The tenant of this little grave, our hope, and joy, and pride, was snatched away from our embrace in early youth she died.
(Epitaph on Ellen Blight’s Gravestone, Coventry)
Victorian audiences relished the spectacle of circus and sideshow but the thrill of watching a Lion Tamer could soon tip into horror if the act went wrong.
At just after 9pm on 11th January 1850 young Ellen Bright[i] climbed into a cage at Wombwell’s Menagerie on the pitch at Chatham and began her act instructing and encouraging the lioness to perform tricks at her command. After a few minutes a male tiger growled and impatiently blocked her way.
She tapped him on the nose with her whip. He struck back clawing her leg and knocked her into the bars of the cage then pounced crunching through her jaw then clamped his razor teeth into her neck. As blood pooled over the floor of the cage a keeper sprang in to whip the tiger then another struck his nose with an iron bar. The tiger was held back as a deathly pale, unconscious but still breathing Ellen was carried to one of the caravans.
Richard Cooper Todd an army surgeon who had been watching the show gave her a drop of brandy and tried staunch the flow of blood from her wounds. Too late. She died where she lay in the van.
At the inquest Todd said there had been tensions from the start of the show with the tiger ‘not very friendly with’ Ellen becoming angrier at each whip hit.
Travelling menageries did not have a big performance ring like a circus, instead the audience walked round small individual cages peering at exotic animals then rushed to get a space in front of the ‘dens’ when shows were timed to start.
Ellen had only recently stepped into the Wombwell ‘Lion Queen’ shoes when her predecessor Ellen Chapman left the show to marry into the Sangers Circus dynasty.
Trainers and keepers need to form a bond with their wild animals. Reports often showed a broken routine, hungry animals or an unusual event was to blame for attacks.
There was undoubtedly cruelty with whips and red hot iron bars at the ready to subdue troublesome beasts but Tamers also spoke of the need for kindness and patience during training.
Male performers were often portrayed as macho dominators of untamed nature and questions over safety were periodically asked in the press, especially where a ‘delicate’ woman had been injured or killed. On one visit to Wombwells Queen Victoria had watched Ellen Chapman ride an elephant but decreed the lion taming act was not to be carried out in the royal presence.
Ellen Chapman claimed that she’d ‘begged’ Ellen Bright to stop whipping the lions and when interviewed menagerie trainers and circus acts often mentioned that kindness was the only way to train animals. In some instances this may have been a ploy to avoid an unexpected visit from an RSPCA inspector.
Whether the 1849 ‘Cruelty To Animals Act’ covered wild animals as well domestic animals was debated for many years.
In an attempt to monetise the tragedy and attract more audience an unfortunate taxidermied tiger was exhibited by Wombwell’s as ‘the Tiger who killed Ellen Bright’.
As for poor Ellen she was buried in Coventry next to her cousin William Wombwell who had been trampled to death by his elephant just a year before. Often remembered in the press she was commemorated with a popular Staffordshire pottery figure, for ever posing in colourful stage costume, arm raised to swipe the pouncing tiger away just before her tragic death.
[i] [i] Stagename of Ellen Elizabeth Blight 1833–1850