Review - A roaring trade

15th February 2013 at 00:00
The streets of Victorian England were awash with exotic animals

If you had been born in rural England in 1837 and died in 1901 it is unlikely that you would have lived in a house with a bathroom - but you would probably have seen a hippopotamus, even if you'd never travelled more than 30 miles from your home.

In The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy, John Simons, a British academic living in Australia, vividly documents how the roads of England once thronged with all manner of exotic creatures, which were transported around the country in mobile menageries. Indeed, one street in the East End of London had a tiger on the prowl twice in less than 20 years; the first time a dog was mauled, the second an unfortunate boy (the child survived).

The book reveals that Queen Victoria requested private viewings of the feeding of lions (which had been obligingly starved for 38 hours so they would put on a particularly enthusiastic show); that Pre-Raphaelite painter, designer and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a series of short-lived wombats as pets (he did not tire of them, they died) and later a woodchuck, which survived somewhat longer; and that aristocrats routinely purchased panthers and other great cats and mammals to enliven the grounds of their vast estates. Meanwhile, the Australians were so eager to cash in on the lucrative exotic animal market - and the public taste for danger and savagery - that they pretended the kangaroo was a ferocious beast.

But if the book is a litany of astonishing feats and events, it is also, to modern sensibilities, a catalogue of cruelty. Consider the poor elephant, painted white to draw extra crowds in New York. It had a terrible allergic reaction to the chemicals and other elephants were on hand, behind the scenes, in case it died.

Then there was Miss Stevens, the "pig-faced lady" - actually a bear with a shaved face, dressed as a woman and strapped to a chair, under which lurked a boy with a stick who prodded it to make it "speak". Not to mention the "dwarf" forced to perform in a cage with lions while being stalked by a hungry, growling wolf.

The book also charts the rise of the British Empire, linking it to the growth of the exotic animal trade. There are parallels, too, between concerns over animal rights from the 19th century onwards and the emerging debate about the morality of imposing British domination on subject peoples.

The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy: Exotic Animals In Victorian England by John Simons is published by Libri (#163;12.00).

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