Four-legged mutes

Tomb of George Wombwell, menagerist, Highgate Cemetery, London

Tomb of George Wombwell, menagerist, Highgate Cemetery, London

My favourite monument in Highgate Cemetery [] is the tomb of George Wombwell (1777-1850), the proprietor of the greatest travelling menagerie of nineteenth-century Britain, guarded by a statue of Wombwell’s much-loved and docile lion, Nero.

George Wombwell’s career began when he bought two boa constrictors that had accidentally landed at London Docks.  Showing them round London pubs made such a profit that he expanded his collection to fill fifteen showman’s wagons and toured the fairs of Britain.  When animals died he often had them stuffed, arguing that poking a dead animal was an even better experience than seeing a live one.

He was repeatedly invited to show his animals to Queen Victoria’s court.  After one visit he declined a gift from Prince Albert saying, “What can you give a man who has everything?”  On his next visit the Prince Consort presented him with something he hadn’t got, an oak coffin, which he promptly added to his exhibition at an additional admission charge.

There are other animals among the wealth of monuments at Highgate.  A horse with its head bowed adorns the grave of John Atcheler (d 1853), horse-slaughterer to Queen Victoria.  The other named animal that is commemorated on a Highgate tomb is the bull mastiff Lion, who belonged to Tom Sayers (d 1865), the bare-fist boxer.  Lion had been in effect the chief mourner at Sayers’ funeral, sitting alone in the leading carriage wearing a black crêpe collar.  Chris Brooks wrote an interesting account of Tom Sayers’ funeral, which drew larger crowds than the Duke of Wellington’s, in Burying Tom Sayers:  heroism, class and the Victorian cemetery (Victorian Society reprint from Victorian Society Annual 1989).

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2015 Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *