It all began many years ago, when my friend Nick Burton helped me acquire this stunning "Sherratt" figure at auction.
Suddenly, the title MENAGERIE on my figure group made sense. This was the tiger who escaped, and the mother and child were its victims. I was so excited with my discovery, but who was there to tell, besides the dogs sleeping at my feet?
The broadside cited the Northumberland Herald as the source of the story, and I could not wait to get to London, where I accessed the British Library's microfilm copies of the newspaper and found the same account, almost word for word.
The news of this bloody animal misadventure spread like lightening across Britain because newspaper after newspaper printed the same account. As the disaster was said to have happened in Worksworth, just a stone's throw from the Potteries, it is not surprising that it inspired Staffordshire's potters to capture the horror of it in clay. And with my new-found knowledge and with the help of those potters, the tale unravelled.
What of the other two victims? The report tells us that one was a young boy, and here he is, again courtesy of "Sherratt".
Similarly, the joy of researching is that you just never know what will be unearthed. Nowadays, British newspapers are searchable online, so today I would be able to access the story of the menagerie escape in a few minutes--no need to fly to London and spend hours scrutinizing microfilm. And so I decided to research it yet again. Sure enough, the story appears in umpteen publications across Britain in late February/early March 1834. But fast forward another month or so, here comes the twist in the tale: very brief retractions appear in those same newspapers.
It seems the story was fake news, a puff piece that the menagerist George Wombwell planted to drum up excitement and boost attendance at his show. Attitudes then were very different from those that prevail today, and animals that had taken four human lives were a drawcard. Add to that, many visitors secretly hoped to witness another gory mishap!
Although the retractions were published with as little research as the original story, I concede that the escapes of 1834 were almost certainly fake news. But the men who captured in clay the lion, the tiger, and their four victims did not know that. The tale fired their imaginations and inspired the creation of a handful of truly fabulous figures groups.