The Royal Menagerie, Exeter Change, Strand.

An Elephant Never Forgets

The adage that an elephant never forgets seems very appropriate given the following accounts.

The scientific elephant now displays his sagacity and the uncommon improvement of his natural powers, at Pidcock’s Grand Menageries, Exeter ‘Change, Strand, where, at the desire of the company and command of the keeper, he exhibits a perfect knowledge of the value of different pieces of money; tells with the greatest precision the hour and minutes of the day, when shown a watch by any of the spectators; locks and unlocks doors, takes off and puts on any lady’s or gentleman’s bonnet or hat, that he may be requested of him, with a great and pleasing variety of other performances. His improvement in the space of the last six months exceeds all belief.

Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

In another story to confirm that an elephant never forgets, we offer this account which was reported in an English newspaper, although the event took place in Paris, 1799.

A sentinel on duty at the menagerie, agreeably to the orders he had received, was always particularly careful to caution the visitors not to feed the elephants. However, his behaviour was not calculated to gain him the favour of the elephants. One of the females especially resented his officious zeal to enforce his orders and several times she attempted to correct his bad habits by throwing water on his head with her trunk.

A few days ago, a great number of people came to see the elephants, which the latter considered a fine opportunity to receive, by stealth, plenty of scraps of bread. Unfortunately, for her, however, the officious sentinel was on guard that day.

The female took her station beside him, watched all his words and gestures, and the first time he began to give his usual notice she squirted him in the face with her trunk full of water much to the immense amusement of the audience. The sentinel quietly wiped his face and retiring a little way, he continued to give his notice to everyone informing them not to give any bread to the elephants and the elephants were likewise instructed not to take any.

This time, however, the female was ready and waiting, she took hold of his musket, whirled it around with her trunk, then trod on it, it was not until she had twisted it like a screw did she return it.

Destruction of the noble elephant at Mr Cross's, Exeter 'Change
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole

From the Bath Chronicle of August 1791, we offer a somewhat tragic story.

Among the elephants that were sent to Madras with the troops in 1781, under the command of the late Colonel Pearce, there was apparently one keeper who it was reported was quite neglectful and who pilfered from his drams on the line of march. Upon every such occasion, the elephant discovered signs of anger and resentment, as if he was insensible to negligence, nor ignorant of the mal-practices, of his keeper.

One morning the cattle etc. were ordered to be mustered for review and when the commanding officer, in going along the line, passed in front of the elephant, the animal roared out as if to attract the commanding officer’s attention. When he caught the eye of the Colonel the elephant took hold of his keeper with his trunk, put him under his feet and instantly crushed him to death.

The elephant then immediately fell upon his knees and salaamed to the Colonel for pardon. The singularity of this act induced Colonel Pearce to make an immediate enquiry respecting it, when he learnt that the elephant had been forced, contrary to his natural disposition, to inflict this punishment on his keeper, for the incorrigible neglect he was prone to commit and the frauds practised on his daily allowance. Unfortunately, we do not know the outcome of this investigation, but punishment had already been served.


Destruction of the furious elephant at Exeter Change. Courtesy of the British Museum

‘Exeter Change in the Strand’ by William Ellis-Rees

We are delighted to welcome another new guest to All Things Georgian: William Ellis-Rees. William is a Classics teacher with a serious sideline interest in researching and writing on lesser known historical topics. Having published articles on various subjects in Country Life, Garden History and the gardening journal Hortus, he is now about to publish a book on Josephine Bonaparte, which, far from being a full-blown biography of the Empress, sheds light on a fascinating corner of her life and William is also working on another book, in which he returns to nineteenth-century London and its environs to tell the true story of a tragedy that shocked the nation.

Today, William is here to tells us a little more about his book, The Elephant of Exeter Change: A Tale of Cruelty and Confinement in Georgian London, which is available from Amazon as an e-book (follow the highlighted links to find out more). With that, we will hand you over to William to share some more information.

The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London by Stanley, Caleb Robert. Museum of London.
The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London by Stanley, Caleb Robert.  Museum of London.

How odd to think that a restaurant and a coffee shop in London’s Strand, almost opposite the Savoy Grill, were once the ramshackle building known in the early nineteenth-century as Exeter Change.

