History of Menageries

Elephant with M. Johnson

The Travelling Menagerie, also known as the Beast Show, is the term commonly used to describe itinerant animal exhibitions as they developed during the nineteenth century. The expression travelling zoo was also used and as well as exhibiting on the fairground, they were a stable feature of the circus. The travelling menagerie reflects the increasing wealth and influence of fairground showman in the nineteenth century, interest generated by new knowledge in the natural sciences and the publics’ fascination with the exotic and the dangerous.

The origins of menageries themselves, as collections of both domestic and exotic animals, can be traced to classical times. Both Roman Emperors and later, European Royalty, kept menageries for entertainment and prestige becoming regular additions to wealthy homes throughout Europe from the seventeenth century onwards.

Animal exhibition itself is recorded from the very earliest times, taking the form of ‘dancing’ bears, ‘sapient’ animals or, as in Elizabethan London, Bear Baiting. However, though its origins may lie in the spectacles of the Roman amphitheatres, the Travelling Menagerie itself is a peculiarly modern phenomenon.

As colonial expansion brought further and more regular contact with remote regions, birds and animals unseen in Europe arrived at the ports. Here, collectors searched, encouraging the sailors to return with animals thus supplementing their income. By popular legend, George Wombwell started his menagerie with two snakes bought from a sailor at the Port of London.

As this trade developed, animals were stocked in dealers’ yards forming a further basis for animal exhibition. The same period saw the growing popularity of pets and regular exhibitions of domestic animals, for example, the Durham Ox demonstrating the success of new breeding technologies.

The exhibition of new and bizarre animals was seen as both entertaining and educational. The search for a methodical way to account for variety in the natural world and to establish an order and classificatory system gave impetus and respectability to the menageries.

The travelling menagerie was, alongside portable theatres and waxworks, the great fairground attraction of the nineteenth century.

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

The shows were built up in a particular fashion with highly decorative front displays and the ‘beast wagons’ placed behind in a rectangle, thus forming an enclosed area. The menageries often boasted ‘A Splendid Band in Attendance’, the menagerist becoming highly regarded by the public through their displays and educational commitments. By the time of his death in 1850, George Wombwell was so well known that his obituary was published in local papers the length and breadth of the country indicating quite how great was the popularity of the menageries.

The exhibition practices of the menageries changed over time, as the population grew more accustomed to the species on display, with the animals being used as performers to reinvigorate the entertainment offer.

Through the nineteenth century the number of menageries multiplied as the increasing wealth of the urban communities created an demand for popular entertainment.

The exhibition of animals as a performance between keeper/trainer and ‘wild’ animal, in parallel with their presentation as natural curios or oddities, had been introduced by Van Amburgh in the United States in the 1820s. The circus itself, established in the late eighteenth century principally around equestrian skills, evolved gradually through the nineteenth century, into a spectacle which included a significant element of animal acts and animal exhibition in the form of circus menageries. Similarly, travelling menageries, which at first had been largely devoted to the exhibition of exotic animals and new species began to incorporate animal acts, in particular lion-taming. A contemporary development saw variety acts involving animals as actors and comedians gain popularity.

When the menageries at Exeter Change and the Tower of London had closed, their collections moved to the Surrey Zoological Gardens (1829) and the Zoological Society of London (1831/2) respectively. Similarly, travelling menageries played a role in furnishing zoological gardens. Edward H. Bostock, a great-nephew of George Wombwell for example, opened The Scottish Zoo on 12th May, 1897; while later, in 1932, he sold his collection to London Zoo at Whipsnade. Animal dealers such as Hagenbeck in Germany were instrumental in providing a network for the provision of menagerie animals.

In the latter nineteenth century and early twentieth century the constant search for variety led to the mixing of the menagerie in some seemingly unlikely combinations with the Cinematograph, for example Crecraft’s Wild Beast and Living Picture Show, and Hancock’s Living Pictures and Menagerie.

The twentieth century saw the gradual decline of the travelling menagerie on the fairground, yet as late as 1928 The World’s Fair carried adverts for ground to let at North Park Bootle for the May Day where the menagerie is at the head of the list of invited entertainments. The same issue proposes that Wild Beast Shows take up spaces to let at Grimsby Statute and Pleasure Fair. There were shows travelling till the 1960s that were essentially menageries, often travelling under the name of Lion Shows.

The most famous travelling menagerie had been founded in the first years of the nineteenth century by George Wombwell and its reputation was such that the name was still travelling until December 1931 when Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie showed for the last time at the Old Sheep Market, Newcastle.