In a recent article I wrote about Maccomo, the first black lion tamer in Victorian England. But working with wild cats was not only just for men. Several Victorian women became famous in their own right for braving the lion’s cage. The earliest mention of a female working with wild cats appears in the Liverpool Mercury on 1 August 1845: ‘A Mrs. King, who takes the title of the Lion Queen, has been exhibiting her foolhardiness at Glasgow, by going into the den of the lions and tigers at Wombwell’s menagerie.’
Although Mrs. King may have been the first recorded Lion Queen, perhaps the most famous for her exploits was Ellen Chapman, often referred to as Nellie. Ellen was born in 1831 so was only a teenager when she began performing with Wombwell’s menagerie. Exactly when she began performing is not clear but it is likely to have been sometime in 1846. One of the earliest records of Ellen being mentioned by name appears in the Liverpool Mercury of 22 January 1847:
JUST ARRIVED AND NOW EXHIBITING IN THE HAYMARKET […] WOMBWELL’S ROYAL MENAGERIE […] The Establishment is accompanied by Miss Chapman, “The Lion Queen”, who will perform daily with her Royal group of nine Lions.
Other Lion Queens were in evidence at this time. A former lion tamer claimed, in a lengthy article on the subject in the Morpeth Herald of 13 January 1872, that Polly Hilton [Hylton], the daughter of the menagerie owner, was one of the first Lion Queens and appeared at Stepney Fair. Hylton’s was a rival company to Wombwell’s but a much smaller outfit in general. A Caroline McPherson was also known to have been performing with Hylton’s menagerie from early in 1847. Little is known about her, apart from an appalling accident that occurred in October:
A very distressing event occurred at Nottingham Goose Fair, on Monday last, which most probably will terminate fatally. Between 9 and 10 o’clock at night, a vast crowd of persons had assembled in Mr. Hylton’s menagerie, to view the collection of wild beasts, amongst which was the celebrated lion “Nero”, when suddenly a tremendous scream was heard proceeding from the den of the animal. During the last nine months a young woman by the name of Caroline McPherson had been in the habit of exhibiting her powers over the animal in its den. On this occasion she had in her arms her niece, Catherine Ellen Chittock, a child three years old, and while she walking in front of the lion’s den, within the rope put up as a boundary for the company, the animal suddenly put forth both its claws through an opening underneath the iron bars, and seized the head of the child. The crowd having observed the woman walking towards the den, and supposing she was about to enter it with the child, had closed in upon her, so that the beast fairly got hold of the child with its claws, and tore the back and front of its head, forehead, nose, ears, and its right arm in a most frightful manner, and it was only by main force the poor sufferer was dragged away […] The child, covered with blood, its frock and other clothes torn to ribands [sic], and its person presenting a mangled appearance were removed to a caravan in the fair, in which its parents travel, were [sic] it was attended by two medical men, who pronounced its wounds to be of a most dangerous character. The child lay without hope of recovery. (The Taunton Courier, 13 October 1847)
Incidents and accidents appear to have been something of an occupational hazard for this intrepid band of Lion Queens, and for their audiences. The newspapers of the period are littered with reports of members of the public being bitten or clawed, sometimes fatally, as above, but often these cases occurred when the audience had approached too close to the animal cages or, worse, when they had attempted to touch them. Not all were as disastrous as they might have been, and ladies’ fashion sometimes saved the day:
At Wombwell’s menagerie […] a fashionably dressed lady, while standing near the den of a “royal Bengal tiger”, turned suddenly round, and was seized behind by the ferocious brute. Amidst the shrieks of the belle and the bystanders, he tore off, as he expected, a luxurious meal, but the next moment the poor dupe found that he had been nicely taken in, – being half suffocated with bran; – the stuffing of the lady’s bustle! (Liverpool Mercury, 12 March 1847)
Less common were reports concerning the Lion Queens themselves. In the Stamford Mercury of 26 March 1847 we find a report that there had been an incident at Wombwell’s menagerie whilst at the Stamford Fair. The Lion Queen had entered the den but the lions were not as agile as usual. She roused them with her whip and one of them flew at her, clawing her face and neck. She was rescued by two other animal keepers and, although deeply shocked, surgeons found that she was only scratched and bruised. It is not clear from this report whether this was Mrs. King or Ellen Chapman; both were performing with one of Wombwell’s menageries at the time. However, an advertisement in the same newspaper of the 5 March announced Wombwell’s arrival in Stamford with Miss Chapman as the Lion Queen.