At street level the Change—short for “Exchange”—comprised a jumble of shops and stalls selling walking sticks and umbrellas, suitcases and saddles, corkscrews and combs and any number of other useful items.  Above these was a menagerie, and even now, long after I started work on this hidden corner of London history, the bizarre notion of caged animals floating above a crowded city street surprises and delights me.

Exeter Change in 1829. Print by Thomas Shepherd
Exeter Change in 1829. Print by Thomas Shepherd

The elephant on the first floor

The elephant at the heart of the story travelled to England from Kolkata (Calcutta at the time) on board an East India Company ship in 1811.  The ship’s captain, Robert Hay, who had been horribly injured in an encounter with French warships off Mozambique, was an honourable man, and he kept a protective eye on the elephant even after he returned and sold it to a theatre.  The London stage was the elephant’s first taste of fame, but its unwelcome celebrity was only truly established when in 1812 it passed into the hands of Stephen Polito, the owner of the menagerie at the Change.

The Royal Menagerie, Exeter Change, Strand.
The Royal Menagerie, Exeter Change, Strand. British Library

The animals in the room above the Strand not only entertained and frightened the paying public: they also satisfied a curiosity about the world that lay beyond England’s shores.

Polito and Cross

Stephen Polito, and the man who took on the menagerie in 1814, Edward Cross, were a distinctly nineteenth-century phenomenon.  Whereas they presented themselves as respectable businessmen, and scientists of a sort, others regarded  them more accurately as dealers and showmen.  Polito and Cross certainly knew about animals, but they were not exactly naturalists: they were motivated by profit, and their exhibits were kept in cramped conditions, and were often treated cruelly.  Even so, the taste for the exotic they profited from cut across many social divides, and Cross in particular, in his capacity as an importer and supplier, enjoyed the patronage of a number of highly distinguished clients.  So when he was snubbed by the London Zoological Society, who refused to buy his animals, he founded a rival establishment in what is now South East London with the help of powerful backers.  There is a splendid portrait of Cross in his sixties, with a lion cub in his arms and a silk top-hat balanced on his head.  He had transformed himself from Georgian impresario into early Victorian man of means—quite a success story.

Edward Cross in 1838. Painting by Jacques-Laurent Agasse
Edward Cross in 1838. Painting by Jacques-Laurent Agasse

Raffles and Brookes

On the subject of the London Zoological Society, an important figure in the story is Thomas Stamford Raffles.

Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1817. Painting by George Francis Joseph. Courtesy of NPG
Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1817. Painting by George Francis Joseph. Courtesy of NPG

Although principally known to history as the founder of colonial Singapore, Raffles was also the prime mover of the new zoo, the birth of which in 1826 was not unrelated to the elephant’s tragic end.  And it is at this moment that the extraordinary Joshua Brookes makes his entry.

Joshua Brookes in 1815. Painting by Thomas Phillips. Courtesy of NPG
Joshua Brookes in 1815. Painting by Thomas Phillips. Courtesy of NPG

Brookes was a renowned London anatomist, although his image suffered from his dealings with the notorious resurrectionists.  For details of his unique contribution to the story, I would like to refer you to my book, The Elephant of Exeter Change! Suffice it so say that Brookes found an unexpected solution to the problem of an elephant that had grown—as all young elephants do in time—to a colossal size.

The Elephant of Exeter Change: A Tale of Cruelty and Confinement in Georgian London, Kindle Edition.
The Elephant of Exeter Change: A Tale of Cruelty and Confinement in Georgian London. Kindle Edition

In conclusion, researching the events of 1826 was a fascinating task: they were widely reported in newspapers and journals, and the commercial illustrators enjoyed a field day.  But the elephant left other traces of itself—in playbills, in a jingle advertising boot polish, in a drawing-room song.

There is even a small but gruesome relic in a museum in East Anglia.  The real discovery, though, was the cast of characters: the elephant itself, the one or two heroes and the several villains, and last, but by no means least, the ever-changing backdrop to a story that begins in the Indian Ocean and ends in some of the darker recesses of Georgian London.

Featured Image

Destruction of the furious elephant at Exeter Change. Courtesy of the British Museum