One 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.