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Archaeologists search for the legendary Kingswood elephant from the Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie

Archaeologists are conducting a search for the legendary elephant beast from the Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie travelling ‘beast show’.

Menageries featuring wild and exotic animals were a fashionable form of entertainment throughout the Victorian era and early 20th century. The animals were imported to the UK to join animal exhibitions, performing circus acts, and travelling shows.

Dr Steve Ward, Circus Historian, said: “During the 19th century, the fascination with the natural world allowed both travelling and static menageries to flourish. People wanted to experience exotic and strange animals. Seeing these creatures was seen as educational, indeed the government actively encouraged families to take their children. But merely viewing them was not enough; the public also wanted to be entertained. In some menageries, animal keepers began to perform tricks with their beasts, especially with the large carnivores and elephants.”

The Bostock and Wombwell menagerie travelled the country and boasted a “magnificent zoological collection – too numerous to detail”. Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie showed for the last time at the Old Sheep Market in Newcastle on December 1931 with many of their animals ending their days in zoos and museums across the country.

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As part of South Gloucestershire Council’s Kingswood regeneration project, archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology have been commissioned to conduct a geophysical survey to see if they can locate the fabled burial site of the elephant that died in 1891 in the area of Whitefield’s Tabernacle or Holy Trinity Church in Kingswood, South Gloucestershire.

Alan Bryant, Curator at Kingswood Museum, said: “I first heard about the Kingswood elephant burial in the 1970s when I was doing my rounds as a local milkman. Since then, I have had countless conversations and debates with local people about it. I remember a new mains sewer pipe was installed in the 1980s and I made a point of having a look to see if there were any anomalies in the ground. Alas, nothing to report but I for one am delighted at the potential of discovering the legendary Kingswood Elephant burial.”

Lorrain Higbee, Zooarchaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “This initial archaeological investigation aims to locate the elephant burial but should we do so, you may be surprised at what we could learn about the life of this animal from studying its skeletal remains.”

“In the case of a menagerie elephant, as well as understanding where the animal came from and its age, we may be able to see the impact of its life as an entertainer, this may include evidence of confinement including trauma from shackling the animal or arthritis. It may also be possible to detect injuries or strains resulting from its performance duties, such as repetitive movements,” added Higbee.

Wessex Archaeology

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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