love to hear from you.
Peldon History Project
Postscript: In researching a farm in my own village of Peldon. I discovered that members of the Knight family who lived there had a 'gipsy' caravan which they bought from someone in Tollesbury, certainly by the 1950s. This caravan was bright yellow with red window frames, door and wheel axels and my suspicions were raised! Of course, most of the photos of the menagerie are in black and white but the report on the menagerie's final trip to Whipsnade zoo in 1932 would confirm the cages were bright yellow, so, in modern parlance, yellow was the corporate colour of the menagerie.
The train drew up at stations and masses of the boys and girls cheered the bright yellow cages strapped to the railway wagons. [The King Pole magazine: The Wombwells and the Bostocks]
Confirmed by E. H. Bostock in his book of 1927, Menageries, Circuses and Theatre, he states the wagons were always yellow.
Local engineer, Duncan Pittock, who saw the van before all but its chassis were put on the bonfire, is certain it was a Bostock and Wombwell showman's living van, probably built on an old-wartime vehicle chassis after WW1. He describes it as 'posh' and made of mahogany. With no photographs of it (to date), Derek Knight, who tells me he lived in it for five years in the early 1970s kindly painted me a picture from memory. Circumstantial evidence but I would like to think it was a show wagon sold by the Wombwell family in Tollesbury.
Derek Knight's painting of the van believed to have been a Bostock and Wombwell living wagon
Appendix 1: Wombwell Family tree
This tree shows just the principal 'protagonists' in my story and shows the family line from the founder's origins to the Wombwells still living in Tollesbury today.
As reported above, no documentation has been found to prove that Ann Morgan née Wombwell was the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth Wombwell and sister to William who came to Tollesbury but we do know her sister was Elizabeth Blight née Wombwell. Documentary evidence does exist for Elizabeth's parentage, Samuel and Elizabeth. Further, she was baptised in Black Notley in 1797 which is where her brother William was baptised in 1792.
The Wombwell family
A Zoo on Wheels Dr. John Middlemiss
Tollesbury to the year 2000: Ann Crossley
Plough and Sail: David Thornton
Shaun Villiers Everett The Real Wombwells 1-3
British Lion Queens Roy Stockdill [article in Family Tree Magazine June 2015]
Life of a Showman D P Miller 1849
Seventy Years a Showman George Sanger
Menageries, Circuses and Theatres E.H. Bostock
www.victorianmicroscopeslides.com - wallace
There are more photographs from the Wombwell Family Archive available in Mersea Museum and to Museum Members on this website. See Wombwell Family Archive for details.