Jumbo the Elephant: a very Victorian institution

When I was a toddler, like many other children I hauled around a stuffed toy with me wherever I went. While many had the ubiquitous Teddy Bear, and some had a rabbit, I had a battered and well-worn stuffed elephant. It was grey and threadbare and its name was … Jumbo. Now, I never questioned why it was so called. I just assumed that all elephants were known as Jumbo. But Jumbo the Elephant was a particularly Victorian creation.

Jumbo was a real elephant. He was born somewhere towards the end of 1860 in the area of Africa that we know today as Eritrea. Orphaned when his mother was killed by native hunters, he was then taken and kept with another orphaned elephant calf in a collection of animals held by a local Hamran Arab leader named Taher Sherrif. The middle of the nineteenth century witnessed a growth of the trade in exotic animals to feed the popular demand for public ‘zoos’ and exhibitions of animals. These were not private menageries, kept for the pleasure of wealthy individuals and their friends, but owned by entrepreneurs who catered for an entrance fee-paying public in the larger town and cities around Europe. It is thought that Sherrif was tapping into this burgeoning and lucrative trade, and the animals in his collection were destined for Europe.

One of the leading names in this trade was that of Hagenbeck. Begun in Germany by Claus Hagenbeck, it was soon providing animals for the growing number of zoos appearing in many capital cities of Europe, London Zoo being one of them. The trade was continued by Hagenbeck’s son, Carl and it was his association with the Austrian animal trader Lorenzo Casanova that would eventually bring the young Jumbo to Europe.

Jumbo, along with his companion elephant and other animals including giraffes, rhinoceroses, and camels as well as some birds, were driven overland by Sherrif to the eastern Sudan town of Kassala. At this point they were sold to a Johan Schmidt who was acting on behalf of Casanova. From Kassala they were again driven overland across a burning desert on a six-week-long journey to the Red Sea port of Suakin. Sadly, Jumbo’s fellow elephant did not survive the journey. From Suakin the collection was loaded onto a steamer which took them to Suez, and then further by rail to the port of Alexandria. Then followed a sea voyage to Trieste and a further train journey to Dresden. Jumbo was indeed a well-travelled elephant!

Hagenbeck assumed that Casanova would sell his collection to him but Casanova decided to split up his collection and sell it off animal by animal; perhaps it was more lucrative for him to do so. Jumbo was sold on to Gottlieb Kreutzberg, the owner of a Grand Menagerie. It was Gottlieb’s daughter Anna who went on to marry the famous lion tamer of the period, Joseph Ledger Delmonico. For some reason, perhaps purely financial, Jumbo was then sold on to the Jardin de Plantes in Paris around 1863. Although Jumbo was still relatively small in size, the director of the Jardin was pleased to have another exhibit of a live African elephant to join their existing African elephants, named Castor and Pollux. Asian elephants had been on exhibition for many years but African elephants were always considered to be more savage and difficult to contain. They also grew significantly larger than their Asian counterparts and there was still time for Jumbo to grow into a fully-sized adult. However, Jumbo was neglected in favour of the two other ‘star’ attractions. He was scruffy and quite puny by comparison and did not seem to want to interact in any way with the onlookers. He was expensive to maintain and became a liability to the management of the Jardin.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) did not have an African elephant. It had been founded in 1828 for members to study and observe a wide variety of animals but it was not until 1847 that a fee-paying public were first admitted. The zoo had a wide variety of exhibits – but not a live African elephant. In 1865 it achieved its aim and acquired Jumbo from the Jardin de Plantes. An arrangement was agreed whereby the ZSL would receive Jumbo in exchange for an Indian Rhinoceros, along with an additional payment to the Jardin. In the end the ZSL not only sent the rhinoceros but a pair of eagles, a possum, and some Australian dingos. They obviously had not examined the ‘goods’ before receiving them, as when Jumbo arrived in London in 1865, accompanied by his new keeper, it was said that it was ‘about four feet high and in a filthy and miserable condition’ [1]. The arrival was covered widely in the British press and it was commented on that such an animal had never been brought alive before to Britain [2]. For the more enquiring reader, a detailed description of the appearance and nature of the African elephant was given in The Field of 5 July 1865.

Figure 1. The transportation of Jumbo. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1 April 1882.

With no experience of working with elephants, Matthew Scott was assigned as Jumbo’s keeper. Scott soon developed a close relationship with the animal and was able to ‘communicate’ with it in a way that was unfathomable. It was he, and possibly Bartlett, the Superintendent of ZSL, who actually gave the elephant his name, Jumbo. There was a need to give the animal an anthropomorphic identity that fee-paying customers could relate to. But where the name Jumbo came from is something of a mystery. The word jumbo was in circulation in the English language at the time, meaning a ‘clumsy and ungainly individual’. Could Scott have chosen this because the elephant he took under his control was a poor example of its species, or did he assign the name because it had similarities to Swahili words meaning ‘hello’ or ‘chief’? Certainly the latter would fall within the Victorian fascination with the ‘exotic’; and what would be more exotic than to be able to see a living animal with an ‘exotic’ sounding name from a perceived ‘exotic’ continent? Although elephants were not an uncommon sight in Britain at this time, they appeared in many circuses and menageries of the period, and these were of the Indian or Asian varieties [3]. Britain had control of India, and although these elephants were an interesting sight they were not as ‘exotic’ as their African counterparts from a ‘dark’ and mysterious place. Shortly after Jumbo’s arrival in London a further African elephant was added to the collection. This one was female and named Alice. The Superintendent, and the press, were happy to promote that Jumbo was now ‘married’, and this drew larger crowds, and increased the income for the London Zoo.

