Despite this poster’s high-flown insistence that the show will display ‘the Royal National Zoological Collection’, there was actually no such thing. Wombwell’s was one of a number of private menageries touring Britain in the mid-Victorian period. Merging with the rival Bostock menagerie later in 1853, the resulting Bostock & Wombwell company was perhaps Britain’s most successful travelling menageries, lasting till 1932 when it sold its stock to London Zoo. At the time of the sale, the menagerie comprised 25 monkeys, 50 parrots, two elephants, two brown bears, one polar bear, two spotted hyenas, one striped hyena, 13 lions, two tigers, two wolves, five leopards, two camels, a pelican, a crane, a kangaroo and a sealion.
Animal shows were very popular during the mid-Victorian period, when they featured in music halls, circuses, magic acts and even scientific demonstrations. The more exotic the animal, the better. The extent of Britain’s empire allowed circus entrepreneurs in particular to import lions, tigers, elephants and seals to Britain, where native audiences would simply have never seen their like.