Book review: Georgian Menagerie’s exotic anecdotes are fascinating, if lacking in analysis

In Britain in the 18th century, exotic fauna was ‘the bounty of empire’ – and fortunes were made by owning and displaying birds and animals from around the world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 3:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 11:38am

There was a peculiar hazard to riding a horse down the Strand in late 18th century London. As you passed Exeter Exchange your steed might well be startled and rear at the roars of the lions and tigers caged in the menagerie there. The writer Charles Lamb, at his lodgings in Temple Lane, said he liked to hear the big cats as he walked home after an evening’s socialising. The roaring was one of the sounds of the city.

As Christopher Plumb’s richly anecdotal history shows, Georgian Britain – and particularly Georgian London – was thronged with exotic animals. This was the era in which Britain became the world’s leading imperial power, and exotic fauna was “the bounty of empire”. Britons were fascinated by the beasts the colonialists sent home.

 Entrepreneurs made small fortunes from acquiring and displaying extraordinary animals. Joshua Brookes’ menagerie at the end of Tottenham Court Road specialised in exotic birds, but also offered antelopes, lions, monkeys and porcupines. You could view Richard Heppanstall’s collection of camels at the Talbot Inn on the Strand. At the end of the century you could pick up a kangaroo from Pidcock’s menagerie at Exeter Exchange or be allowed to pat and stroke his apparently docile rhinoceros (the subject of a beautiful painting by George Stubbs).  

There were also private menageries, the means by which a person of fashion displayed his or her taste.  The Earl of Shelburne,  later to be prime minister, kept an orangutan and a supposedly tame leopard in his orangery at  Bowood House. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham liked to stroke the leopard when he visited. Sir Robert Walpole’s pet flamingo warmed itself by the kitchen fire. Sir Hans Sloane was followed round his Chelsea home by a tame, one-eyed wolverine.  Queen Charlotte,  wife   to George III, kept an elephant and a couple of zebras in the stables at Buckingham Palace.   

Evidently, 18th-century animal fanciers were able to get much closer to wild beasts than we ever do. The first person killed by a tiger in Britain was a Wiltshire maidservant mauled by one that she was teasing in a tavern yard in 1703. Just like us, the Georgians were fascinated by animals that savaged human beings. In the 1760s Miss Lucy, a panther at the Tower of London menagerie, was an attraction partly because she had “recently torn the arm off a woman in a terrible manner”.  Wallace the lion, who went on a national tour with Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie  in the 1820s, tore the hands and other limbs off three people (including his keeper) on different occasions.  

The rage for exotic animals was made respectable by Enlightenment curiosity. A platoon of anatomists and would-be natural historians awaited the animals after death and an astute menagerist could recoup his losses by flogging skins, brains and skeletons to London’s eager men of science. London’s most eminent surgeon, John Hunter, was also its leading animal dissector. At his home in Earl’s Court he kept leopards, lions, buffalo and wolves.

Exotic animals were not just for show. In one droll chapter,  Plumb describes the social significance of turtle consumption in Georgian Britain.  Plumb is not quite sure why  such a  craze for turtle arose, except to observe that the animals were difficult and expensive to procure: caught in the West Indies, they had to be  brought across the Atlantic before being slaughtered in Britain.  A gentleman who wished to signify his status and generosity would donate a turtle to his club.

Equally, those on the highest social rungs simply had to have their wigs dressed in bear grease. Thousands of barrels of the stuff  came from Arkansas –  whose huge population of bears was almost eradicated.  Bears arrived from Russia to be fattened  for slaughter by London hairdressers and wig-makers. Potential customers were invited to witness the removal of the fat from a recently slaughtered bear as a guarantee that they were not being fobbed off with  lard.

Plumb has collected a strange and diverting menagerie of animal stories. He does not much  consider what these stories tell us about changing attitudes to the natural world. His business is anecdote not analysis. Yet he succeeds in giving us a picture of a nation  where public entertainment and private ostentation were becoming ever more extravagant. Animals were but the newest recruits.

Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London by Christopher Plumb (I.B. Tauris)

The Guardian