Under Scott’s care and attention, Jumbo recovered some of his health and began to grow. He eventually grew to be over twelve feet tall and weighed in at seven tons. The word jumbo began to take on a new meaning, no longer clumsy and ungainly but a word related to something that was of an immense size. An elephant named Jumbo changed the meaning of an English word, and it still has that meaning today. Jumbo became a star attraction at the London Zoo. As he grew stronger and larger, although quite placid, Scott arranged for children to ride on his back – for a small fee, of course. He also sold the ubiquitous bun that could be fed to Jumbo, at the price of one penny. This was a lucrative side-line for Scott as he seemed to have pocketed the takings from these ventures. It was not only children who rode Jumbo. Adults were just as keen, and notable names such as Winston Churchill were known to have ridden him. Jumbo was also a favourite of Queen Victoria and, although she did not ride on the animal, some of her children did.

Figure 2: A farewell ride on Jumbo. Illustrated London News, 18 March 1882.

For seventeen years Jumbo remained an attraction at the London Zoo. But as he grew older into maturity he grew more restless and unpredictable. Bartlett was even considering the option of having Jumbo dispatched, but an escape from this arrived in the person of the American circus and menagerie owner, P. T. Barnum. Barnum made an offer for this large specimen, to match his own ‘elephantine’ standing in the entertainment world, and was happy to arrange to have him shipped to the United States. A deal was brokered and in January 1882 it was announced that Jumbo had been sold to Barnum for £2000, and that Scott would go with him [4]. The British public were outraged and protested: Jumbo was almost a British institution. How could Bartlett sell him on to an itinerant showman? But, in March 1882, Jumbo began his long journey to America.

On arrival in the United States he was paraded throughout towns and cities and was exhibited as part of the Barnum and Bailey’s circus for three years. Then, in 1885, tragedy struck: Jumbo was killed in a railway accident. The circus had been performing in the Canadian town of St. Thomas and the elephants were to be shipped by rail to the next venue. Scott had taken Jumbo and another smaller elephant along the railway lines to their wagon when a freight train had approached rapidly from behind them. Unable to get the elephants out of the way the engine struck both animals and dragged Jumbo along the track for several hundred yards. The engine and wagons were derailed by the collision and Jumbo died of his injuries at the track side. The other elephant, which had a shattered leg, also had to be put down. Barnum, not one to miss a public relations opportunity, claimed that Jumbo had ‘heroically’ pushed the smaller elephant out of the way and that he had turned to face the engine head on in defiance; all flim-flam on his part. It was a tragic accident and was first reported in the Hamilton Daily Times of 16 September 2885 and then was covered in many British newspapers. The Toronto Daily Mail of 19 September 1885 went on to give a detailed history of Jumbo. An interesting point to all this is that during the afternoon performance in the circus on the same day as Jumbo’s death, a circus bareback rider took a fall and died of his injuries. This piece of information is added almost as a footnote to the description of Jumbo’s death; Jumbo was clearly the more significant of the deaths that day!

Figure 3: Sad end of the elephant Jumbo. Illustrated Police News 26 September 1885.

And what of Jumbo after death? His skeleton was promised to the Smithsonian Institute and his heart bought by Cornell University. Barnum paid for the hide of Jumbo to be stuffed by a taxidermist and then went on to tour the stuffed Jumbo around the country. He even purchased Alice from the London Zoo to exhibit her alongside her stuffed ‘husband’. Alice ‘died’ in a fire in 1886 – Jumbo survived. In 1889 Jumbo was dismantled, the hide given to Tufts College. The skeleton ended up in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A memorial statue of Jumbo was erected in St. Thomas. And Scott? The death of Jumbo had hit him hard, and he went into decline. Barnum pensioned him off, and he eventually died destitute.

But the legacy of that first Jumbo still continues, in the name commonly used by parents and children for all elephants, whether they be soft toys or living animals.

Steve Ward is a researcher, author, and speaker. He has a PhD for his research and writing on the social and cultural history of the circus. His published books are: Beneath the Big Top; A Social History of the Circus in Britain (2014); Sawdust Sisterhood; How Circus Empowered Women (2016); Circus Notes & Jottings (2017); The Father of the Modern Circus; Billy Buttons; the life & times of Philip Astley (2018); Nineteenth Century Circus Poster Art (2018).His latest book is Artistes of Colour; Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus (2021).

Notes & references

[1] Bartlett, A. (2009) Wild animals in Captivity. Cornell University Library Reprint of original 1899 work.

[2] E.g.. Illustrated London News (15 July 1865).

[3] Wiltshire Times (27 June 1863).

[4] The Times (25 January 1882).

Further reading

Sutherland, J. (2014) Jumbo; The unauthorised biography of a Victorian sensation. Aurum Press Ltd.

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