Sunday, 5 July 2015

Greenock Fair 1870

It used to be a tradition that Greenock folk took their holidays during the first two weeks of July - Greenock Fair.  The tradition goes way back to when an annual fair was held in the town at this time. The town would have been full of people visiting all the variety of sideshows and booths. Had I been around in 1870 my parents might have taken me to see the "Extraordinary Attraction" of Wombwell's Menagerie which was visiting Greenock!

It is interesting to note that admission prices vary - 1 shilling was the admission price, but labouring people would be charged 6 pence and children under 12  got in for half price.  You would pay 3 pence extra if you visited at feeding time!

The Menagerie was started by George Wombwell, a London shoemaker, when he bought two boa constrictors from a sea captain.  He exhibited the snakes around London and within three weeks had covered his costs.  He continued to buy exotic animals until by the 1820s he was travelling throughout Britain with 19 caravans full of animals. It was said that one caravan containing an elephant, a rhinoceros and a camel had to be pulled by a team of eighteen horses!  Two of his famous lions were called Nero and Wallace.

George Wombwell
Exhibiting wild animals was not without its risks - in 1849 Wombwell's nephew William was killed by an elephant.  Then in 1850 his neice, Helen Blight "The Lion Queen", just seventeen years of age was attacked by a tiger in full view of an audience in Chatham.  She died from her injuries.
Wombwell's Menagerie had visited Greenock often,  this clip is from 1849 - 

George Wombwell died in 1850 aged 73.  His widow, Ann took over part of the Menagerie and kept up the travelling lifestyle.  Her niece married Alexander Fairgrieve of Edinburgh and they also travelled with the group.  It must have been quite a show - they travelled with a band of musicians in brightly decorated caravans.  They returned to St Andrew Square in Greenock in 1868 complete with "Musical Elephant" -

Eventually, in 1872 all the animals were auctioned off at Waverley Market, Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Most went to zoological parks or private collectors.

While this type of "entertainment" is no longer admired in the UK, in the mid 19th century it must have been a strange and wonderful sight for the people of Greenock!

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