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The surprising history of Britain’s elephants

England’s first and most surprising elephant was given to Henry III in 1255 by his cousin King Louis IX of France: “… a beast most strange and wonderful to the English people, sith most seldome or never any of that kind had been seene in England before that time”. The elephant’s large ears in the familiar drawing by Matthew Paris show that this was an African elephant not a more docile Indian elephant. Paris observed: “that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries on this side of the Alps; wherefore the people flocked together to see the novel sight”. Like other many other royal animals it was housed in the menagerie at the Tower of London, which lasted from about 1204 to 1831 when, on the orders of the Duke of Wellington, the animals were transferred to the newly founded Garden of the Zoological Society, i.e. the London Zoo.

As the East India Company enlarged its operations in the Far East, elephants began to arrive in England in ever increasing numbers, unlike large cats which required fresh meat, elephant calves were relatively easy to maintain on a diet of hay and less likely to sustain damage than, say, deer or antelopes, on the long, perilous voyages by sailing ship, which usually took at least six months, sometimes as much as a year. In 1675 an Indian elephant calf, only five feet high, was brought to England from Bantam in Java by the Company, its recipient Lord Berkeley immediately put it up for auction, it was ‘sold by the candle’ for the immense sum of £2,000. Its new owner made the most of his investment by exhibiting it in pubs in and around London and probably also taking it round the south of England as far as Oxford. Four years later, Robert Hooke saw another elephant which had been taught to “wave colours, shoot a gun, bend and kneel, carry a castle and a man”, at Bartholomew Fair.

‘The Sultan’s Elephant, Horse Guards Parade, London’, by CGP Grey. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At least eleven elephants arrived in Britain during the reigns of Queen Anne and Georges I and II; some of them died soon after arrival. One, which had “travell’d most part of Europe”, was drowned in a ditch when being walked from Edinburgh to Dundee. Its skeleton was anatomised and displayed in the ‘Hall of Rarities’ in Dundee; another, on show in the City of London, died from the ignorance of its keepers who left it in the cold and wet and gave it unsuitable food. Yet a third (intended for the 2nd Duke of Richmond) had an even more spectacular end—before it could be disembarked at Blackwall on the Thames from the ship which brought it from India, a spark from a candle fell among some bags of saltpetre, the ship exploded and the elephant was incinerated.

Queen Charlotte was the happy recipient of at least six Indian elephants over a period of ten years, which were kept at her home, Buckingham House, the forerunner of Buckingham Palace, where, like her zebra (known disrespectfully as the Queen’s Ass) they could be viewed, for free, by members of the public. When they died their corpses were, rather conveniently, given to her physician William Hunter and his surgeon brother John Hunter for dissection—some of their parts were preserved in their famous anatomical collections.

In 1793, shortly after taking over the menagerie at the Exeter Change in the Strand, Gilbert Pidcock purchased his first elephant; at 1,000 guineas, it was a good investment—seven years later this ‘sagacious’ animal—

“At the command of his keeper will take up the smallest piece of money, a watch etc and lodge it in the pocket of any lady or gentleman… he will likewise take it out and return it to his keeper. He will take up a tankard of any kind of liquor, particularly ale, and blow it into his mouth… will take up a broom with his proboscis and sweep after his keeper doing the same…”

By 1806 Pidcock had owned at least five Indian elephants, sometimes taking one on tour around the country, an operation which involved the construction of a massive caravan drawn by eight powerful horses.

Becoming increasing restive he killed one of the keepers, the inquest verdict was accidental death and Chunee was fined a shilling.

The most famous elephant associated with the Exeter Change arrived from Bengal in 1811 and was immediately put on stage at Covent Garden as the principal performer in the pantomime of Padmanaba, or the Golden Fish, but lasted for only two performances, before being acquired by Pidcock’s successor Stephen Polito, who leased it out to the New Pavilion Theatre to appear in the Baghvan-Ho (‘an entirely new Equestrian and Pedestrian Legendary Melo-Dramatic Spectacle’).

By the end of 1812 the elephant’s theatrical career was over—Chunee (as he was later named) walked up a ramp to the first floor of the Exeter Change, and there he remained for the next fourteen years in the care of Polito’s successor, Edward Cross. The problem was that he grew and grew and grew—he was so closely confined that he could scarcely lie down; becoming increasing restive he killed one of the keepers, the inquest verdict was accidental death and Chunee was fined a shilling. Not surprisingly his behaviour went from bad to worse, on several occasions he nearly destroyed his cage, threatening to bring down the ceiling and release the big cats. When, fearing for his own life, a carpenter refused to repair the cage, drastic action was called for and it was decided that Chunee had to be killed, but 152 musket balls fired by guardsmen called in from nearby Somerset House, only infuriated him further. He was finally dispatched by a poisoned harpoon. Silence. Chunee lay in a monstrous bloody heap, surrounded by the fallen timbers of his cage, his head, as in life, upright. Hundreds of visitors came to ‘pay their respects’, but soon the stench of his enormous cadaver became so overpowering that the shoppers in the arcade below fled. Chunee’s mounted skeleton was eventually displayed in his ruined cage; it ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons only to be destroyed when the College was bombed in 1942.

Recent Comments

  1. maryg

    So no one could figure out that Chunee needed room for his massive body? Humans are incredibly stupid. Poor elephant, what a sad and painful way to die.
    It is amazing that an elephant was brought to England as early as 1235. Great insight into this history.

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