The inherent danger associated with these performances with wild cats did not always receive total support from the press. As much as they might praise the bravery of these women, there were also condemnations, particularly after an incident had happened:
The performances of this female do not augment the attraction of Wombwell’s menagerie; such exhibitions are unnatural, always attended with danger, and ought not to be allowed. (Lincolnshire Chronicle, 26 March 1847)
It is to be regretted that the taste of the public be so vitiated as to encourage the practice of performers placing themselves in situations of such great danger. (Stamford Mercury, 26 March 1847)
After the incident at the Nottingham Goose Fair, nothing further is heard of McPherson or of a Lion Queen at Hylton’s menagerie. Perhaps the death of the child was too much to bear for either McPherson or Hylton. Mrs. King also disappeared from performing with wild cats after leaving her husband for another of Wombwell’s employees in the autumn of 1847.
With the absence of any rivals, Ellen Chapman was left as the rising star of ‘Lion Queens’. Her fearless performances thrilled many who saw her and she became an overnight star. Reports of her performances were well recorded, but when she selflessly put her life at risk in an accident in August 1847 she became the darling of the crowds; and still at only sixteen years old:
A few days since, when Wombwell’s immense menagerie was proceeding into Folkestone, an accident occurred which was well night attended with serious consequences […] one of the waggons, containing several fine leopards, &c, overturned, in passing down the steep declivity leading into the town. The shock occasioned by it was so great […] for the ferocious animals to escape from their lair. In this precarious position of affairs, Miss Chapman (the lady who has created so much excitement as the lion queen) arrived, and, notwithstanding the infuriated state of the animals, occasioned by the rough upsetting, she immediately entered the waggon, and, being provided with proper materials secured them in such a manner as to effectually baffle any attempt to escape. (Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, 21 August 1847)
Ellen’s fame went from strength to strength. She was fast becoming a celebrity; the fearless exploits of such a demure young girl captured the imagination of the crowds. Perhaps her greatest accolade was when Wombwell’s menagerie was commanded to appear at Windsor Castle before the royal family in the October of 1847. The Illustrated London News of 6 November carries an engraving of the scene, in which Miss Chapman can be seen seated upon her elephant as the royal party approaches the entrance to the menagerie (see fig. 2). Queen Victoria mentioned the visit in her journal for that day.1
The outcome of this Royal Command performance was that Chapman’s celebrity position was endorsed. As with modern celebrities, merchandising is all-important and a reflection of status. Commemorative Staffordshire Pottery figurines were produced, showing Ellen Chapman, the ‘Lion Queen’, supported on either side by a lion and a leopard (see fig. 3). Charles Dickens sung her praises in his letters and felt that she should be immortalised in oils by the artist Landseer.2 She was the subject of two portraits by George Horner, both showing her surrounded by her lions.
Throughout 1848 she continued to perform with Wombwell but at some point during 1849 she left his employment. George Sanger, upon hearing the news of the death of another Lion Queen at Wombwell’s in the January of 1850, said that he was glad that his sweetheart Nellie had abandoned the Lion Queen business.3 Ellen Chapman had ceased to be mentioned by name as a Lion Queen in all advertising and reports of Wombwell’s menagerie during 1849, although in the January the Lion Queen is advertised ‘as presented before her majesty’, so this likely to be her. Exactly when she stopped performing is not clear.
