In the heyday of the circus the audience could expect to see performance with exotic animals. In the period of Nelson’s career the use of animals, other than horses and the odd dog or monkey, was still unusual.
Performance with and by exotic animals could, however, be seen at the many travelling menageries that visited town and city fairs during this period. The most well known was Wombwell’s Menagerie, which also sometimes exhibited with Pablo Fanque’s circus at the Knott Hill Fair in Manchester.
In about 1800, George Wombwell, a London shoemaker bought two boa constrictors for £75 and exhibited them in London taverns. In 1810 he set up is first travelling menagerie and soon had three touring the country. He introduced live performance into the cages to provide additional drama. Unfortunately, accidents were bound to happen as with Ellen Bright “The Lion Queen”, and seventeen year old daughter of a bugle player in Wombwell’s brass band. In January 1851, while at Chatham, she entered the cage as usual to perform with a lion and tiger. The inquest heard from a witness:
“Richard Cooper Todd, a surgeon, attached to the Royal Artillery, stationed in Brompton Barracks, said he was witnessing the exhibition at the time of the occurrence, and was standing quite close to the rope in front of the den. He saw the deceased enter, and, on going in, the tiger did nor appear to be very friendly with her. She struck him on going in, and he lay down. She then proceeded to her performances with the lion, and afterwards turned round and again struck the tiger. It appeared angry, and immediately seemed to turn upon the deceased, rearing up on his hind legs, and seizing her by the neck; she fell on her back, and the tiger crouched over her, and he saw no more of her until removed from the den, when he hastened to her assistance. She was perfectly insensible, and had lost a great deal of blood, and her face and lips were very pale. She was still alive; the heart still beating, but she was perfectly unconscious. Witness placed his hand on the wound in the neck to stop the bleeding, and administered some brandy to the deceased, but she was unable to swallow it, and in a few minutes her heart ceased to beat. There were four wounds on the left side of the neck, a slight wound on the right leg, and another on the chin caused by the teeth of the tiger – the under-jaw of the animal having caused a very large wound under the chin, which added to the fright her system had sustained, produced death.
The jury returned a verdict to the effect that deceased was killed by a male tiger whilst exhibiting in its den; and expressed a strong opinion against the practice of allowing persons to perform in a den with such animals.
The occurrence excited very painful interest, and a great number of persons were present during the inquiry.”- (Morning Chronicle – 14 January 1850 p.5.)
“FRIGHTFUL ACCIDENT AT WOMBWELL’S MENAGERIE. Chatham, May 23rd.The scene of the tragical death of the Lion Queen, some time since, has again become one of serious injury, if not ultimately the cause of death to another individual. Last night, between nine and ten o’clock, when the menagerie was filled with company, whilst Thomas Storre, a black man, who, under the title of ‘The young Indian Prince,’ was engaged in performing with the large elephant, the animal either by design or accident, pressed Storre against the bars of the den, by which he received severe injury of the scalp, had four of his ribs, the right arm, and collar bone broken, and he now lies in a very precarious state. At the time of the accident the animal was in the act of taking off and replacing the hat of his keeper, and it is imagined that it had been irritated by some of the company, and hence the cause of the injury. It appears Storre’s instructions were to remain outside the animal’s den; but this injunction he had neglected, and, from its attachment to him, entertained no apprehension of danger.” – (Berkshire Chronicle – 31 May 1851 p.4.)”