Staffordshire pottery Menagerie and the Travelling showmen: circa 1800+
The beginning of the Travelling Menagerie & Showmen in early 19th century England
A menagerie is a French word known for an "establishment of luxury and curiosity" it was given
when an exotic animal collection was kept. In its early form it was a zoological garden that aristocracy
entertained themselves in, but the menagerie word stuck and later as the travelling circus became popular wild
animal collections were exhibited at fairs across Europe and the USA.
William the Conqueror had a small menagerie at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, this was enlarged by his son Henry 1st whose collection was moved to the Tower of London in 1204 during the reign of King John. Bringing the dateline forward into our collecting pottery feature was the birth of travelling shows and the celebrity showmen who ran them. Great excitement was to see dangerous beasts and ordinary people could enjoy the wonders of wild animal shows.
An impressive large Wombwells Staffordshire pottery Menagerie group with wonderful birds and beasts. (photos L and J. Russell archive) shown next to an original showground exhibit.
For more information on travelling fairs go to:
Menagerie/ Peforming Bear/ Peforming Dogs/ Nero.
George Wombwell began buying exotic animals from ships that docked from Australia, Africa
and South America collecting a whole menagerie which he started to travel the country with in 1810. By 1839 the
circus had fifteen wagons and a brass band but unfortunately not all the animals would survive our climate.
George did breed his own animals, the first lion born was called William Wallace (after the Scottish freedom
fighter), for entertainment and to excite the cravings of a blood sport nation he allowed a lion-baiting
contest with a docile lion called Nero. Set against six bulldogs Nero refused to fight so William was brought
in and the fight was soon stopped, as he had no fear in mauling the dogs.
Wombwells Menagerie. Staffordshire pottery circa 1810+. Right. Nero the Lion. Scottish Portobello pottery.
With the success of the show overwhelming the country Wombwells family set up three travelling extravaganzas, other names were also becoming well known. Italian Stephen Polito, who started touring in the late 18th century, set up a permanent winter show in the Exeter Exchange, the Strand, London in 1810, calling it "The Royal Menagerie". These animals were a favourite with potters and artists, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, RA (1802-1873) was often there, his animal art work was copied by many Staffordshire potters and his lion sculptures grace the base of Nelsons column. The menagerie is probably the most intricate piece of pottery produced from this Staffordshire era as the moulds used to complete the figure group are numerous. Both Wombwells and Politos have been named on these Menagerie figures, other wonderful groups depicting circus acts are "Performing Bear" groups, "Performing Dogs", there is Nero himself (who pairs a William Wallace Lion) and a host of others including exotic lions, leopards, zebra, camels and elephants.
A fine pair of Staffordshire pottery exotic leopards c1850 Right. Two fine pairs of Staffordshire pottery exotic lions c1850
A fine Staffordshire pottery Performing Dog group. Centre A fine Staffordshire pottery Performing Bear group. Right. A rare pair of Staffordshire pottery exotic camels.
Politos famous elephant was Chunee, he was brought to London in about 1810 and purchased by
Polito to be housed at the Exeter Exchange venue London. He was trained to take a sixpence from visitors and then
return it. He was spoken about in Lord Byron's journal from November 1913 "The elephant took and gave me
my money again - took off my hat - opened a door and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler." Sadly in
Chunee's later life he became violent, whilst walking out on a Sunday down The Strand, he became aggressive and
killed a keeper. His violence was attributed to bad toothache, which was not helped by a rotten tusk. Over the next few
days they tried to administer poison but he refused to take it so soldiers arrived with loaded rifles and shot
him. After his death the Exeter Exchange lost its popularity and the animals were removed to Surrey Zoological Gardens.
The building was demolished in 1829.
In the USA Jumbo travelled with the famous Barnum Circus, (P. T. Barnum's "Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome".....the "Greatest Show on Earth" was added later), he was the first African elephant to visit England. An enormous and wonderful creature weighing 5 tons and 11 feet tall.
His showbiz career spanned 25 years and he died in a locomotion accident in 1885.
The original Jumbo skeleton is today held in the vaults of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA.
