Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger

by Catherine Pope on November 15, 2014

Seventy Years a Showman by 'Lord' George SangerOne of the many joys of delving into the nineteenth century is meeting the numerous vibrant characters who inhabited it. I first encountered ‘Lord’ George Sanger when researching the Hyde Park celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s accession. Over nine days in June 1838, Sanger and his circus family thrilled the crowds with learned pigs and clairvoyant ponies. Their remarkable troupe also included ‘Living Curiosities’: the pig-faced woman, the living skeleton, the world’s tallest woman, and cannibal pigmies. Something for everyone, I’m sure you’ll agree.

To my delight, I discovered that Sanger had written an autobiography. Well, it’s likely to have been ghostwritten by the journalist George R Sims: Sanger, like many nineteenth-century circus folk, was unable to write. In Seventy Years a Showman, Sanger comes across as an indulgent father and benevolent employer who managed everything through a calm benevolence, rather than with a rod of iron. My view of him then shifted after reading The Sanger Story, based on the memories of his grandson, George Sanger Coleman. He recalls how his grandfather often spoke movingly of the death of his daughter Lavinia, but omitted to mention his blind fury when she eloped with a clown. Unusually perhaps for the Victorian period, Sanger’s marriage appears to have been a genuinely happy one. No doubt his wife’s former career as a lion-tamer provided her with invaluable skills.

From the humblest of beginnings in an overcrowded caravan, the Sangers built a hugely successful entertainment business, ultimately boasting one of the world’s most distinctive brands. This achievement is set against the backdrop of an England that changed beyond recognition during the nineteenth century, with the arrival of the railways, rapid industrialisation, and unprecedented social reform. Along his journey, Sanger encounters Chartists, body-snatchers, and health and safety inspectors, all of whom are treated with equal disdain.

Sanger’s colossal pride (some might say hubris) is evidenced by the self-designated title ‘Lord’. Dismissed in these memoirs as a bit of harmless fun to trump the ‘Honourable’ Buffalo Bill Cody during a legal battle, Sanger retained it throughout his career. His grandson later wrote that it had more to do with conceit, Sanger repeatedly declining a knighthood, as it meant dropping the ‘Lord’.

There was, however, a softer side to Sanger. Notwithstanding the exploitation of the learned pig and the pig-faced lady (actually a bear), he treated his animals well. Ajax the elephant was a particular favourite, and seems to have been more indulged that Sanger’s own children. The elephant’s particularly dexterous tongue repeatedly got his own into bother. Sanger’s admirer G B Burgin remembers how he once stole the produce from a passing greengrocer’s cart:

By the time the greengrocer discovered his loss the last stick of celery had vanished, and old Ajax looked round with an air of innocent wonderment as to what was the matter.

Ajax also managed to get himself wedged in the doorway of a grocer’s shops. While the circus men broke down the brick work to free him, Ajax “stuffed himself with the contents of every biscuit tin and everything else he fancied within the reach of his trunk;” the grocer watched in impotent rage. Not everyone was pleased when the circus came to town.

Sanger’s memoirs end with his retirement to East Finchley and the admission: “I feel that the latter days of my career … have not the interest for my reader that attaches to the earlier period.” But any ideas he might have had of quietly fading away were thwarted. Although he declared “I shall remain a showman until the end of my days,” what followed was probably not what he had in mind.

On 28 November 1911, Sanger’s employee Herbert Charles Cooper attacked him with a hatchet before hurling himself under a speeding train. Sanger’s family maintained this was an unprovoked attack on a harmless old man. Less subjective accounts suggest that Sanger had tormented Cooper, provoking him beyond endurance. Whatever happened – and we can never be certain – Sanger met with an appropriately spectacular end. He was buried in Margate alongside his beloved wife, after thousands travelled to his funeral. Even in death, he attracted a crowd.

Of course, few autobiographies are truly candid, and Sanger undoubtedly exaggerates his achievements and downplays his mistakes. Nevertheless, if even half of it is true, Sanger’s was surely an exceptional life.

Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger (with an introduction by Catherine Pope) is available as an ebook.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

The Year of the Trollope

by Catherine Pope on October 25, 2014

If you thought 2012 was exciting, hold on to your hat, as 2015 is the year of the Trollope. Yes, next spring marks Trollope’s bicentenary and the anticipation is palpable. Radio 4 has already started celebrating with dramatisations of some of his more popular novels, including The Eustace Diamonds. OUP republished handsome editions of the Palliser series a few years ago, and they’ve just obliged with the first two Barsetshire Chronicles: The Warden and Barchester Towers. Both feature exquisite Pugin covers, new introductions, and a helpful map of Barsetshire. The four remaining Chronicles will be published over the next couple of months.

New Trollope editions from OUP

OUP have also just published a particularly fine edition of Trollope’s An Autobiography and Other Writings. Edited by Professor Nicholas Shrimpton, Trollope’s Autobiography is the only substantial memoir by a major Victorian novelist. Here we learn of his legendary and controversial work habits. Was he a shining example of Victorian industriousness? Or did he sacrifice art in the interests of productivity? Whatever you think of his writing, he cannot be faulted on time management, having pinged out 47 novels while maintaining a day job with the post office. Not only do we get an insight into an author’s work habits, there are also candid assessments of his contemporaries, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. The extensive explanatory notes in this edition help illuminate some of the less familiar characters, and enrich Trollope’s evocation of mid-Victorian literary society.

Soon I’ll be posting a full review of Autobiography, and hopefully finishing the posts from my Trollope Challenge. This year has been rather busy, what with finishing my PhD, running Victorian Secrets, researching Queen Victoria, writing books on digital skills, and teaching at two universities. Trollope would be proud. I just wish that I also had a housekeeper.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Introducing The Digital Researcher

July 1, 2014

In an interruption to the usual broadcast, I bring you news from the 21st century. When I’m not running Victorian Secrets, I spend quite a bit of time delivering digital skills workshops for researchers. I show them software that will make their lives easier, teach them how to create blogs, and explain the mysteries of Twitter. […]

Read the full article →

George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

June 5, 2014

Although George Eliot declared biography to be “a disease of English literature,” it hasn’t yet been eradicated, and there have been almost 20 attempts to tell the story of her life and career. The number of Victorian women writers who enjoyed both critical and commercial success can be counted on the fingers of one hand, […]

Read the full article →

The Victorian Guide to Sex by Fern Riddell

May 25, 2014

Although Queen Victoria was supposedly prudish, she popped out nine tiny Saxe-Coburgs and the population more than doubled during her reign. We might think of the Victorians as sexually repressed, but they were clearly at it like stoats. In The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell synthesises a wealth of material from marriage guides, newspapers, and […]

Read the full article →

Sights and Frights – a one-day conference

May 23, 2014

If you fancy a magic lantern show, a presentation on the ectoplasm-producing medium, and a host of papers on Victorian spookiness, then book your place at Sights and Frights. It’s a one-day conference at the University of Sussex on 19th June 2014, organised by a group of nineteenth-century researchers (including me). We’re trying to create […]

Read the full article →

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic by Kate Colquhoun

March 23, 2014

Anyone who saw the recent BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home knows that arsenic was everywhere in the late nineteenth century. It was used as a beauty product, as a medicine, and also to achieve a vibrant green colour in wallpaper. This ubiquity made it devilishly difficult to prove cases of deliberate poisoning and […]

Read the full article →

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley

March 16, 2014

If someone had thought to ask Queen Victoria what sort of daughter she didn’t want, she might have described Princess Louise: a smoker, a cyclist, and a strong-minded feminist who consorted with the likes of Josephine Butler and George Eliot. It is this tense mother-daughter relationship that dominates Lucinda Hawksley’s lively and enjoyable biography of an […]

Read the full article →

The Convert by Elizabeth Robins (1907)

March 2, 2014

Last year saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the brave and determined suffragette who attempted to stop the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby. Many have decried the foolishness of such acts, believing that female suffrage would somehow have happened spontaneously, if only these silly women had been patient; others, […]

Read the full article →

Her Father’s Name by Florence Marryat

January 5, 2014

Now that I’ve finished writing my thesis on Florence Marryat (just a few tweaks and proofreading to go), I can take a more objective view of her fiction. Having read all 68 of her novels, it’s fair to say that they are not of equal merit; in fact, some are downright dreadful. With 7 children […]

Read the full article →