Lost Edinburgh: Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie auction

A poster for the Menagerie. Picture: Public Domain
A poster for the Menagerie. Picture: Public Domain
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SELDOM has the city of Edinburgh witnessed a more remarkable auction than that which took place in the old Waverley Market in April 1872, with a whole host of exotic animals up for bids.

The animals on sale were part of Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie, ‘a famous collection of wild beasts, birds and reptiles which had delighted the populace of the United Kingdom for four generations’.

Wombwell’s Menagerie was one of the earliest and largest travelling zoological collections in Britain and reportedly “did more to familiarise the minds of the masses of the people with the creatures of the forest than all the books of natural history ever printed”. Edinburgh welcomed the menagerie on several occasions throughout the 19th century.

Established 1805

The collection was established by Mr George Wombwell in 1805 and was renowned for the beauty and variety of the animals. Wombwell travelled with the show until his death in 1850. Wombwell’s wife took over the running of the company for the next 16 years before it was passed over to his nephew, Mr Alexander Fairgrieve of Edinburgh, who conducted it until the auction sale.

The auction of the menagerie animals was such a novel event that a large audience gathered in Princes Street to see the last appearance of the elephants, camels and other animals as part of Wombwell’s Menagerie. The sale had ‘excited considerable international attention’ and the capacity crowd in the Waverley Market included ‘well-known naturalists, circus proprietors, and representatives of zoos in Britain, America and France’.

The animals offered for sale included various breeds of monkey and baboon, a wombat, porcupines, hyenas, a gnu, boa constrictors, zebras, a variety of bears, two elephants, eleven lions, a Bengal tiger, seven camels and three ‘beautiful glossy’ leopards.

Cockatoo sold for £8

The sale started with the monkeys, which were recommended as ‘lively, frisky, intelligent and clean pets’, and competition was brisk for some of the rarer species.

The vultures, pelicans, emu and condor were sold to dealers while the parrots and cockatoos ‘provided lively interest amongst local bird fanciers’. One cockatoo fetched £8 due to its excellent talking abilities. The Earl of Rosebery bought a racoon for £1, and the Tasmanian Devil was sold for 65 shillings.

Auction raised £250,000

There was fierce competition among dealers for the larger animals such as the polar and Tibetan bears and the performing elephant. ‘Hannibal’, a black-maned lion, the ‘handsomest and largest specimen in Britain’, was purchased for £270 by Bristol Zoo.

As a testament to the excited caused by the auction, many of the animals were sold for considerably more than their usual market value. The total amount raised for the auctions 90 unusual lots was £2,900 – roughly £250,000 in today’s money.

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