Older Llansawel people may tell you that an elephant died here and was buried under the Village Hall. It sounds like a tall tale but is in fact true! It happened in 1888. Fred Price’s History of Llansawel (see elsewhere on this website) which was published in 1899, gives it a mention. Here is a fuller story put together from several sources.
On Saturday June 16 1888, a travelling menagerie called Bostock and Wombwell’s arrived in Llansawel to put on a show. Today we use the word menagerie to mean a zoo, but in those days it was a combination of zoo and circus and the animals were required to learn tricks as well as being on display.
It’s hard for us to imagine a world without “piped” entertainment – no television, cinema or even photography. It’s true that the first photograph was taken in 1826 and cumbersome Daguerrotypes were in use from a few years later, but photographic film was not available until 1889, and in any case photographs could not be reproduced in newspapers and magazines until much later.
Travelling menageries were the only opportunity most people ever had to see a lion or an elephant and they were enormously popular and made huge amounts of money for their proprietors. Nor were they small affairs. Victorian entrepreneurs really knew how to put on a show. A mixture of circus, fairground and zoo, with steam engines to drive the entertainments and sometimes to pull a train of wagons – they would be a great spectacle even in these jaded modern times. One menagerie for example was able to offer twenty lions as well as wolves and panthers, and a host of smaller creatures.
Bostock and Wombwells was one of the oldest, biggest and best. Most of the time it had three menageries touring different parts of the country and in rural places, each menagerie would divide into smaller units. Carmarthenshire rural villages were remote places then, and the roads of course were much rougher than they are today. That Saturday was the very first time Bostock’s had visited Llansawel but they must have thought well of us because they sent a very special elephant to the village.
What’s in a name?
Mr Price says her name was Alice but that would appear to be wrong. Both Swansea Museum and Fishlock referred to her as Lizzie but in the menagerie she was known as Madame Jumbo and there was a good reason for that. She was a female African elephant and she was very large. The largest captive elephant ever known was an African bull whose name was Jumbo (it was because of him that Jumbo came to be a name for elephants in general and also for anything unusually large.) Jumbo was resident in London Zoo between 1865 and 1882 and was said to stand 13 feet high, more than twice the height of an adult man. Madame Jumbo was claimed to be only five inches shorter than Jumbo, and if this was true, she was enormous, as bull elephants are generally one third bigger than cows. (Size was the only point the two elephants had in common – although they were contemporaries, I don’t believe they ever met.)
Early in the morning of Monday 18 June, Madame Jumbo’s keeper noticed that she was unwell and she died soon after. Dead elephants being even harder to transport than live ones, she was opened up on the spot and her stomach was sent off to London for analysis (I’ve been unable to trace the results but see the account of the autopsy of her namesake below.) I hope nobody in Llansawel gave her something nasty to eat.
Taxidermy was a great Victorian art and stuffed animals were used in private houses large and small as ornaments. The death of Madame Jumbo was a big financial blow to the menagerie but they got some of their money back by selling her stuffed to Swansea Museum soon after. Meantime, it is reasonable to suppose that the large quantities of ripening elephant meat (it was June), were indeed buried in a pit somewhere on Penybont field. As the present Recreation Ground had a large barn on it and the upper part by the river was heavily wooded, it’s likely that the remains are under the carpark or the Hall itself. But don’t go digging for bones – Captain Bostock was a superb business man and although there’s no record of it, he almost certainly treated and sold the skeleton too.
Jumbo (1861 – September 15 1885) was an African elephant, born in the French Sudan, and first kept in the Zoo Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In 1865 he was transferred to London Zoo, where he became famous for giving rides to visitors. The London zoo-keepers gave Jumbo his name, a possible corruption of Swahili jumbe, which means “chief.”
Jumbo was sold in 1882 to the Barnum and Bailey Circus for $10,000 US. Estimated to be 3.25 metres tall (10.6 feet) in the London Zoo, it was claimed that Jumbo was approximately 4 metres tall (13 feet) by the time of his death. As Jumbo was only four years old when he went to London Zoo, he might have grown that much, especially as 10.6 feet is unexceptional for an adult bull African elephant. The largest bull ever recorded was shot in Angola in 1955. It was 13.8 feet tall. Jumbo had a dramatic death, having challenged a moving locomotive in St Thomas’ Station Ontario, Canada. Modern rail commuters will sympathise with his attitude. Many metallic objects were found in his stomach after his death, including pennies, nickels, dimes, keys, and rivets.