A rare large pair of Staffordshire pottery performing elephant groups circa 1850-70 Right A smaller pair of Staffordshire pottery performing elephant groups circa 1850
Van Amburgh: wild cat trainer and peformer.
Isaac A. Van Amburgh (1811-1865) started working with wild cats at the age of 22, he was an
American trainer who combined animal menageries with circus traditions of showmen, equestrian and comedy clowns,
although his methods of training was brutal and much criticized he still became a popular figure. From a youngster
he read "Daniel in the lions den" and was determined to become a lion tamer. Daring acts of placing his arm or head
in a lion's mouth were real crowd pleasers. Always dressing in Roman costume to show his gladiator strengh, the
Staffordshire potters commemorate him with his act of wild cats & a lamb at his feet, this must have been a cruel
and frightful ordeal for the poor lamb! During the 1830's he travelled the UK and Europe for several years with
Queen Victoria's family taking a great interest in his show. A painting was commissioned and exhibited at the
Royal Academy by Landseer, this was a great honor and propelled Van Amburgh into an international celebrity. He
died a wealthy man with his name still being used some 100 years later, the domineering attitude he portrayed left
him as one of the great " Lion Kings".
Staffordshire Van Amburgh figure group Circa 1850 depicting his act of wild cats with a standing lamb at his feet. Right Lloyd of Shelton lions circa 1845-50, the shredding decoration has a lamb at rest within the lions mane. Their little faces just picked out in-between the lions paws.
Staffordshire Lion And Lamb groups circa 1850+ (Ginns archive) with a painting by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, RA (1802-1873) courtesy: held in the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11. It shows Van Amburgh relaxing amongst his wild cats with the lamb staying close by his chest. The crowds gaze in amazement through the bars of the cage. Amburgh wearing Roman attire with his shield displayed on the cage wall. ( photo copyright from the public domain).
A Lion Queen with her wild cat performance. Staffordshire Victorian Pottery Circa 1850-70. Right. This reproduction poster is available to purchase on the net.
The Lion Queens.
Female animal tamers were a novelty and George Wombell had two famous nieces who both had
this attribute. Nellie Chapmen who retired unscathed and Ellen Bright (1832-1850) who reportedly struck her
animal with a whip, it took offence and grabbed her by the throat. She was dead before help could reach her,
the inquest into her death said she was killed by a male tiger whilst performing in a den. The affair lead to
the banning of female tamers leaving "The Lion Kings" alone to carry on with their acts.
Newspapers & billposters advertising many of these events were great inspiration for the Staffordshire potters whose wares were often called toys & sold through fair & showgrounds as mementoes from a special day out. When travelling shows & lion- baiting contests were exhibited in large towns such as Warwick & Wolverhampton it's only 30-50 miles from "The Potteries". Early tales of escaped animals were told & said to happen frequently, one from 1835 of a lion (Wallace) & a tigress escaped their keepers to kill four bystanders. The inexpensive Victorian broadsheets that told these tales were not always reliably accurate sometimes inventing actual events, notwithstanding a headline featuring four deaths Wombwell nor the keepers were reprimanded.
A story appeared in the local Birmingham Mail July 2010 headed " The day a man-eating lion roamed Birmingham". An escaped lion had hid in the sewers of Aston in 1899, luckily no one was hurt and he was recaptured. The information was sent to the newspaper by the great grandson of lion tamer Arthur Feeley- who worked for Bostock & Wombwells Menagerie. In the Wombwells dynasty James Bostock married George's niece Emma, there were three sons and one E.H. Bostock carried their part of the family business forward until the early 20th century.
George Wombwell died in 1850, he was buried in Highgate cemetery under a large memorial statue of his lion Nero and there's an early taxidermy lion exhibit called "Wallace" housed at Saffron Walden Museum, Essex.
This wonderful pair of exotic animals were sold at Bonhams. Although heavily restored they still impressed myself and others at the sale.
Staffordshire pottery photos from R. & D.Ginns archive collection and thanks to L & J Russell. If any one has a problem with any part of this educational pottery article please contact us.