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. www.amazon.co.uk/Elephant-Exeter-Change-Confinement-Georgian-ebook/dp/B06ZZ8JJ6S
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

The Port of London in the 18th Century

We are absolutely thrilled to welcome a new guest to our blog – Regan Walker, bestselling author of historical romance. Regan has another new book due out on the 9th May 2015  – To Tame the Wind. Regan is sharing with us some of her research that has helped her in writing her latest book, which is available from Amazon.

Regan Walker profile pic 2014

In To Tame the Wind, my new Georgian romance, the hero, an English privateer, adroitly maneuvers his schooner through the traffic on the Thames to moor in the Pool of London. That’s the area just downstream from London Bridge where London’s port was originally centered. And it was a very busy place!

During the 18th century, both the city of London and its international trade went through a great expansion. The Thames became a huge traffic jam, or as one of my characters described it, ““There are so many ships in port just now, the Thames is like a kettle of stew on the boil.”

Pool of London, painting by John Wilson Carmichael
Pool of London, painting by John Wilson Carmichael

 Thousands of coastal sailing ships entered the port each year bringing coal or grain to the capital. These ships competed for space in the crowded river with vessels carrying goods like sugar and rum from the West Indies, tea and spices from the East Indies, wine from the Mediterranean, furs, timber and hemp for rope from Russia and the Baltic and tobacco from America.

As you might expect, the rate of increase in the volume of the trade fluctuated with the alternating periods of peace and war. Between 1700 and 1770 the commerce of the port nearly doubled, and from 1770 to 1795 (only 25 years) it doubled again. In 1751, the Pool of London handled 1,682 ships in overseas trade. By 1794, this had risen to 3,663 ships. By 1792, London’s share of imports and exports accounted for 65% of the total for all of England.

The heavy congestion in the Pool resulted in damage to goods and ships, theft and delays. Merchants complained loudly about the effect this had on their costs and profits, and in the 1790’s the merchants of the highly profitable West Indies trade began to campaign for better port facilities, which they eventually got.

Shipping on the Thames, painting by Samuel Scott
Shipping on the Thames, painting by Samuel Scott

Some idea of the state of congestion that existed in the river can be gathered from the fact that in the Upper Pool, 1,775 vessels were allowed to moor simultaneously in a space adapted for about 545. A ship of 500 tons was thought of as a ship of exceptional size and this partly explains the state of congestion. The great increase in the volume of trade resulted in the addition of a large number of ships of relatively small carrying capacity. The situation was aggravated by the large number of these smaller craft, estimated at about 3,500, employed to convey cargoes from the moorings to the wharves.

Ships did their best to sail up or down the Thames, but being unloaded was another matter. Until the end of the eighteenth century, there were no docks built for unloading ships (as opposed to dockyards that repaired them). Instead, cargo that couldn’t be carried from a ship to the wharf would be ferried by smaller craft.

The Port of London was the busiest port in the world.

To Tame the Wind by Regan Walker. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Agents-Crown-prequel-Donet-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B00VO4DZYE

 

Paris 1782…AN INNOCENT IS TAKEN

All Claire Donet knew was the world inside the convent walls in Saint-Denis. She had no idea her beloved papa was a pirate. But when he seized Simon Powell’s schooner, the English privateer decided to take the one thing his enemy held most dear… her.

A BATTLE IS JOINED

The waters between France and England roil with the clashes of Claire’s father and her captor as the last year of the American Revolution rages on the sea, spies lurk in Paris and Claire’s passion for the English captain rises.

Discover Regan on her website, blog, on Twitter (@RegansReview) or on Facebook.

Regan also has a Pinterest storyboard of all her research for the book.