In January 1850 a terrible incident occurred at Wombwell’s, in which Ellen Chapman’s replacement was killed by a tiger:
On Saturday evening an inquest was held […] touching the death of Ellen Bright, a young girl, aged 17 years, who was killed on the previous evening by a tiger in the establishment of Mr. George Wombwell […] The deceased, who was denominated the “Lion Queen”, had the honour of performing before her Majesty some time since [confusion here with Ellen Chapman], and, as will be seen from the evidence, was going through the usual evolutions with a lion and tiger at the time she met with her melancholy death […]The deceased was a niece of Mr. Wombwell’s […] On Friday evening, shortly after nine o’clock she went into the den, where a lion and tiger were kept for the purpose of performing as usual the tricks played by her, being principally with the former animal. She had only been in two or three minutes but had gone through the main part of the performance, excepting that of making the lion sit down in a particular part of the cage, when the tiger being in her way, the deceased struck it lightly with a small whip she carried in her hand. The beast growled as if in anger, and, crouching close to the bottom of the den, stretched out its paw, as if at her leg or dress, causing the deceased to fall sideways against the cage, the animal at the same moment springing at her, and seizing her ferociously by the neck, inserting the teeth of the upper jaw in her chin, and in closing his mouth inflicting frightful injury in the throat by his fangs. He then appeared to change his position, making a second gripe [sic] across the throat of his victim. A keeper […] immediately rushed to her assistance […] and whilst King [the former husband of Mrs. King] held the animal, the unfortunate female was removed from the cage, bleeding profusely, and life all but extinct […]Witness [King] had frequently heard Mr. Wombwell say he wished there was no Lion Queen. Witness thought if she had kept the whip from the animal, it would not have attacked her […] The Jury returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased was killed by a male tiger whilst exhibiting in its den, and expressed a strong opinion against the practice of allowing persons to perform in a den with animals. (Derbyshire Courier, 19 January 1850)
In the report it states that she had gone into the den several times daily for the previous twelve months. If this is so then it would mean that Ellen Bright had been performing with Wombwell’s for the whole of 1849. Although she was never mentioned by name, a report in the West Kent Guardian in the October mentions ‘a young lady, niece to the proprietor, who enacts the part of the ”Lion Queen”’. This certainly tallies with the information we have on Ellen Bright, so was it the case that Ellen Chapman had retired from being Wombwell’s Lion Queen and that he had to find a replacement in the person of his niece – with tragic consequences? There surely would have been an overlap period where Ellen Chapman would have passed on her knowledge to the fledgling Lion Queen. This is hinted at by Sanger:
At the same time I must say I do not think she [Ellen Chapman] would have had any trouble with the tiger, her method being very different to that adopted by Miss Bright. The latter had been begged by Nellie again and again not to irritate the animals by tapping at them with a riding-whip, which she was very fond of doing, as she thought it made them smart in their movements (Sanger 1911)
Admittedly Sanger may have been biased towards Ellen Chapman, but it does suggest that the experienced Lion Queen was trying to pass on her expertise to the novice. The impression we gain of Ellen Chapman is that she was a rather quiet person who handled her animals with a certain gentleness, rather than the brutal use of a whip and goad.
Ellen married George Sanger on 1 December 1850 in Sheffield.4 At that time George Sanger and his brother John were travelling fairground entertainers. They had not yet branched out into the world of circus; their first circus was bought around 1853. Ellen, now as Mrs. George Sanger, would assist wherever she could but her days of working with wild animals, as a Lion Queen, had temporarily ceased. According to an article in the Falkirk Herald of 11 January 1872, referring back to the death of Ellen Bright in 1850 and reflecting upon lions and lion taming, the writer suggests that after the incident the Lord Chamberlain prohibited by order exhibitions by Lion Queens. It would seem that while it was still admissible for men to continue with such dangerous performances – and they did for many years afterwards – for a woman to enter the dens of lion and tigers was now no longer acceptable. It was not the danger or the ever present-prospect of injury or death that brought the era of the Lion Queens to an end, but the intervention of the state, which saw such exploits as unwomanly and debasing womanhood.
For a while Ellen Chapman, now Sanger, worked alongside her husband as the ‘Wizard Queen’, giving displays of legerdemain. She also continued working with lions, although not as a Lion Queen. In 1860 Sanger’s Circus was in Edinburgh and the lengthy advertisement concludes with:
Terminating with a splendid ALLEGORICAL TABLEAU OF BRITANNIA seated with a Lion and Shield emblematic of the British Empire […] due to the effect of one of the noble troupe of lions will appear. (Caledonian Mercury, 4 January 1860)
By this time Sanger was becoming quite successful and had quite a large menagerie that travelled with the circus, including a troupe of lions. In 1861 he announced that a Mr. Crockett would performing the circus with seven lions but that the tableau of Britannia would also be shown. Ellen Sanger made this her signature role in later life. In the winter of 1871 the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII, contracted typhoid fever. He fortunately recovered and the following year Queen Victoria arranged various festivities and thanksgiving ceremonies, including a grand State pageant through London. Sanger, never one to miss a publicity opportunity, arranged his own procession to coincide with this, and his wife was to play a central role in her portrayal of Britannia. He refers to it in his autobiography (Sanger 1911):
Our show drew forth tremendous cheering, for its tinsel finery had a great deal more glitter about it than the solid grandeur of the Royal procession. We had our Britannia, Mrs. George Sanger, with her living lion to typify the nation and its strength.
