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Queen Victoria's circus

Wombwell’s Menagerie in the Quadrangle at Windsor Castle from The Illustrated London News

In October 1847, a travelling menagerie visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Inspired by this extraordinary story, a special family festival was held at Windsor in September 2019: Queen Victoria’s Circus.

Painting of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and 4 of their children

The Royal Family in 1846 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter ©

The story of Wombwell’s Menagerie

Prince Albert’s private secretary had been impressed by a menagerie (exhibition of animals) he had seen at the Windsor Michaelmas Fair. The menagerie was founded by George Wombwell, and his company was invited to set up a display for the royal family in the Quadrangle at Windsor Castle. The invitation was enthusiastically accepted and a colourful parade took place, led by the elephants’ carriage and drawn by ten horses! At three o’clock, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their four eldest children arrived, walking around the exhibition twice. In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote of seeing a wide range of animals. She was particularly taken with ‘a very accomplished elephant’, ‘a lioness, with 2 dear little cubs’ and ‘a very fine tiger’.

After Victoria and Albert’s eldest child, the young Prince of Wales, had fed an elephant some buns and biscuits, the royal family departed and the Castle community was welcomed into the exhibition, along with around 700 masters and boys from nearby Eton College. Later that evening the Queen returned to the Quadrangle to attend a lamp-lit performance by Ellen Chapman, ‘The Lion Queen’, one of the first female lion-tamers.

Photograph of Princess Alice of Albany, Prince Leopold’s daughter, with a dog

Princess Alice of Albany, Prince Leopold’s daughter, with Skippy in 1886 ©

Queen Victoria and the circus

Wombwell’s Menagerie was not Queen Victoria’s only encounter with circus performers. Travelling circuses were exceptionally popular with the public, and Queen Victoria shared this fascination. In 1887 she wrote that she had attended a ‘really wonderful performance’ at Olympia in London, given by a circus from the Hippodrome in Paris, and in 1892 ‘Buffalo Bill’ presented his Wild West spectacle privately for the Queen at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria also enjoyed Sanger’s Circus on numerous occasions. Between 1848 and the 1870s, brothers John and George Sanger transformed their small exhibition of trained mice and canaries into a hugely successful business. This comprised ten permanent circuses, as well as a travelling circus, requiring a train said to be two miles long. In 1892, Sanger’s Circus entered the Quadrangle at Windsor Castle and passed before Queen Victoria in procession. Performances were also staged at Sandringham House in 1885 and Balmoral Castle in 1898.

Watch this short film to see how huge puppet animals and talented performers paid tribute to Wombwell’s historic visit in a family festival at Windsor Castle in 2019.

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