Travelling zoos in Scotland

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A popular family day out during the Easter holiday is to go to the zoo. American folk singer Tom Paxton celebrated it in song with “Going to the zoo” in the early 1960s and a day at the zoo has long been a popular subject for children’s books. However in the 19th and early 20th centuries the zoo might instead have come to you.

This was the age of the travelling menagerie and probably the most popular and successful of these touring zoos was Wombwell’s World-Renowned Menagerie. The Library has a number of publications relating to the Menagerie including a poster and visitor’s guide from the 19th century. We also have a brochure dating from a 1905 visit to Edinburgh when the Menagerie set up in the Grassmarket, just down the hill from the Library, from which the accompanying images are taken.

If you had gone down to the Grassmarket during the visit you would have been able to see an exhibition by dray horses and a joint performance by lions, pumas & leopards. Rajah the prince of tigers, Wallace the lion and a white-handed gibbon were amongst other attractions.

Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie was founded in 1810 by an Essex born former shoemaker George Wombwell. A few years before this Wombwell bought two South American boa constrictors from a ship at London docks and made money exhibiting them in taverns. Wanting to build on his success with the boas he asked Thames pilots to tell him if they knew of any ships arriving with wild animals on board. Wombwell began to buy them up including lions, tigers, leopards and monkeys. He bought the first giraffe to be imported to Britain for £1000. A team of men built a special wagon for it but sadly it died three weeks after its arrival.

Wombwell died in 1850 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery and lies beneath a statue of a lion. The Menagerie continued though and in the 1880s Edward Henry Bostock a zoologist, circus owner and showman became head of the business. Bostock set up a permanent base in Glasgow. The Menagerie had frequently stopped off in Glasgow setting up on Glasgow Green and at the Old Barracks Carnival Ground off the Gallowgate amongst other sites. Bostock set up a static zoo in 1897 at New City Road, Cowcaddens Cross the first zoo in Scotland. More than just a zoo it was a complete entertainment venue with a circus, theatre, cinema and sideshows. The Menagerie continued until 1932 when costs and perhaps competition from Edinburgh Zoo which opened in 1913 meant it was no longer viable. In the 1910s Bostock had been involved in talks about a Glasgow Zoo with a proposed site at Rouken Glen and had offered to sell the zoo animals from the menagerie at a discount. Glasgow would not get a zoo until 1947 when the Zoological Society of Glasgow and West of Scotland opened a zoological park in the Glasgow suburb of Baillieston. By this time the age of the travelling menagerie was over. Glasgow Zoo closed in 2003 £3.5 million in debt. It had struggled to recover from the double blow of a withdrawal of public funding in 2000 and the early death of its dynamic and charismatic director Richard O’Grady in 2001.

You can see the 1905 brochure “Wombwell’s world renowned menagerie” at the Library. It is shelved at PB4.208.66/5. We also have a short history of the Menagerie by J.L. Middlemiss. “A zoo on wheels Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie” published by Dalebrook in 1987 is shelved at HP4.88.240.

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