Dr Helen Cowie

17 April 2018
Firth Court FC-GO2

ShARC were delighted to hear a talk by Dr Helen Cowie (History, University of York), ‘Doing a Roaring Trade’: Lion Taming in Nineteenth-Century Britain:

In January 1850, tragedy struck at Wombwell’s menagerie when the female lion tamer, Ellen Bright was killed by a tiger at Chatham in Kent. Ellen, who was only seventeen, had been performing in a cage with a lion and a tiger. She was coming to the end of her act when the tiger pounced on her, ‘seizing her furiously by the neck’ and sinking its teeth into her throat. Though two surgeons tried to revive the stricken woman, her injuries proved fatal, and she died at the scene. One of the surgeons stated that she had suffered ‘a very large wound under the chin, which, aided by the shock her system had sustained, produced death’.

The violent end of Ellen Bright received widespread coverage in the contemporary press and generated a national outcry against the use of female tamers in menageries. Popularly known as ‘Lion Queens’, female performers had become fashionable in contemporary animal shows, titillating the public with daring feats and risqué costumes. They attracted large audiences, but also sharp criticism from certain sectors of the press, which condemned lion taming as a reckless and voyeuristic pursuit.

Focusing on Ellen and three other famous lion tamers, this paper examines the evolution of wild animal acts in 19th-century Britain and assesses their wider social significance. Why did people go to watch lion taming performances? What were the emotional dynamics of the wild beast act, and did female and non-European lion tamers challenge or perpetuate existing stereotypes of women and colonial subjects in Victorian culture? I situate Ellen’s untimely death within a wider debate about wild beast performances, which were viewed by some contemporaries as sensational, morally suspect, and potentially exploitative of both humans and animals.