Among the more striking items in the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex is a stuffed lion named Wallace. In a former life, Wallace had been a star in George Wombwell’s nineteenth-century traveling menagerie of exotic beasts and birds. Born in Edinburgh in 1812, Wallace was the first African lion to be bred in England and was perhaps named after William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter.
© Saffron Walden Museum
While Wallace was never to know freedom, he was a fighter, and his most renowned performance occurred in July 1825 in a factory year in Warwick. Wombwell had arranged for his pet lion Nero, a large but gentle soul, to be baited by six trained fighting dogs for a crowd eager for blood sport. The docile Nero, however, refused to fight the dogs, and Wombwell finally had to admit his lion’s defeat. After removing Nero from the pit, Wombwell immediately offered to match Wallace against six more dogs. The bet was taken and a fight arranged for the next Saturday night. Six dogs named Tinker, Ball, Billy, Sweep, Turpin, Tiger were set on the lion in pairs as had been the case with Nero. This time, however, each dog lasted less than a minute in the cage with Wallace.
Wallace's temperament remained something less than meek throughout his life. Two years later he attacked a man named Jonathan Wilson who (as the Leeds Mercury noted) "imprudently and incautiously" placed his hand upon the bottom of Wallace's cage between the grating. Wallace attacked and seized the man's arm with his fangs. Fortunately the keeper was at hand, "and by his prompt, spirited and efficient exertions" - what ever those might be - succeeded in saving both the man and his arm from Wallace. A week later the Leeds Mercury posted the following:
"Jonathan Wilson, whose arm was severly bitten and torn at our fair, by Wombwell's lion, Wallace ... continued in a favourable state until Saturday, when the arm was suddently attacked by violent inflammation, followed rapidly by mortification [of the arm, not Wilson]. In this state he continued till Wednesday morning, when he died at his own home, having, the day before, requested to be moved thither from the infimary."
It was almost certainly this particular Wallace (the name became a popular one for lions) that inspired Marriott Edgar's poem "The Lion and Albert" which relates the quaintly vicious story of a young boy named Albert who was eaten by a lion at the zoo:
There were one great big Lion called Wallace;
His nose were all covered with scars -
He lay in a somnolent posture,
With the side of his face on the bars.
Now Albert had heard about Lions,
How they was ferocious and wild -
To see Wallace lying so peaceful,
Well, it didn't seem right to the child.
So straightway the brave little feller,
Not showing a morsel of fear,
Took his stick with its 'orse's 'ead 'andle
And pushed it in Wallace's ear.
You could see that the Lion didn't like it,
For giving a kind of a roll,
He pulled Albert inside the cage with 'im,
And swallowed the little lad 'ole.
By early July in 1838, Wallace was in sad decline. A journalist for the local Wolverhampton newspaper noted the difference in the lion from his last visit: "Numerous persons who have visited the Menagerie over the past week have had their feelings unusually excited by the worn out appearance of their old favourite lion, Wallace. This once fine and noble creature seems to be gradually sinking from premature old age and is at times so weak as scarcely to be able to support his own weight."
After Wallace’s death in 1838, he was sent to the Saffron Walden Museum by stagecoach. A framework for his body was made of wooden struts and wires, over which his skin was stretched and stuffed with wood shavings. He was mounted with his left front paw theatrically posed on the figure of a dog, in remembrance of his triumph in the fighting pit. The first museum catalogue published in 1845 reads:
Lion Barbarus Grey (The Lion Wallace) Presented by Mr. G. Wombwell. This animal is remarkable as the first lion bred in this country and was during his life of 25 years in collection of Mr. G. Wombwell, surviving his battle with the dogs at Warwick, several years.