John Nicholson’s ‘The Learned Pig’

The Georgians enjoyed nothing more than a spectacle be it the ‘freak shows’ or the sight of new animals, but something which caught their attention in the 1780s was a pig … no ordinary pig, but one who could perform tricks, so we thought as a bit of light relief, we would share a few anecdotes about this curious animal and leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the truth of any of it.

By all accounts the pig had previously been owned by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, although there were also reports that it was a native of Ireland, educated in Chester, so, we’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.

After the death of Bisset, the pig became the property of a John Nicholson, who toured the country with his ‘learned pig’. The pig was not the first creature who he had worked with, oh no!  Nicholson  possessed a peculiar power over animals, he taught a turtle to fetch and carry, a hare to beat a drum with its hind feet; he taught six cocks to perform a country dance; his three cats to play several tunes on the dulcimer with their paws and to imitate Italian opera, but he became best known for conquering the natural obstinacy and stupidity of a pig by teaching him to unite the letters of any person’s name, count the number of people in the room, the hour and minutes of any watch, etc.

The Wonderful Pig. British Museum
The Wonderful Pig. British Museum

Mid 1784, Nicholson took the pig on tour, covering Leeds, Wakefield, The Assembly Rooms in Derby, Nottingham, Northampton and onward to London.

In April 1785 however, Nicholson was invited along with his learned friend to attend Brooks’s gentlemen’s club, one of the oldest in London, to perform at a private exhibition, which according to the newspapers didn’t go quite as expected:

A good deal of confusion arose to the master of the pig and the company present, from the improper questions which were put to this grunting philosopher. He counted the company well enough; but when he was asked how many Patriots were present, snorted at every member, and looked around for fresh orders.

How many are there present who are six pence clear of encumbrances? The pig stood still.

How many honest gentlemen? The pig would not stir.

Here the master was obliged to apologise and in a confounded passion whipped the pig and beat a hasty retreat.

Despite this slight hiccup, by all accounts this was a lucrative little earner for Nicholson as he was reputed to be making over one hundred guineas a week with his ‘grunting philosopher’.

A visit to the Irish Pig!
Yale Centre for British Art

There was great excitement when it was announced that the learned pig was visiting a town, with newspapers giving all the hype you would expect.

We hear from Colchester, that there is arrived in that place, and to be seen during the fair, that most sagacious animal the learned pig, that so long and so deservedly engaged the attention of the nobility and gentry at Charing Cross and afterwards at Sadler’s Wells, where he met with universal applause to the end of the season. The above curiosity is expected in Ipswich as soon as Colchester Fair is over.

Three Pigs in a Byre by George Morland
Three Pigs in a Byre by George Morland; Kinloch Castle, Rum (Scottish Natural Heritage)

We couldn’t resist including this article from the Chester Chronicle of 1792.

Nicholson’s learned pig has, we hear, lately arrived from Oxford, where he was admitted a fellow of Brazen-Nose* college, and is now returned to his seat at Bunbury, in this county, with those two profound marks of erudition A.M. annexed to his name – the learned in that neighbourhood say ‘it would do your heart good to hear him grunt Greek’.

Pigs by T. Horsley
Pigs by T. Horsley; The Bowes Museum

The idea of a performing pig was not restricted to just this one, apparently there were several, but who knows. As we’ve said, the concept of a talking pig was a money spinner, but also a great excuse to poke fun at the government, nobility and academia, so we’ll end this with a little ditty we came across.

Gruntledum, gruntledum, gruntledum, squeak,

I hope very soon to be able to speak;

Thou’ my gristly proboscis I find that I can

Already cry ‘aye’, like a parliament man:

Like a maid I can squeak, like a lover can whine,

And snort like an Alderman laden with wine.

Gruntledum, gruntledum, gruntledum, squeak,

I hope very soon to be able to speak.

Farmyard Scene by George Morland
Farmyard Scene by George Morland; Doncaster Museum Service

* In case you wondered, no this is isn’t a typo on our part!

Sources

Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser 21 September 1785

Northampton Mercury 04 April 1785

Northampton Mercury 25 April 1785

Ipswich Journal 29 October 1785

Bury and Norwich Post 04 January 1786

Sussex Advertiser 03 July 1786

Chester Chronicle 16 March 1792

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One thought on “John Nicholson’s ‘The Learned Pig’

  1. Interesting article on Learned Pigs. If any of your readers want to learn more I recommend the marvellous Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay. Also if you want an explanation of how the pigs were trained to do what they did, then check out The Expositor: or Many Mysteries Unravelled, 1805 by William Frederick Pinchbeck.

    Liked by 1 person

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