An Elephant Once Visited Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub

By M@ Last edited 12 months ago
An Elephant Once Visited Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
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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.

Elephant and actress
Jumbo Junior pictured with noted actress Marie Studholme a few days after his pub visit. From Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 19 August 1905. Found in the British Newspaper Archive. (c) Illustrated London News/

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.

Drumming elephant.
Jumbo Junior plays the drum, at a later engagement in Leeds. From the Leeds Mercury, 22 November 1906. Found in the British Newspaper Archive. (c) British Library Board.

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.

Jumbo in a hotel bar (not the Cheshire Cheese). From The World's News, 29 April 1905. Via Trove.

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.

Elephant in a carriage.
Jumbo in his carriage. From The Sketch, 1 March 1905. (c) Illustrated London News/ Found in the British Newspaper Archive.

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.

Capture of an elephant.
The capture of Jumbo. His mother fought desperately by all accounts. From Bradford Daily Telegraph, 1 November 1906. Found in the British Newspaper Archive. (c) The British Library Board.

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.

Last Updated 14 April 2023

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