Traveling Menageries


by Timothy Neal

“Menagery is a Place where they keep
Animals of several Kinds for Curiosity”
(Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition


The Traveling Menagerie, also known as the Beast Show, is the term commonly used to describe itinerant animal exhibition as it developed during the nineteenth century. The expression traveling zoo was also used, and as well as exhibiting on the fairground, they were a stable feature of the circus. The traveling 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 Traveling 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. There is an interesting advert in the Bristol Mercury and Universal Advertiser from September 1807:




Amongst the Number of Natural Curiosities arrived in this City, there seems none to equal or rival the Two wonderful Siboya Serpents. Those Ladies and Gentlemen who have already seen these extraordinary Reptiles, are so highly gratified with the sight of them, that the Proprietor flatters himself, from their high Recommendation that all ranks of people will gratify their curiosity, as they are undoubtedly the only ones of the Kind ever exhibited in the kingdom alive.


To be seen at a commodious room at the White Swan, St. James’s Back.


N.B. The Proprietor gives the utmost value for Foreign Birds and curious animals.


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 menagerie. 


The Classic Years


The traveling menagerie was, alongside portable theatres and waxworks, the great fairground attraction of the nineteenth century. Even as late as 1907, The World’s Fair reported the following from Hull Fair:




The greatest attraction this year, as in past years, is undoubtedly the Royal Menagerie of Messrs. Bostock and Wombwell. To quote the words from the posters:-
'The days they come, the days they go,
But there still remains the grand old show


The traveling menagerie evolved on the fairground. It was first and foremost a show characterized by the exhibition of ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ animals. Thomas Frost, in The Old Showmen, and the Old London Fairs (1875) cites the following example from 1743:


This is to give notice to all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, that Mr. Perry’s Grand Collection of Living Wild Beasts is come to the White Horse Inn, Fleet Street, consisting of a large he-lion, a he-tiger, a leopard, a panther, two hyenas, a civet cat, a jackal, or lion’s provider, and several other rarities too tedious to mention. To be seen at any time of the day, without any loss of time. Note: This is the only tiger in England, that baited being only a common leopard.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century there were several menageries traveling; amongst the better known, documented by Frost, are Polito, Ballard, Pidcock, Miles and Wombwell. As can be seen from a reading of the excellent work of Clifford Keeling, there are many traveling menageries yet to be revealed.


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 breath 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, a certain variety was required resulting in entertainments such as the following:




Of all Modern Prodiges certainly the most prodigious is the Royal Modern Musical Elephant at Wombwell's which plays several popular airs and polkas, by Handel, not known to be by that immortal composer, a fact which beats "Creation" or any other Oratorio - or Menagerie.
(Clifton Chronicle and Directory.  3-6-1868




Through the nineteenth century the number of menageries multiplied. Some few survived, but many were founded in the latter 1800s as the increasing wealth of the urban communities saw a further renaissance for the fairground. 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, traveling 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, traveling 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 traveling 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 traveling till the 1960s that were essentially menageries, often traveling under the name of Lion Shows.


The most famous traveling 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 traveling until December 1931 when Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie showed for the last time at the Old Sheep Market, Newcastle, a moment captured in photography.


Article reprinted with permission of Timothy Neal: Research and project co-coordinator Hull Fair Project, National Fairground Archive, Main Library University of Sheffield. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. 2003-2004 ©


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