The Crazy Christmas When 70 Polar Bears Descended On Leicester Square

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By M@
The Crazy Christmas When 70 Polar Bears Descended On Leicester Square
Image from The Sphere, 18 December 1909. © Illustrated London News Group, reproduced courtesy of the British Library Board, in the British Newspaper Archive.

This remarkable and (to modern eyes) deplorable image shows a tightly packed group of polar bears at the London Hippodrome in 1909.

Incredibly, 70 bears were brought in to the Leicester Square attraction for a Christmas show, called The Arctic. Here's another image of their close quarters.

Illustrated London News, 18 December 1909. (c) Illustrated London News Group. Courtesy of the British Library Board via the British Newspaper Archive.

The bears were shipped in to Tilbury from the Hagenbeck Menagerie in Hamburg aboard a specially commissioned vessel. They arrived in seven enormous steel cages, and were kept on a diet of biscuits, fish and meat.

During the twice-a-day performance, up to 50 of the bears would 'plunge from realistic icebergs into a lake while the remaining animals... clamber about a deserted ship wedged between walls of ice'.

Amazed audiences would watch in awe as the bears chased a villain figure around the stage, later to capture and 'devour' him. The whole show was illuminated with a recreation of the Northern Lights.

Set of 'The Arctic' with some of the bears in the pool. Fewer than half are shown. The Sketch, 26 January 1910. (c) Illustrated London News Group. Courtesy of the British Library Board via the British Newspaper Archive.

Polar bears had appeared many times before at the Hippodrome. In 1905, a mere 17 of the beasts performed in another Arctic-set spectacle, as shown below:  

This doesn't look tacky at all. A scene from the earlier production 'The North Pole'. The Sketch, 10 May 1905. (c) Illustrated London News. Courtesy of the British Library Board, via the British Newspaper Archive.
Another shot from the 1905 show 'The North Pole'. (c) The Tatler, 14 June 1905. Courtesy of the British Library Board via the British Newspaper Archive.

The 1909 show, however, was by far the most audacious bear performance ever attempted on the London stage. It appears to have been a success, with many glowing newspaper reviews.

The show ran until February 1910 when the bears returned home to Hamburg. Their handler, Carl Hagenbeck, was killed by a snake bite four years later.

The Arctic at the Hippodrome would not be the last London show to feature large mammals, but nothing quite like it was ever attempted again.

Last Updated 04 December 2017