Frank Charles Bostock (1866-1912)

Frank C. Bostock

Frank Bostock was part of the Bostock and Wombwell dynasty, famed for the presentation of travelling Menageries throughout the nineteenth century and the first third of the 20th century. George Wombwell commenced this tradition by exhibiting exotic animals from around 1804. This fascination for exhibition informed the emerging trends of entertainment throughout the Victorian period, with all manner of beasts, curiosities and displays of human endeavour on regular display in fixed and floating locations.

Wombwell took to presenting a travelling animal show from around 1805, competing with many other Menagerists of the time. He had a fierce drive to become the most famous animal showman in the country, and his partnership with the Bostock family established Bostock and Wombwell as the country's leading operation.

The Bostock family were land-owning farmers in Staffordshire. In 1832 James Bostock turned his back on his farming destiny and worked as a waggoner with Wombwell's Menagerie. His marriage to Emma Wombwell in 1852 saw the start of the Bostock and Wombwell dynasty, all capable and willing animal handlers and showmen. The core axis of this dynasty was the three sons of James and Emma (there were other children also): Edward Henry (EH) Bostock became the successor to running the main show, James William Bostock managed separate Menageries and presented 'Anita the Living Doll', whilst Frank Charles Bostock set off on his own direction by touring Europe and America.

Frank Bostock was equally as ambitious as his Menagerie-founding grandfather. In his memoirs he talks about how he introduced the 'big cage' to England in 1908 and how he discovered that big cats were wary of the underside of a chair. His time in America possibly led him to doing things differently, with contact at the vibrant Coney Island, and the tradition of 'The Greatest Show on Earth' pioneered by PT Barnum.

Frank C Bostock arrived in the United States in the summer of 1893 at twenty seven years of age. He set up near 5th and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn. It is said that Frank and his family lived in one wagon and had another two wagons housing four monkeys, five parrots, three lions, a sheep and a boxing kangaroo.

It could be said that the arrival of Frank Bostock and the Ferari brothers in 1893-94 (Francis and Joseph Ferari were his partners at the time, they were the sons of Italian-born English showman James Ferari) was the beginning of the touring carnival business in America. The wild animal shows they brought became the nucleus around which many of the early street-fair showmen built their midways.

The elaborate carved fronts of the wild animal shows Frank Bostock brought from England, some of them made by the Burton-upon-Trent company Orton and Spooner, served as the prototype for wagon-mounted show fronts on American carnivals for the next half century.

From 1894 to 1903 Carl Hagenbeck and Frank Bostock competed at Coney Island and for winter zoo locations. In 1903 Hagenbeck was averaging 8,000 visitors a day at Coney Island, this was only half as many as Bostock.

On returning to the UK Bostock brought back his idea of the 'Jungle', a massive touring exhibition that moved from city to city. Bostock had taken elements of British showmanship and design to America, and now reversed the procedure by bringing back the American idea of 'the big show' into the UK. 'Bostock's Arena and Jungle' is recorded at Earls Court in 1908 and then visited principal cities in the UK over the following years. Its first Sheffield appearance was in 1910, with a return visit in 1912, a few days after Bostock's death. It is recorded that Frank Bostock also had economic and property interests connected to the roller-skating craze 'rinking' in the early 1900s and the Sheffield Jungle took over the redundant skating rink in 1910, when the craze had subsided.

On Saturday 5th October 1912 it was reported in the World's Fair Newspaper that Mr Frank C Bostock was 'lying seriously ill suffering from nervous exhaustion'. The newspaper sent good wishes from his large circle of friends for a speedy recovery. However, Frank Bostock did not recover from this illness and the following week on 12th October the front page of the World's Fair Newspaper announced that 'England's Greatest Showman' had died.

Frank passed away on his 46th birthday, Tuesday 8th October 1912 at his home in Kensington Mansions, London after an attack of influenza, he left behind a widow, one son and five daughters. The World's Fair report on his death said:

"Of magnificent physique, standing well over 6ft. high, with handsome features and a perpetual smile, Frank Bostock made a fine figure in his gala dress for the ring, and for many years gave untold enjoyment to thousands of youngsters and adults by his daring and clever feats with wild animals"

At the time of his death Frank had over a thousand animals in his various shows and he had circus shows and amusement parks in America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. He had recently been negotiating with Mr Oscar Hammerstein for a lease of the London Opera House with the idea of making it a winter garden, but this was never to be.

Frank Bostock's funeral took place at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington on the afternoon of Monday 14th October. As well as his wife, children and family members the funeral was attended by a great number of people including John Sanger, Pat Collins and other great names in the showland business. The hearse, drawn by four horses, was covered in wreaths and floral tributes and there were around 30 other carriages filled with mourners. It was reported in the World's Fair that all along the route to the cemetery great crowds lined up to pay a small tribute to one who was so popular and esteemed.

Wreaths of flowers were sent from people all over the world including Tom Norman, Harry Tudor and Mr & Mrs Falkendorf who had met and married whilst the Jungle was in Sheffield. The staff of White City Jungle, London sent a wreath of a tigers head, the Wild Australia Company sent a kangaroo in flowers and a life-sized lion came from the Manchester Jungle.