Looking back at Leeds’s magnificent menageries

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A historical talk is set to give a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful zoos and menageries which Leeds has played host to in years gone by.

Back in the 19th century an incredible collection of big cats, bears and elephants were regularly on show in the city - drawing massive crowds.

Lions at Wombwell's Menagerie when it was in Leeds 1912

Lions at Wombwell's Menagerie when it was in Leeds 1912

Tomorrow, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ assistant community curator Patrick Bourne will lead a talk at Kirkstall Abbey looking back at Leeds’ exotic exhibits and the legacy they have left behind. Among those featured will be Headingley’s Zoological and Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1840 and was home to a bear pit which can still be seen today and George Wombwell’s travelling menageries, which featured elephants, giraffes, rhinos and lions and regularly visited Leeds.

Also part of the talk will be the former Leeds Philosophical Hall on Park Row, which was home to incredible range of skeletons, taxidermy and specimens from the natural world - many of which are now on display at Leeds City Museum. Patrick said “In the 19th Century, traveling to foreign countries wasn’t something most people could afford to do; travelling for holidays wasn’t as common as it is today.

“That meant that going to zoos, circuses, and menageries was the only way for many people to see and experience something exotic and they became a very popular form of entertainment. Many people had never seen a real elephant or a lion.

“But there were problems. The Zoological Gardens never lived up to its grand ambitions and closed after less than twenty years. Care of animals could be a big concern with the menageries.

“Many animals died while on tour, and they were often donated to museums. Health and safety of the visitors was also not always good. When in Leeds in the 1820s, it’s believed one of Wombwell’s lions attacked a boy, who later died.

“It’s fascinating to look back at the different attractions people in the city used to visit to entertain themselves and also what evidence we can still see around us today.”

Patrick’s talk is one of many taking place as part of Abbey’s regular 1152 Club.

Named after the year the Abbey was founded by Cistercian monks, the club is a free, friendly local history and special interest group for adults.

Based in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey, The 1152 Club meet every other Friday to listen to guests speakers on a variety of topics. The group is already very popular and reaching capacity.

Topics for other upcoming talks include A beginner’s guide to bird watching in Leeds on October 16 and the Scientific Heritage of Leeds and How it Changed the World on November 27.

Councillor Brian Selby, Leeds City Council’s lead member for museums and galleries, said:

“There are so many interesting and unusual aspects to Leeds’s history that even people who have lived here their whole lives might not be familiar with.

“Activities like the 1152 Club give people a chance to find out more about where they live and make connections in their community live so that the love and enthusiasm for local heritage can continue to thrive.”

No booking is required for 1152 Club events and those interested can turn up on the day.

Tea, coffee and biscuits are provided at the start of each session and new members are always welcome.

For more information on the 1152 Club, visit: www.leeds.gov.uk/Events/Pages/the-new-1152-club.aspx