The history of bears in London goes back to ancient days. Brown bears roamed Britain until Anglo-Saxon times, and were brought to the capital for many centuries afterwards for performance and baiting. Bankside was the most famous venue for bear sport, as testified by the street still known as Bear Gardens. Such entertainments gradually fell into abeyance before being outlawed in 1835. However, the creatures were still used and abused in circuses, music halls and other arenas, and many were kept as pets or public curiosities.
A search of Victorian newspapers throws up many occasions when the captive creatures decided to lash out. Here, we’ve pulled out just a few examples…
The Hendon Bear Attack
The Welsh Harp reservoir near Hendon once had a resident brown bear, which elicited much excitement when it escaped from its enclosure. Incredibly, no lessons were learned, and the public were protected from the recaptured beast by little more than a 20 foot chain which, according to an article in the Derby Mercury, gave the creature “dangerous range”. In October 1873, that range was exploited by the hungry animal, when local gardener Frederick Cooper got too close.
The first intimations his mates had of his danger was his terrified shrieks, and when they hastened to the spot; they found the horrible bear squatting upon him, his clothes torn about his body, and his lower extremities stripped bare by the brute’s claws. At the approach of assistance, the prostrate man contrived to turn over; but the enormous beast had pinned him fast, and according to one of the spectators, was literally eating him.
The ursine fiend was eventually beaten off by a gardener wielding a spade, before another man fired a gun and “a bullet lodged in the brute’s brain put it past further mischief”. The horribly mangled man eventually died of his wounds. The bear’s owner, a Mr Warner expressed surprise at the bear’s behaviour, claiming it had previously led a docile life, was used to being greeted by children, and was once ridden like a horse by a visitor. The inquest was, perhaps appropriately, held in Paddington. (Derby Mercury, 22 October 1873)
Wrestling the Royal Bear in Hackney
The Sebright Arms in Hackney is now a popular live music venue, but in the 19th Century it served the adjacent Sebright Music Hall. It was here in December 1890 that attendant John Pinton was coaxed on stage with a performing bear. The stage manager offered 10 shillings to anyone (including members of the audience) who could throw a bear in a wrestling match. Lest we think this was some illicit entertainment enjoyed only by the common folk, the same bear had reputedly wrestled before (though sadly not with) Queen Victoria a few years earlier. Pinton accepted the challenge and began grappling with the bruin. Unfortunately, the creature knocked him off balance and he fell awkwardly, breaking a leg and later dying of his injuries. The subsequent inquest recommended that the general public should no longer be invited to wrestle with stage bears. Whatever the opposite of ‘health and safety gone mad’ is, this ruling qualifies. (Bristol Mercury, 2 January 1891; Pall Mall Gazette, 2 January 1891)
Boy Mauled in Camden Barracks
Two years later, a boy was almost killed by a pet bear at the Albany Barracks near Camden Town. 12 year-old Albert Morgan was in the habit of running errands for the soldiers, and was often in the barracks, which kept a chained and tame bear. Aping the soldiers, Albert went up to the bear and patted it familiarly:
The bear got up in anything but a friendly mood, sprang on the boy, and with a great blow of his paw, knocked him down and commenced gnawing him.
The unfortunate child was eventually rescued by a Corporal, but not before receiving 20 wounds to his upper body. (Lincolnshire Echo, 2 June 1893)
Man Loses Mind After Bear Mauling
Fast forward two years more, and a Frederick G Humphries was attacked and almost fatally mauled by a bear at the Royal Aquarium, which stood on the site that would later become Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Like a scene from some kind of psychedelic horror film, the bloodied man was rescued by a Polish magician named Moris, who fought the beast with a broomstick and a red-hot poker. Understandably, this attack appears to have unbalanced Humphries’ mind. A few years later, a relative began legal proceedings against the aquarium, claiming negligence. Humphries could not represent himself, as the savaging had rendered him “a hopeless and incurable lunatic”. (Manchester & Lancashire General Advertiser, 25 October 1895; Hull Daily Mail, 1 March 1897)
Bears in London Today
Bear attacks became much rarer in the 20th Century, as greater attention was paid to public safety and animal welfare. Today, there are probably no bears in London; even the Zoo now lacks an ursine presence. But the capital’s long association with the creature cannot so easily be deleted. Improbable rumours occasionally circulate of wild bears on Hackney Marshes. And London also contains statues of two of the world’s most famous bears, Winnie and Paddington.
Image by Ronald Hackston in the Londonist Flickr pool.