Friday, 5 June 2015

The Rhinoceros That Died in Nottinghamshire in 1754

Each issue of Archives of Natural History produced by the Society for the History of Natural History usually contains much that is interesting and informative. The current issue is no exception. As I was leafing through it, my eye fell on the account a rhinoceros in Nottingham in the 1700s.  A rhinoceros in Nottingham—and Derby—and even Edinburgh—in the 1700s? I was soon reading the whole article.

By searching in digitised newspaper archives Caroline Grigson of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London has added to what was already known of the import and display of Indian rhinoceroses in Britain in the 18th Century1. The first, a female, arrived from Calcutta on 1 October 1737 (a male had died en route); the second, a male, in 1739; the third, a female, probably in 1756.

There is a long tradition of curiosities being taken around the country to be exhibited at fairs and at inns and public houses by showmen, either as individual animals or in the larger menageries seen at fairs, wakes and circuses. But the toting of an adult rhinoceros around Britain must have presented a considerable logistical challenge. Grigson, shows that the first animal was in London in 1740 and 1741 when she was “upwards of five foot high” and “twelve feet two inches from the nose to the rump”, Derby in 1742 (112 miles from London) then Burton-on-Trent and Lichfield before returning to Derby. She is recorded in Norwich in 1744 and then in 1747 in Edinburgh (over 400 miles from London). In 1749 she was back in England, at Nottingham. By the end of 1751 the female rhino was in London, housed in several inns in succession (one presumes in the stables); at this time she weighed 80 cwt or, whatever the definition of hundredweight being used, 4 tonnes or so. Somebody else can do the calculation of how many horses were needed to pull such a load along the turnpikes.

The paragraph which caught my eye initially was on the demise of the rhinoceros:

     The noble rhinoceros took to the road again and died shortly before 8 March 1754 when it was reported in the Derby Mercury that
The famous rhinoceros which was about four Years ago shewn in the White-Hart in this Town…was taken ill upon the Road from Mansfield to Nottingham, and died upon the Forest, near Red-Hill, on Thursday, to the great Loss of the Proprietor, Mr Pinchbeck. Who purchased it of Mrs Parsons some time since…
Redhill is four miles north of Nottingham on the road (now the A60) to Mansfield. In the 1700s and beyond a guide could be hired to ensure that the traveller did not get lost in Sherwood Forest, the southern limit of which was Redhill.

So, there is a conversation stopper for the pubs of Nottingham tonight. If you are tired of the endless discussion of the performance of County and Forest on the football field or the less than perfect start to the cricket season for the county side at Trent Bridge, just ask the question: Did you know an Indian rhino died at Redhill in 1754? You could also muse on what happened to the beast after it died and whether its skin and skeleton were preserved somewhere in the hope of making a profit after its loss as a live exhibit to the proprietor. Finally, as your friends’ eyes glaze over you could point out that the first rhino to reach Nottingham was not the first rhino to reach London. That one arrived in 1684 on the East Indiaman Herbert under a Captain Udall2.

A very much alive Indian Rhinoceros
Kaziranga National Park, Assam, 2007

1Grigson C. 2015. New information on Indian rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis) in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. Archives of Natural History 42, 76-84.

2Rookmaaker LC, Jones ML, Klös H-G, Reynolds RJ. 1998. The Rhinoceros in Captivity. A list of 2439 Rhinoceroses Kept from Roman Times to 1994. The Hague: Kluger.