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On this day in history in 1850, died George Wombwell.
Wombwell was the creator of the travelling menagerie, the precursor of the travelling circus.
Wombwell was born on 24th December 1777 at Wendon Lofts, Essex. Nothing is known of his early life except that about 1800, he moved to London and in 1804, he was in business as a cobbler in Soho. At about this time, Wombwell purchased two boa constrictors for seventy guineas from a South American sailor and toured the local inns charging a penny per view. Within two weeks, he had recouped his original investment.
Success encouraged Wombwell to make further speculations. He bought animals from the local docks and built up a collection of exotic species including lions, zebras and ostriches. In 1810, he founded Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, an entourage consisting of ten carriages of beasts, which visited the county fairs of Britain. Many animals were bred in captivity and those animals, which died, were disposed of to taxidermists or even exhibited as deceased specimens. One of the less savoury aspects of Wombwell’s exhibitions was lion baiting in which six bull mastiffs were pitched against one lion, with the lion invariably emerging victorious.
Wombwell became a favourite of the Royal Court and appeared three times before Queen Victoria. He was once sent for by Prince Albert to solve a problem of the Prince’s sick dogs. Wombwell noticed that their water source was contaminated and a fresh supply would immediately restore them to health. When asked by the Prince what he would like as a reward, Wombwell famously responded, “What can you give to a man who has everything?” Albert presented him with an oak coffin, which Wombwell exhibited as a sideshow, charging a supplementary fee.
Wombwell died on November 16th 1850. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, Swains Lane, London N6 6PJ. Over his tomb is a colossal statue of his favourite lion, Nero.
George Wombell's tomb in Highgate Cemetery
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