George Wombwell was born in Wendon Lofts, Essex in 24th December 1777. Around 1800 he moved to London and in 1804 became a shoemaker in Soho. However, when a ship from South America brought two boas to London docks, he bought them for £75 and began to exhibit them in taverns. He soon made a good profit.
Wombwell began to buy exotic animals from ships that came from Africa, Australia and South America, and collected a whole menagerie and put them on display in Soho. In 1810 he founded the Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie and began to tour the fairs of Britain. By 1839 it totalled fifteen wagons.
The menagerie included elephants, giraffes, a gorilla, a hyena, kangaroo, leopards, 6 lions, llamas, monkeys, ocelots, onagers, ostriches, panthers, a rhino ("the real unicorn of scripture"), 3 tigers, wildcats and zebras. However, because many of the animals were from hotter climes, many of them died in the British climate. Sometimes Wombwell could profitably sell the body to a taxidermist or a medical school - if he could not exhibit the dead animal as a better curiosity than the live one.
Wombwell bred and raised many animals himself, including the first lion to be bred in captivity in Britain; he named it William in the honor of William Wallace. In 1825 Warwick, Wombwell arranged a Lion-baiting between his docile lion Nero and six bullmastiffs. Nero refused to fight but when Wombwell released Wiliam, he mauled the dogs and the fight was soon stopped.
Over the years, Wombwell expanded to a total of three menageries that traveled all around the country. He was invited to the royal court on five occasions to exhibit his animals, three times before Queen Victoria.
Once Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha summoned him to look at his dogs who kept dying and Wombwell quickly noticed that their water was poisoning them. When the prince asked what he could do for Wombwell, he said "What can you give a man who has everything?". A year later, when Wombwell was again in court to present his "elephant of Siam", Prince Albert gave him an oak coffin. Wombwell proceeded to exhibit it as well, charging a special fee.
Wombwell frequented the St Bartholomew's Fair in London and even developed a rivalry with another exhibitor, Atkins. Once when he arrived at the fair, his elephant died and Atkins put up a sign "The Only Live Elephant in the Fair". Wombwell simply put up a scroll with the words "The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair" and explained that seeing a dead elephant was an even a rarer thing than a live one. The public, realising that they could see a living elephant at any time, flocked to see and generally poke the dead one! Throughout the fair Atkins' menagerie was largely deserted, much to his disgust.
George Wombwell died in 1850 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, under a statue of his lion Nero and quite near to Karl Marx.
1884-08-09 (New York Times):
A novel spectacle, and one not without its pathetic features, was presented yesterday on Kensington Fields, Liverpool, when the famous Wombwell's Menagerie passed under the hammer of the auctioneer.
George Wombwells niece Emma married James Bostock.
James and Emma had three sons, among them Edward (E.H) Bostock, who took over Bostock & Wombwells Menagerie (Wombwell No.2 menagerie), and 'Little' Frank Charles Bostock (1866-1912), animal trainer and Menagerist in America.