People from outside these islands have often been puzzled by the strength of Britons' feeling for animals, as illustrated by a letter published in 1881 in the Liverpool Mercury on the lack of regard for children equivalent to that afforded to animals: "Whilst we have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, can we not do something to prevent cruelty to children?" Today, fewer than 40 wild animals are part of British circus performance and recent legislation will stop that for ever. But our love affair with exotic animals continues, with Edinburgh Zoo's recent spike in visitors following the arrival of two giant pandas testament to a vogue that dates back to the Victorian era.
Here, John Simons attempts to shed light on this 19th-century craze for exotic animals, and presents many interesting stories to testify to that obsession while covering menageries, the growth of the zoo and the onset of the circus, some of the main arenas in which a Victorian spectator would encounter the full range of the animal kingdom. Exotic animals were a feature of fairs and travelling exhibitions from the late 18th century, with perhaps the most famous and long-lived being George Wombwell's, which last appeared at Hull Fair in 1933. By the mid-1850s, every major fashionable and aspiring city had a public collection of exotic animals, starting with Regent's Park in London in 1828 and Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester in 1836, as cities throughout Europe vied to open their own. Private individuals and members of the aristocracy were also dedicated collectors, among them Lord Edward Smith Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, whose interest lived on in the 18th Earl, who established Knowsley Safari Park on the family estate near Liverpool in 1971.
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.
This would all make for a wonderfully entertaining lecture, and the book does contain interesting material on the early 19th-century trade in animals, and on museums and taxonomy. But its general approach to exhibition history, compounded by a lack of original research material on key industries such as the circus and the showmen/exhibitors, and the context in which they presented their displays, is disappointing given the wealth of material available. Showmen such as Tom Norman, P.T. Barnum, "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Carl Hagenbeck were giants in their fields; interestingly, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was never advertised as a show but as an ethnographic history lesson and exhibition. Equally puzzling is the book's lack of attention to the growth of the animal welfare movement, which seems key to understanding modern attitudes towards the display and performance of wild animals in contemporary culture. The RSPCA regularly prosecuted circus and fairground showmen throughout the 19th century for apparent cruelty, with the parachuting "Baldwin pony" (and elephant and donkey) acts in the 1880s a case in point.
The Tiger That Swallowed The Boy succeeds as an entertaining introduction to the craze for exotic animals in the Victorian period but unfortunately, and notwithstanding the wealth of material within its pages, it misses the opportunity to go deeper into the subject's complicated and problematic history.
The Tiger That Swallowed The Boy: Exotic Animals In Victorian England
By John Simons
Libri, 208pp, £12.00
Published 4 November 2012