Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street is arguably London's most famous pub. Its warren of rooms, roaring fires and peerless history make it a favourite with tourists and Londoners alike. What you probably didn't know is that it once enjoyed a visit from a celebrity elephant.
Jumbo Junior, named after an even more famous beast who inspired the adjective for anything large, was only a youngster, but was already a favourite with the public at the Royal Italian Circus. The poor creature had been captured as an infant in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and became the smallest elephant ever imported to Britain in 1903.
Jumbo was quite the celebrity. The pint-sized trunkster was invited to Buckingham Palace (twice), a Covent Garden ball, the Stock Exchange, the Guildhall and, perhaps more appropriately, something called the Eccentric Club. He would often travel in a regular horse-drawn cab.
On 3 August 1905, he was brought to the Fleet Street pub at the invitation of some admiring American ladies. After squeezing in through the ancient doors, Jumbo was led to Samuel Johnson's Corner. Here, the elephant attempted to squat in the great lexicographer's favourite chair, and was treated to the pub's famous pudding and some bananas.
Jumbo then met another animal celebrity. Polly the parrot had been the pub's mascot since the 1880s, a popular draw with tourists. Her death in 1926 would make international news, and you can still see her stuffed remains above the main upstairs bar. What Jumbo thought of Polly and vice-versa is not recorded.
Afterwards, Jumbo wowed the crowds by playing "a selection of favourite airs" on the mouth organ. Like any professional pub entertainer, he refused to take a drink: "He was the model of abstemiousness: not a drop of intoxicating liquors would he touch, in spite of the many offers thrust upon him."
It only remained to sign the visitor book. Jumbo's trunk was smeared with ink, then daubed onto the paper. "Jumbo Junior, Queen Alexandra's pet. His mark," wrote the handler. The creature was then led back to Fleet Street and his waiting carriage.
Farewell Jumbo Junior
Jumbo's capture and exploitation would rightly be deemed as cruel and barbarous today. But the Edwardians has a very different attitude. Circuses and animal acts were everywhere, and few people questioned the morality. In 1909, for example, a visitor to the Hippodrome in Leicester Square could witness a performance by seventy captive polar bears. The Royal Italian Circus worked its animals particularly hard. It boasted of 1,200 consecutive performances during its two-year stay in London.
In 1906, it was time to pack the trunk. The circus — including all 200 animals — travelled on to Birmingham, by train from Euston Station. Its young star had a carriage all to himself. The animals, which also included 'Madame Batavia, the Fashionable Bear', went on to tour the country, visiting Bradford, Leeds, Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Derby, Gloucester, Bristol, Bath, Walsall and no doubt other towns, before a final season in Scotland.
The final mention we can find of Jumbo is at an Anglo-Japanese dinner at the RAC Club London in June 1912. His last recorded act was to carry boxes of cigars to the assembled dignitaries.
Sources: various newspaper accounts in the British Newspaper Archive.