Victorian non-elite provincial society is often seen as being insular and parochial, perhaps knowing little of the wider world, but the travelling menagerie and circus, which gained increasing popularity during the nineteenth century, added exoticism and a touch of foreignness to many locations. Showmen would travel around the countryside presenting both their rare, exotic animals, drawn from the colonies, and their performing acts.
One such showman was William Batty, who from the 1830s became one of the leading proponents of the animal menagerie and the circus generally. He toured the provinces, stopping in major cities such as Liverpool, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Portsmouth and Southampton. His acts included rope dancers, equestrians with various gymnastic displays, clowns, and exotic animals: zebras, elephant, lions and tigers. By the mid-1840s, his lion tamer was called White and he presented a group of performing lions, tigers and leopards to the paying public.
It was at one such show in 1850 at Market Hill in Barnsley that an incident occurred. As the newspapers reported, one Saturday night, just before Christmas, during a show, shrieks were heard that ‘Th’ lions out! Th’ lions out!’ It turned out that this was not true – it was actually a leopard that had escaped and had got hold of the arm of an unfortunate individual named Charles Fleetwood, presumably a spectator, dragging him to the side of the cage. Here, the smock frock he was wearing saved the day, the fabric both being strong enough to prevent initial harm and then the sleeve giving way, so that was all the leopard was left with, Fleetwood escaping with a ‘slight bruise’ to his arm.
As the report remarked, chaos had ensued, people inside the circus tent rolling amongst a ‘large fire-pan … [which] contained several gallons of blazing naphtha, and under the belly of the elephant without doing the least harm’, to escape the leopard. The fire was presumably to give an exotic atmosphere but was obviously another hazard. It was noted that three people had been seized by animals whilst viewing them in the last few weeks in different parts of the country, although they had displayed ‘a reckless temerity’ in getting too close to the ‘wild beasts’.
Even with the dangers, the wild beast menagerie, usually combined with a performing circus, remained popular throughout the period, Batty apparently worth half a million pounds at the time of his death. Despite how we may regard performing and captive animals today, for ordinary people across Victorian England, they opened a window onto a different world, as with the Great Exhibition during the same year, 1850, and possibly fuelled dreams of running away to a circus. And the smock frock proved the ultimate protective garment, not just from hard labour and weather, but also from the bite of a big cat!