It’s my stop on The Great Animal Escapade Blog Tour, and I’m delighted to welcome Jane Kerr to talk about the star of the book, Maharajah…
The star of The Great Animal Escapade is, of course, Maharajah the Magnificent: “…the brightest, most bewitching beast at Belle Vue. Larger than a mountain. Wider, higher, and just as indestructible. With ears like tablecloths and tusks as tough and hard as bone.”
But the elephant existed far beyond the pages of my book. In real life, he was part of Wombwell’s Royal Number One Menagerie, a Victorian travelling circus.
But when the menagerie broke up in 1872, Maharajah was put up for auction in Edinburgh. He was bought by James Jennison, owner of Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, for the princely sum of £680 (about £30,000 in today’s money).
Mr Jennison hoped to transport his new attraction to Manchester by train but all did not go to plan. Moments after boarding the cattle carriage at Edinburgh station, Maharajah ripped it apart.
Lorenzo Lawrence, Maharajah’s keeper. Photo Courtesy of Chetham’s Library.
So instead his keeper, Lorenzo Lawrence, decided to walk him more than two hundred miles to his new home. The journey to Manchester took them ten days and attracted huge national attention.
At one tollgate, an argument broke out between Lorenzo and a toll collector over what fee should be charged for an elephant to pass by. But, according to legend, it was Maharajah who settled the dispute.
He slid his trunk through the gate, lifted it from the hinges and smashed it to the ground, before calmly walking on to Belle Vue. It’s said the event was the inspiration behind Heywood Hardy’s painting, ‘The Disputed Toll’.
I took all these stories – plus a large dollop of imagination – and mixed them together for my first book, The Elephant Thief. But Maharajah’s adventures didn’t stop there.
Over the next decade, he became a much-loved favourite at Belle Vue, giving rides to thousands of visiting children, and taking part in the Whit parades through Manchester.
An Elephant Ride at Belle Vue. Photo courtesy of Chetham’s Library.
But perhaps his most high-profile role was as the star of the annual shows staged on an island in the middle of Belle Vue’s boating lake. Local men – paid in pies and beer – were enlisted to play soldiers and act out scenes from historic battles.
Huge painted canvases, covering more than 30,000 square feet, formed the backdrop to these dramatic performances, while overhead, rockets and fireworks coloured the sky.
One of the most successful of these spectaculars was titled ‘The Prince of Calcutta’. Mr Jennison’s nephew George was dressed as a young Prince of Wales and rode Maharajah onto centre stage. That story was the inspiration for my latest adventure, The Great Animal Escapade.
Jane Kerr visiting Maharajah at the Manchester Museum.
Maharajah lived for ten years at Belle Vue before dying of pneumonia in 1882 at the age of eighteen. His skeleton is currently on display at the Manchester Museum where he still attracts thousands of visitors. Because, as Mr Jennison once said, ‘Of all the many elephants, Maharajah was the Chief.’
THE GREAT ANIMAL ESCAPADE by Jane Kerr is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)
What a fabulous guest post! I love finding out more about the inspiration and truth behind historical fiction. It’s amazing to think that the characters in The Elephant Thief and The Great Animal Escapade are loosely based on people and events that were real. You can read my review of The Great Animal Escapade here.
Thank you so much to Jane and Chicken House for inviting me to take part in The Great Animal Escapade Blog Tour. Do make sure you check out all of the other stops.