Elephants, kangaroos, parrots, zebras, bears, tigers, camels – we all know what they look like and how they behave; even if we haven’t actually encountered them for ourselves in a zoo or on safari, we’ve certainly seen them on television and read about them in books. But there was a time when, for British people at least, these animals and birds were new and unusual. The Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London is a fascinating account of how these creatures were brought to Britain and what happened to them when they arrived.
Christopher Plumb draws on a wide range of sources including diaries, court cases, wills and other legal documents, advertisements, newspapers, letters and even poems and jokes to explore the stories of exotic animals and birds in Georgian society. As the British Empire grew during the 1700s, overseas trade and shipping increased and it became easier to travel to faraway destinations; this meant that menagerists and private collectors were able to obtain animals from distant continents and – as long as they were able to survive a long sea journey – bring them home to exhibit to the public.
The book features anecdotes from all over Britain, but specifically London, where most of the early menageries were located – including Pidcock’s Menagerie in the Exeter Exchange and Kendrick’s Menagerie at Piccadilly. While a lot of attention is given to the menageries with their large collections of creatures, eventually some of the animals and birds (canaries, for example) became more common and ordinary people could sometimes afford to buy one to keep in their own home.
Unfortunately, though, some of the animals being imported were required for a different purpose. In a section entitled Ingredients, we learn about the popularity of turtle soup, the use of bear grease by wigmakers and the demand for perfumes made with oil from the glands of civet cats. And even dead animals were of interest to the Georgians: they could be studied by anatomists, artists and naturalists, and were often then stuffed and put on display in museums.
As you can probably imagine, many of the anecdotes in the book are very sad to read. The people who were removing these animals from their natural habitats had no idea how to look after them correctly and, in most cases, didn’t seem to care. The animals and birds usually didn’t live very long in captivity and had short, miserable lives, being fed inappropriate food and provided with inadequate housing. There are stories of a young polar bear kept for a month in a wooden barrel with fresh water poured in daily and a parrot left unable to walk after being tethered to a perch on a short chain, to give just two examples.
Sometimes the animals would take their revenge. In a chapter called Bitten, Crushed and Maimed you can read about owners, keepers and spectators being injured or attacked by animals – not always because the animal was being tormented or badly treated, but also due to human ignorance. If people didn’t know how to care for the animals, they didn’t know how to behave around them either and seemed to have no understanding of the dangers of taunting rattlesnakes, trying to climb on elephants’ backs or poking fingers between the bars of cages!
The Georgian Menagerie is not always a pleasant read, then, but I suppose not everything in our history is very pleasant. And of course, there are lots of amusing and lighthearted anecdotes in the book too, particularly in the final section, Humour, which discusses the novelty of electric eels, the jokes surrounding Queen Charlotte’s zebras, and the relationships between parrots and their owners. Christopher Plumb’s style throughout the book is engaging and easy to read and there are plenty of beautiful illustrations by artists of the period. References and sources are provided both within the text and at the back of the book.
Despite the sometimes distressing descriptions of animal cruelty, I found The Georgian Menagerie completely fascinating. I love reading about the eighteenth century and this book gave me an opportunity to explore an aspect of Georgian life about which I previously knew very little. Definitely recommended!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.