Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie: How animals have inspired art in the archives

Visits by travelling circus companies were popular and eagerly anticipated in Norwich throughout the nineteenth century. Many of the early shows were menageries which displayed many different species of animal. Early menageries to visit Norwich included Polito’s, who displayed his animals in the Dukes Palace Yard in 1803, Hylton’s Menagerie and Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie.

Eaton birds

A drawing of birds displayed at Wombwell’s Royal Travelling Menagerie, c.1844-1847. NRO catalogue number  ETN 4/12/1/29.

Brought to Norwich by horse drawn wagons, Wombwell’s Royal Menagerie was one of the most well known travelling shows. The displays of exotic and unfamiliar animals bought from abroad by the proprietor, George Wombwell, appealed to the public, with animals including elephants, ostriches, leopards, bears and tigers found on display. For most nineteenth-century Britons this would have been their first encounter with animals of this kind. When the animals died, Wombwell would either exhibit their dead bodies or get them stuffed and put on display. At the height of his success he ran three travelling menageries displayed simultaneously across the country.





Animals exhibited at Wombwell’s Royal Travelling Menagerie, c.1844-1847. NRO catalogue number ETN 4/12/1/19.

In 1972, T.C. Eaton deposited a number of drawings of Wombwell’s and Hylton’s Travelling Menageries at the Norfolk Record Office. These were created in the 1840s after the menageries had visited Norwich and were designed for George Clayton Eaton (born 1834) to play with. Many of the drawings were assembled on card with tabs, so that they could be propped up to form a procession of exhibits. There is also a performing elephant with its trunk and legs jointed together so that it could perform the tricks which had impressed George during the show. George kept the drawings in a hand-stitched folder on which was written a musical score with the various animals noted.


Drawing of a 12 years old performing elephant, from Hylton’s Menagerie, c.1844. Drawn in ink and watercolours and constructed with moving parts. NRO catalogue number ETN 4/12/2.

This week the Outreach and Education department of the Norfolk Record Office has worked with children and families to create animal puppets and masks inspired by the drawings of the travelling menageries from the Eaton Collection. Below are a few examples of the work that was created.


A peg puppet ostrich inspired by a sketch of the Ostrich Wagon in Wombwell’s Royal Travelling Menagerie. NRO catalogue number ETN 4/12/1/21.

puppet and lemur

Creating a moving lemur puppet, inspired by a drawing in the journals of Hilda Zigomala, June 1906. NRO catalogue number  MC 2738/11.


Some of the puppets on show against a backdrop collaged by the children.

mask montage

A selection of masks inspired by animals, both real and mythical, in the archive.



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8 Responses to Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie: How animals have inspired art in the archives

  1. Paul Hylton says:

    I am thrilled to see the elephant and other pictures. Edward C Hylton the founder of Hylton’s Menagerie was my Great Great Grandfather and apparently, as you might imagine, something of a character!


  2. Paul Hylton says:

    PS: I wonder if someone (Elizabeth Jayne who originated the blog?) could advise me on the practicability of copying the pictures and the music. I live on the other side of the country in Herefordshire and in the short term at least a trip over to Norfolk is not on the cards.


  3. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for contacting us. We are pleased you have discovered something new through our blog and it is lovely to hear about your Great Great Grandfather, Edward C Hylton.

    We do offer a digitisation service, it is best if you email norfrec@norfolk.gov.uk with your enquiry and our team will be able to give you a quotation for this. The catalogue reference for most of the images used in this blog post is ETN 4/12/1/1-44, this is a collection of 44 papers with drawings of animals exhibited at Hylton’s and Wombwell’s travelling menageries. The performing elephant has the catalogue reference ETN 4/12/2 and the sheet music ETN 4/12/6.


  4. Paul Hylton says:

    Many thanks, Elizabeth Jayne. I will drop them a line.


  5. marc says:

    i am marc manders evangeli, 6x grand father william manders who boughltons, and became
    manders menagies


  6. Paul Graham Hylton says:

    I have recently put together a short history of the Hylton Menagerie, which leads into and covers the first few years of the Manders Menagerie.


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