Elephants on Milsom Street, Bath
Whilst exploring the visual collections of Victorian Popular Culture, a photograph caught my eye. It showed a group of elephants processing down Milsom Street in Bath â€“ not a sight you see every day! The caption was simply â€śBarnumâ€™s procession through Bathâ€ť and I was intrigued to find out more.
Barnumâ€™s Procession Through Bath. Image Â© The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Barnum was one of the proprietors of the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, an American circus company that still operates today under the name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. And indeed elephants were part of the reason for that original partnership, as P. T. Barnum and Jonathan Bailey were rivals in the business until 1880, when Bailey was exhibiting â€śColumbiaâ€ť, the first baby elephant born in America, and Barnum attempted (unsuccessfully) to buy it. The following year they agreed to combine their shows and the result was a hugely successful touring company, with acts such as Jumbo, advertised as the worldâ€™s largest elephant.
Performing Elephants. Barnum & Bailey's Circus. Image Â© The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Circuses had become immensely popular in Britain in the nineteenth century, with performers appearing not just in big tops and open-air rings, but also in theatres and music halls, with trick riding, aerial acts and jugglers as key attractions. The development of the railway enabled travelling companies to visit even the smaller towns across Europe and America, creating an entertainment truly for the masses. It was common for the larger circuses to parade through each new town to advertise their arrival, and the processions during Barnum & Baileyâ€™s tour of Europe were often three miles long, boasting elephants, steam engines, band wagons, and human â€śliving curiositiesâ€ť.
Portrait of P. T. Barnum. Image Â© The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Barnum was what we would think of as the archetypal showman, making personal appearances in the ring after his group had performed, although he was also a politician, author, publisher, philanthropist and museum owner in his lifetime. He died in 1891 but Bailey continued with the circus, taking his company on a tour of Europe between 1897 and 1902, during which they stopped for a performance in Bath. Although nowadays there is great controversy over the appearance of wild animals in circuses, it must have been a truly incredible sight to see those elephants in the procession. The photograph gives a tantalising glimpse of the scale of the entertainment available to and enjoyed by the masses in Britain and America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
More fascinating photographs of circus performers and other wild and wonderful Victorian entertainments can be discovered in Victorian Popular Culture. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.