The Warrington Menagerie, circa 1840s

Heritage & Archives Officer Philip Jeffs investigates the story behind the “Warrington Menagerie”…

The above picture shows a Victorian Menagerie. The travelling menageries were a sort of cross between a travelling fair and a zoo, and were a popular form of entertainment during the 19th Century. Warrington’s historical collections show that menageries, circuses, fairs, and all manner of travelling showmen were a popular feature of the town’s life throughout the 1800s.

The menagerie I wanted to talk about today, however, was not a real one. Throughout the electioneering material in the Glazebrook Rylands Collection, and in the Archives in general, there are two tactics which recur time and time again. The first is to make insults anonymously; the second is to make veiled insults. ”The Warrington Menagerie” uses both of these tactics. In the first instance, we don’t know by whom it was published or written. More interestingly for us as readers, the insults against various political figures need to be interpreted by the public to work out which politician is being criticised. In other words, the writer has not directly accused his opponents of anything, if the reader interprets the insults as referring to certain well-known local figures, that is their business and the writer can’t be held to blame.

These anonymised insults often take comical forms. A popular one in Warrington was to describe the election as a horse race, with the descriptions of each horse running actually being a thinly veiled set of insults about a local politician.

In this case the political poster takes the form of a showman describing the various exotic animals in his menagerie, with each animal actually being a local politician or councillor.

The poster is written in a comical, colloquial tone, giving the feeling of a showman’s patter. As would be the case in a real menagerie, the reader is led from cage to cage with the showman giving a description of each animal as they move along. After each description, a colleague is told to ‘stir the animal up’ for the onlookers (again common practice in the menageries) using a phrase that gives the reader a clear indication of just who the animal is meant to be.

Because this project has as its focus the Glazebrook and Rylands families, I have copied below the description of Peter Rylands as an example of how the poster works (at least I think it’s Peter Rylands!).

“This hanimal, Ladies and Gentlemen, we calls a Tiger faced Baboon, he has a remarkably slovenly Gait, he is the most obstinatest hanimal in the show, always wanting to have his own way in every thing, and would be the master if he could; notwithstanding he is very sagacious, and ought to be an example to the poorer hanimals. He is opposed to the Antelope.

Stir him up with a wire riddle Jack”

The clue, “wire riddle” points pretty squarely at the Rylands family. We have a description of the animal’s “slovenly gait”, Peter Rylands is often described as walking with a stoop or shuffling along with his mind in the clouds. The animal is described as sagacious, and one thing even Peter’s enemies usually admitted was that he was a very intelligent man, they usually just said that whilst he had intelligence he lacked common sense. We hear that he is “opposed to the antelope”, the antelope appears to be John Wilson Patten, the Conservative MP for Lancashire North from 1832, Peter Rylands was a Liberal and so an opponent of Patten.

To us, as modern readers of the poster, some of the descriptions can seem very obscure, but to the reader of the 1840s the people described would be everyday figures, they were the most powerful men in the town, the largest land-owners, largest employers, and largest property owners, aside from their positions on the council and their involvement with many of the local societies and charities.
The poster does describe members of both of the main parties at the time, the Tories and the Whigs, but the description of Conservatives is largely positive, whilst the whigs are often described in quite insulting ways. As an example of this’ the description of Patten, a Conservative, describes him as kindly, charitable and hard done by; whilst the description of Holbrook Gaskell, a Whig, describes him as cunning, selfish and mischievous.

The poster was obviously anti-Whig propaganda, but gives an interesting early insight into the political career of Peter Rylands, which was to last another 40 years after this poster and would see him rise through the local council to become a member of parliament.

Having catalogued so many Rylands records, I have a picture in my head of Peter as he was at the height of his career, a respected elder statesman with long white beard and mild smile, solid but unremarkable. This poster sees Peter at the start of his career when he was looked at as a dangerous young firebrand, when people in Warrington were shocked (and even personally offended) that this young Radical would even dare to question the opinions of his elders and betters. It shows a time when Peter’s politics were still associated by many with those of the French Revolution and all of the horrors that involved. A tiger faced baboon is not a purely comical description, it also sounds a dangerous creature.

This article was originally posted on Thursday, June 4th, 2015.