Of Bostocks and Wombwells and Their Menageries

The name “Bostock” is one that turns up often in show business annals in the context of menageries of trained animals. For Americans, the crucial figure is Frank Charles Bostock (1866-1912), known as “The Animal King”, who brought his act to our shores and whose birthday it is, although the family business was launched earlier.

The story begins with Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, founded by George Wombwell (1777-1850) in London in 1810. A shoemaker by trade, Bostock had gotten he toe wet in the business in 1804 by exhibiting a couple of boa constrictors he’d purchased from a sailor who’d brought them back from South America. Within a few years Wombwell began buying up exotic animals and showing them at Britain’s many annual holiday fairs. Within two decades he’d assembled a fifteen wagon show, incorporating big cats (lions, leopards, panthers), elephants, giraffes, a rhinoceros, a hyena, zebras, llamas, kangaroos, monkeys, a gorilla, and more, all accompanied by a brass band. Wombwell had a flair for showmanship we in America associate with P.T. Barnum. He advertised his rhino as the unicorn mentioned in the Bible, and he once made lemonade out of lemons by exhibiting a recently deceased elephant, outselling the live elephant being exhibited across the midway by his competitor. When Wombwell’s animals died, he profited once again by having them taxidermically stuffed and selling their remains.  He wasn’t always a princely character: on at least one occasion he exhibited a bout of lion baiting, pitting a half dozen bulldogs against one of his big cats (a common spectacle at the time). Animals died in the fight — not his finest hour. On the other hand, he bred the first lion ever born in captivity in Britain. When Wombwell died in 1850, ownership of his menagerie passed to a “Mrs. Edmonds”.

In 1838, James Bostock (1814-1878), the son of a wealthy farmer, joined Wombwell’s Menagerie as a wagoner. Within ten years he worked his way up to contracting and advertising agent for the menagerie, a post he held until 1867, when he established his own organization. When Bostock died, its ownership passed to his wife Emma (1834-1904), the daughter of George Wombwell’s brother William. Meanwhile, the Bostock sons were learning the family business. In 1883, Edward Henry Bostock (1858-1940) broke off to found E. H. Bostock’s Grand Star Menagerie. In 1889, he bought the original organization founded by his father. Bostock’s sons also became theatrical managers and impresarios, carrying the name on in show business well into the middle of the 20th century.

Which returns us to Edward’s younger brother Frank, who founded the American branch. Frank worked for both his mother’s and brother’s organizations, before setting out on his own in 1889 with Bostock, Wombwell and Bailey’s Circus. Frank was said to have been the first lion tamer to discover that big cats were leery of chairs, probably because they possess four legs. He also originated the Big Cage. In America, Bostock exhibited at the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Later that year he was seriously mauled by one of his lions, Rajah, but he recovered.

The gate to Bostock’s Animal Arena, Dreamland, Coney Island

Bostock came onto my radar because his critters became a fixture at Dreamland in Coney Island (1904-1911), providing competition to the Hagenbeck animals being presented at Luna Park. Dreamland burned down in 1911, and many of his animals perished. Bostock passed away the following year.

What remained of his menagerie was purchased by silent film producer David Horsely, who exhibited them at a special arena in the Los Angeles area, and starred them in movies produced by his Bostock Jungle Films Company.  These ventures went bankrupt and that ends the American portion of the tale, although the name Bostock was still a name to be reckoned with in the U.K. for decades.