*Amended from Wikipedia
The Tregaron Elephant
There’s a memorial at the Talbot Hotel, Tregaron, commemorating the death of an elephant there. Amazingly, both stories are true. Our elephant died in June 1888, while almost exactly forty years earlier, on the 10th of July, 1848, a different menagerie (Batty’s) visited Tregaron. There were lead works nearby at Bronwyn and “one of their elephants quenched its thirst at a polluted pool, which proved fatal owing to lead poisoning.” Given sufficient concentration, lead poisoning can kill very quickly.
Research by Dave Page boiled down from Wikipedia
Short History of Bostock and Wombwells
In the European middle ages, animals were kept for pleasure and study, but also as tokens of power. Royal menageries in particular became status symbols. Public zoological gardens and parks began to replace Royal menageries in the late 18th century. London Zoo, set up in 1828, was the world’s first scientific zoo and took animals from the ancient Royal menagerie at the Tower of London.
Travelling menageries had more to do with exploiting curiosity. George Wombwell once organized a fight between his lions and some dogs as a publicity stunt. He is said to have started by buying two snakes from a sailor in London and displaying them in pubs. He took to the road as Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie in 1805. By 1839 his menagerie was so large it needed 15 wagons to transport it. By the time he died, in 1850, he had three different menageries on tour at any given time and was so well known that his obituary was published in local papers all over the country.
His family continued long after his death. One of them became the best known of all menagerie owners – Edward (E.H) Bostock. He was George’s grand nephew – his parents ran Wombwell’s No.2 menagerie, and so he was born into a life on the road in 1858. By 1883 he had started business on his own, but in 1889, when she retired, he bought his mother’s menagerie and re-christened the combined show “Bostock & Wombwells”.
Bostock wrote a book called Menageries, Circuses and Theatres. In it he says that Gilbert Pidcock was the first menagerist, active in 1708, almost a century before Wombwell.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century there were several menageries on the road; amongst the better known are Polito, Hilton, Ballard, Pidcock, Miles and Wombwell.
At Bartholomew Fair in 1825 a lioness escaped and attacked the Exeter mail-coach.
In 1833 employees of Wombwell and Hilton fought on the Oxford Road between Reading and Henley, as both shows raced between one fair and another. Wombwell’s and Hilton’s were the two great menageries and involved in fierce rivalry.
Anderton and Haslam’s menagerie and circus toured for some years, mostly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Anderton was also a hypnotist who gave demonstrations of his powers in the menagerie tent.
In the 1900s William Sedgewick’s menagerie was one of the biggest on the road. He started with a photographic studio and by 1860 was travelling with a waxworks show. He then moved into the menagerie business and by 1869 had a group of performing lions. Sedgewick was a great breeder of lions, boasting that he had more than any other showman.
Despite bad roads and cramped living conditions for animals and keepers, the shows travelled immense distances to keep the public happy. E.H Bostock, for example, took his “Grand Star Menagerie” on this little jaunt in 1883/84:
Burton-on-Trent, Tutbury, Ashbourne, Derby, Nottingham (for Goose Fair), then to Sunderland and onto Galashiels, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth, Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Kingussie, Crantown, Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Foress, Aberdeen, Forfar, Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow, all over Yorkshire and then to Hull and shortly afterwards taking in Beverley, Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough.
This is from Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake’s book “English Fairs and Circuses”:
“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.”
Sir Garrard also evoked the end very well:
“I think it may be said that the travelling menagerie proper has had its day and, after 130 years on the road, will be seen no more. I am talking of the show of not less that six or eight wagons of beasts and a big front. Small wild animal shows are still touring the country with the fairs, but when the Bostock & Wombwell show was sold to the London Zoo in 1932 it was the end of the menagerie that relied entirely on itself.”