Accident at Holywell

Following an enquiry from a reader, I have gathered the stories as reported in newspapers together to outline the happenings on this dreadful night where four people, three of them children, were killed in a freak accident. As usual each newspaper report contradicts the others, but generally the whole story is presented here. There are also some fascinating facts that came out of the inquest such as carriges dimensions, etc. for those interested in such matters. Details can be provided on application.

The Story as per three newspaper reports:

Under the title Accident To Wombwell’s Menagerie – Four Lives Lost, it reports that when crowded with people in a field at Maes-y-dre, Holywell, Flintshire, a gale blew up and four caravans containing the animals were thrown onto the people burying them beneath it. About 20  people were pinned to the ground, some by the arm and some by the leg. Four people were killed – Mr B McBane 36, a keeper and who leaves a widow and three youths, belonging to the town; Edward Jones, 11 David Oxford, 13 and John Hughes, 14. An inquest returned a verdict Accidental Death. – Daily News, 1859

This story is corroborated by the Derby Mercury in 1859, except it adds that the keeper had stepped out of the lions’ cage and down some steps to describe the animals when the accident happened. The keeper is here named as Benjamin McBane, and the others as David Jones the son of a confectioner, John Hughes of Holloway near Holywell and David Oxford. It was rumoured that some of the beasts had escaped, but this was not the case. The coroner was Mr Peter Parry and the inquest was held at the King’s head Inn. Mr Wadsworth, travelling with Mrs Wombwell (George died in 1850), said the same safety precautions had been adopted as on other occasions and it had never happened before.

The North Wales Chronicle reported around the same time in 1859 that Edward Jones, David Jones, John Hughes and Benjamin McBane were all killed in the accident. It continues with a police witness at the inquest. One John Morris was on duty and explained Wombwell’s men had secured the caravans inside but not outside with props. They were secure he said.

Mr Robert Wadsworth, 27 years with Wombwell’s, was the manager that set up the show.

The canvas being tied to the carriages had pulled four carriages down in the high winds.

On the following Monday, two of the dead were buried (the keeper and David Jones) being interred in the new cemetary. They had been preceded by the band of the show, playing appropriate airs. We might estimate, the report continues, the number of spectators at from 400 to 500 persons.

NB: The difference between a keeper and a tamer is the latter did tricks with the beasts in the cages and keepers generally looked after the animals, feeding them, etc.

George Wombwell never stops surprising me!

I recently uncovered some interesting information about George Wombwell. It seems he has been married ‘twice’. Actually, it is only once, but evidence exists that George was married prior to his partnership with Anne Morgan (nee Wombwell). I just have to follow up on that information when I have time to confirm. If anyone is already aware then please let us know. It is claimed he married a Mary Sim (or Sims) in 1800 at St Giles Church, London. Exactly what happened to that marriage, if it did take place is still a mystery and to whether there were any children! Any help appreciated.

Artefacts: Further items added to the Collection

George Wombwell menagerie ‘fostered’ many talented showmen, performers, trainers, etc. One such showman was James Chittock’s father, originally an apprentice baker in Norwich, and at 18 left to become an animal trainer with George Wombwell’s Menagerie. He stayed the next 20 years! When that show dispersed, he began on his own with, rather strangely, performing canaries, hares and ponies. James was born in 1841 and brought up in the business and was well known by George Wombwell. When old enough, James left his family, married, and travelled with his own show. James and his shows are described in the text Travelling Cinematograph Show by Kevin Scrivens and Stephen Smith.

Brief Excerpt:

In “TheShowman”  he was described as being from one of the “oldest and most representative families of the aristocracy of the road.” His first show featured his famous troupe of performing dogs and monkeys, considered the best travelling. It opened at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, each winter for over 30 years, and rarely travelled far from the London area. On seeing the success Randall Williams was having with his Cinematograph at the World’s Fair in 1896, James Chittock invested £500 and began to show moving pictures using a projector acquired from R.W. Paul, his first show being at a fair in Birmingham in 1897. He claimed that so popular was the new enterprise that he netted, in coppers, £40 a day.

The following rare photograph shows James Chittock’s Dog and Monkeys show entrance, probably prior to 1897, the year he turned his attention to the newly invented Cinematograph. (The rear of the card states ‘@FPS Chittock’s animal show. 1885.’)
The Chittocks are also related through marriage to the Chipperfield family.

Artefacts: New Items in Possession

It has been a while since I published anything. However, I have been very busy researching travelling menageries. I am currently conducting a research project at the University of London on the subject of early travelling menageries and associated visual culture. That’s why I have not published articles here. It has uncovered a wealth of information and that will keep me going for several years I think! One day, I hope to announce that we can say we ‘know’ the early history of George Wombwell the menagerist. Included in this will be an account of the so called ‘Warwick Dog Fight’. I have some surprises in store for you all on that subject! Right now, I have to concentrate on the matters in hand.

A postcard sized coloured advert for Barnham and Sanger outfits (1882)

I have also been busy collecting items associated with the subject and also with early circuses like Sanger’s. Below is the first batch of items that will, in due course be added to the research website. A short description is attached to each item. Sometimes I have to rely on the originator’s description which may not be 100% accurate. As always, higher resolution images have been stored.The card shows Barham, Sanger and Hutchinson together with a procession including the Lion Queen on the elephant from Sanger’s outfit (his wife Ellen). Eventually, after about 1880 the Barnum outfit became known as Barnum & Bailey’s. The original poster would represent some time between 1881-1887 after which date Hutchinson retired. His main job was as booking agent and he had worked for Van Amburg’s some time during the 1870s.