Ellen Sanger died 30 April 1899 of a heart condition. Her death was announced simply in the newspapers, but a few reports give us an idea of her last years. She had still been appearing alongside her husband certainly up until 1898. A reporter in the St. Andrews Citizen records seeing Mrs. Sanger personally when the circus visited Fife in the May of that year.5 She was still taking part in the imposing street pageant before the show and appeared in good health. She was at this time 67 years old. Shortly after her death a fitting tribute appeared:
The profession and general public alike will receive the announcement of the death of Mrs. George Sanger with extreme regret […] The lady was a distinguished figure throughout the United Kingdom and the greater part of the Continent, having for fifty years appeared before the public. In October, 1847, she had the exceptional honour of appearing, by special command, before their Most Gracious Majesties the Queen and the Prince Consort, with the Royal children at the time, at Windsor Castle, as “Miss Ellen Chapman, the British Lion Queen”, in connection with Mr. George Wombwell’s menagerie, and since that time had taken an active part in raising Sanger’s Circus to the position it now holds […] Later with the circus she has for many years ridden as Britannia with the noble lion Prince, then Havelock and then Nero by her side in nearly every town and city in the country; and on the occasion of the Thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales in 1872 Mrs. Sanger rode with the splendid lion Prince in the rear of the Royal procession [in fact Sanger’s procession had ‘gatecrashed’ the royal procession by design and because of the press of the crowd had to continue as part of it] […] She came of an old family of travellers, her mother, Miss Harriet Chapman, being principal dancer with Richardson, the greatest of traveling theatrical managers, the father and grandfather having small travelling exhibitions. As a fitting climax to a long and honourable public life, on the occasion of the Royal command to Balmoral Castle of the circus company, June 17th, last year, her Majesty was graciously pleased to present Mrs. Sanger with a magnificent diamond and sapphire pendant. (The Era, 6 May 1899)
Ellen Chapman had spent almost all of her life in menageries and circuses. As a young woman she had captured the hearts and minds of the public and, for a short time, had become the most famous of all British Lion Queens. She, like the small band of other women, had dared to enter the masculine world of lion taming and had succeeded to the extent that she had been compared to the renowned Isaac Van Amburgh.6 She had proved that a woman was more than capable of performing anything that her male counterparts could, and it had only been the intervention of the State that had prevented her from going further. She, and the other Lion Queens, must rank as some of the strongest women of the nineteenth-century circus.
Dr. Steve Ward is a social historian and has written several books on aspects of the social and cultural history of the circus. His latest book, Artistes of Colour; Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus was published by the Modern Vaudeville Press in February 2021. See http://www.modernvaudevillepress.com/artistes/ for further details.
Notes & references
- Queen Victoria’s Journals for 28th October 1847. Available online at the Royal Archives; Queen Victoria’s Journals – Journal Entry (queenvictoriasjournals.org)
- Schlike, P. (1988) Dickens and Popular Entertainment. Unwin Press, London.
- Sanger, G. (1935 reprint of 1911 first edition) Seventy Years a Showman. E.P. Dutton & Co. London.
- England & Wales Civil registration Marriage Index 1837-1915. Online at George Sanger – Ancestry.com
- Andrew’s Citizen 28 May 1898. Online at Citizen Saturday, May 21 1898 | St. Andrews Citizen | Saturday 28 May 1898 | British Newspaper Archive
- Isaac Van Amburgh was the first famous Lion King of the period. He came to England from America in the late 1830s and toured widely. He appeared at Astley’s in London and gave several performances before Queen Victoria.
See also Everett, S. (2013) The British Lion Queens; A History. Online at TheLionQueens.pdf (georgewombwell.com)