Curious Georgian Entertainments by Grace Elliot

Join me in welcoming my friend Grace Elliot on her blog tour for her latest release, The Ringmaster’s Daughter.


My latest release, The Ringmaster’s Daughter, is set in a Georgian pleasure garden. This was a place of entertainment where, then as now, the public flocked to see the unusual and curious. From exotic animals to deformed people, the extraordinary could draw a crowd – so let us look at the 18th century’s biggest attractions.

Firstly, let us visit the Strand, London, and a display of exotic animals. This was the brain child of one George Pidcock who started out as an itinerant showman, hawking animals around fairs and markets. The poor roads made it difficult to travel in winter and Pidcock needed a base for his animals. The answer was to buy a four-story building, the Exeter Exchange, in the Strand.

Pidcock’s animals included a rhinocerous, kangaroo, lynx, zebra and rare birds. He discovered that the public would pay to view his animals at the Exchange and what started as a temporary solution turned into a permanent display. Such was the success of the venture that he went on to add tigers and an elephant! The visitor paid a shilling to view the three main exhibits, or two shillings to see everything. The menagerie was open for twelve hours a day from 9 am and the most popular time to visit was feeding time at 8 pm. The later was signaled by Chunee, the elephant, ringing a bell.

“The Lords of Parliament and the lions of Exeter Change all dined at about eight.”~William Clarke, journalist.

One famous visitor, Lord Byron, remarked that the hippotomus had the face of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool – possibly a dubious anecdote since no record exists of a hippo at Pidcock’s menagerie.

Whilst on an animal theme, performing animals were very popular in the 18th – 19th century. One such was Munito the ‘learned’ dog. First shown by Signor Castelli in London, 1817, the dog played dominoes, did card tricks and performed arithmetic. Decades later, Charles Dickens recalls, as a boy, seeing Munito.

“About 45 years ago, a learned dog was exhibited in Piccadilly – Munito … He performed many curious feats, answering questions, telling the hour of the day … picking out any cards called for from a pack on the ground.”~Charles Dickens, 1867

Incidentally, Dickens was determined to work out how Munito did his tricks – which perhaps he did. “We watched more narrowly … noticed that between each feat the master gave the dog some small bits … of food, and that there was a faint smell of aniseed from that corner of the room.”

Dickens believed that as the owner set out the cards, he pressed his thumb on the chosen card impregnating it with the scent of aniseed which Munito had been trained to recognize. Apparently, he confronted Signor Castelli after the show, with this explanation, who ‘did not deny the discovery.’

Another late 18th craze was a performing pig (I warned you truth was stranger than fiction) – trained by one, Samuel Bisset. He was reputed to have bought a black piglet in Belfast market for 3 shillings, and over the next two years trained him to perform. The Learned Pig first made his debut in 1783 in Dublin. He knelt and bowed, used cardboard letters to spell out names and could point to the married people in the audience. The act succeeded Bisset’s wildest dreams and it seemed the couple were destined to be welcomed in novelty seeking London.

“…solves questions in the four rules of arithmetic, tells by looking at a …watch, what is the hour and minute and is the admiration o f all who have seen him.”

“…the tongue of the most florid orator…can sufficiently describe the wonderful performance of that sagacious animal.”

So convincing was the pig’s performance that some religious people claimed he was possessed and ‘corresponding with the devil’. Others saw it as proof that the soul could migrate suspecting that: ‘The spirit of the grunting Philosopher might once have animated a man.’

The act amazed the audience as the pig spelt names out with cardboard letters. Crowds flocked to see him and with four shows a day, was rumored to take the huge amount of 70 pounds a week in ticket sales.

After a long London run the pig joined a circus performing at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. A group of acrobats, incensed at being asked to share a billing with a performing pig, threatened to resign and were sacked on the spot. By 1786, in the world of entertainment the Learned Pig ruled.

“A far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton.”~ Robert Southey

Another popular entertainment and far more disturbing than a performing pig –was the public’s curiosity to gawp at ‘mad’ people at London’s hospital for the insane, Bethlehem, (also known as Bedlam.) The hospital was a medieval institution which went onto become the first ‘mental hospital’ (as opposed to treating physical illness) as a means of securing funding. Again, one of the most scandalous aspects of Bedlam – the public paying to view the inmates – developed as a means of raising money.

“the greate quantity of persons that come daily to see the said Lunatickes”~Governor, 1681Grace-Elliot-web

In the mid 18th century, during one Easter holiday it was recorded that:

“one hundred people at least were to be found visiting Bethlem’s inmates.”

Perhaps some entertainments are best forgotten!

Author Bio
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon.
Grace believes that everyone needs romance in their lives as an antidote to the modern world. The Ringmaster’s Daughter is Grace’s fifth novel, and the first in a new series of Georgian romances.

GE-cover-3The Ringmaster’s Daughter

1770’s London
The ringmaster’s daughter, Henrietta Hart, was born and raised around the stables of Foxhall Gardens. Now her father is gravely ill, and their livelihood in danger. The Harts’ only hope is to convince Foxhall’s new manager, Mr Wolfson, to let Hetty wield the ringmaster’s whip. Hetty finds herself drawn to the arrogant Wolfson but, despite their mutual attraction, he gives her an ultimatum: entertain as never before – or leave Foxhall.

When the winsome Hetty defies society and performs in breeches, Wolfson’s stony heart is in danger. Loath as he is to admit it, Hetty has a way with horses…and men. Her audacity and determination awaken emotions long since suppressed.

But Hetty’s success in the ring threatens her future when she attracts the eye of the lascivious Lord Fordyce. The duke is determined, by fair means or foul, to possess Hetty as his mistress – and, as Wolfson’s feelings for Henrietta grow, disaster looms.

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