The postcard is much later of course and some ‘granny’ must have received it hand delivered!




This undated card is thought to be from Paris.



This card shows a ‘Black Comic Parade’ and is marked 1904. Its origin is not yet known.

The card was sent from Brussels during 1904 or it may be 1922-23. I’m no philatelist! Research is required to place this troupe in the history of entertainment and identity studies.





Here is another cracking image from the Goose Fair in Nottingham showing Bostock and Wombwell’s presence in the centre of the city during the early 1900s. Note the juxtaposition between the outfit and the statue of Queen Victoria, fascinating! The menagerie was always centre stage when it went to the fair.

Further items will be added shortly.

Book Review: Tiger that Swallowed a Boy – John Simons

The Tiger That Swallowed The Boy: Exotic Animals In Victorian England.
John Simons. Libri, 208pp, £ 12.00. ISBN 9781907471711. Published 4 November 2012

I have to say, I did not know of its existence till a reader tipped me off. Anyway I have this text and provide the following review, taking into consideration the other reviews already published over the last 12 months.

John Simons is Professor and Executive Dean of Arts at Macquarie University, Australia and has previously released books on animal studies including Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London, 2008.

I therefore thought this text would be a scholarly work, but it is not. It is a good read nonetheless, and includes many of the facts and myths surrounding travelling menageries. It goes far beyond these menageries and covers zoos and private menageries as well as museums.

The Times Higher Education Supplement reviewed the book and made the following observations:

Drawing in part on a “spoil heap of material” from his 2008 book Rossetti’s Wombat: Pre-Raphaelites and Australian Animals in Victorian London, which told the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s menagerie, Simons offers engaging and entertaining tales of how a tapir terrorised the people of Rochdale, the growth of Belle Vue and other zoological gardens and, of course, an account of the titular tiger that swallowed the boy. Equally interesting is his consideration of the trade in exotic animals and the clash of empires, in particular those of Germany and Great Britain. Despite its entertaining stories, however, the main problem with this book is that the research appears populated with the sensational narrative style of many 19th-century voices and less so, it appears, with archival sources. Too often, Simons’ conversational style has the flavour of a cut-and-paste assemblage of anecdotes, references and ripping yarns.

I tend to agree and I am disappointed that there are no footnotes and paged or chapter referenced bibliographies, other than a final Select Bibliography. I would have expected more from a scholar, which leads me to think it was a hurried publication of an unfinished project.

Nevertheles, it makes good reading and has provided many interesting ideas that can be followed up thoroughly in future. Available on Amazon via the link below:

The Tiger That Swallowed the Boy: Exotic Animals in Victorian England

Added Artefact: Menagerie Painting: Princes Street from the Mound, Edinburgh

The following oil painting by Charles Halkerston (-1899) is owned by Edinburgh Museums and Galleries(contact direct to see this painting). It was kindly pointed out to me by Dr Tom Normand, School of Art History, St Andrew’s University, otherwise it might have gone unnoticed due to its title.

I cannot find anything concerning the artist, but it looks a fine example of a social historical document painted in 1843.

The menagerie can bee seen to consist of wagons(the yellow/brown slats in the painting, which have been drawn in a square or a rectangle to form the booth. This was possibly an annual fair occurring in Princes Street, Edinburgh.

George Wombwell was often a visitor to Edinburgh, Wallace his famous lion, being born there in 1812. There’s no knowing which menagerie it was of course, but the painting gives the approximate scale of menageries and other booths at these mid century fairs. The elephant and entourage could be the start or the finish of a parade down Princes Street.

by Charles Halkerston dated 1843, Oil on panel, 28 x 47.3 cm

Added Artefact: Ancient photograph of Sanger’s Circus Parade

The following old photograph, taken around the turn of the 20th century, shows a carriage of Sanger’s as part of the arrival of the circus to town. It is thought to be Hereford and is probably taken in Bewell Street with All Saints church in the background.


Generally, showmen coupled several horses to their carriages on such parades. Wombwell is known to have coupled up to eight horses to a carriage on at least one occasion.

The British Lion Queens: A History

Published today, a history of the Lion Queens that became famous in the 19th century world of traveling menageries and circuses. One of the most famous is Ellen Chapman, here depicted by Horner with wild beasts. The works are oil on canvas and are a pendant pair. Last known at auction in 2000. This is the last in our series on Lion Kings and Queens.

Link to Research Article



Lion on the loose in Essex!

Well that’s what I have just woken up to hear on the radio. So I tried the TV and it’s true apparently. It’s just that what’s apparent usually has a rational explanation, especially when the circus comes to town. You see it’s a very old trick to release a docile lion or other animal when the circus was about to hit town.

In the nineteenth century it brought in much business for George Wombwell and every menagerie and circus owner across the country.  Victorians flocked to the show that night.

So people of Essex do not panic it’s probably a stunt. Great British Circus  was in Clacton recently and the so-called sightings are in or around St Osyth just down the road.

Animals in circuses are not going through the best of times with animal rights ‘enthusiasts’ frequently harassing the owners. Owners are not doing too well either.