Nellie Sanger

Nellie Sanger

Eleanor (‘Nellie’) Sanger was the wife of the great showman and circus entrepreneur ‘Lord’ George Sanger, who together with his brother John established Sanger’s Circus in the latter half of the nineteenth century. She was sometimes known professionally ‘Madame Pauline de Vere, the Lady of the Lions.’

Born Eleanor Chapman in Liverpool in 1831, her father was Henry Chapman, a ‘musician’ (1841 census) with Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie. Nellie began her career at Wombwell’s and was already a famous lion tamer when in 1847 she met George Sanger, who was still just a travelling fairground entertainer. According to a report on Wombwell’s Managerie that appeared in the Oxford Journal that year (27 November 1847): ‘The most striking feature in the exhibition has been the appearance in the lion’s den of Miss Chapman, who is called “the Lion Queen,” a title which she well deserves, for we certainly never saw one of the softer sex display such absolute power over animals as she does. The majestic lion, the fierce tiger and the leopard, are all as obedient to her look or command as a dog would be.’ Charles Dickens saw her too and sang her praises in two different letters. A Staffordshire figurine was produced depicting her between a lion and leopard, and Queen Victoria mentioned her in her journal (28 October 1847) when Wombwell’s Menagerie visited Windsor Castle: ‘we went down to the Quadrangle, where the cars of animals were drawn up on either side. On the one side were monkeys, parrots & birds, […] a den in which there were a young lion, lioness, panthers & leopard & another with a large lion, lioness and leopards. The celebrated Miss Chapman goes into both those dens. Then there was also a wolf, a very fine tiger & 2 leopards bred in the Menagerie only 7 months old. All the animals are in extremely fine condition. It was thought safer that the “Lion Queen” should not go into the dens, which rather disappointed her, but we saw her ride on a handsomely decked out elephant, which was somewhat unmanageable.’ The Queen was four months pregnant with Princess Louise, born in March the following year, so possibly it was felt that the excitement might not be good for the baby, or perhaps it was feared that, in the event that Nellie were mauled, the horrific spectacle might cause the Queen to miscarry. The legend nevertheless persisted that the Lion Queen had performed before the real Queen.

By 1850 Nellie had left Wombwell and begun working with her future husband. On 11 January 1850 her successor at Wombell’s, seventeen-year-old Ellen Bright, was mauled to death by a tiger while appearing at Chatham and the practice of ‘Lion Queens’ entering animal enclosures was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Nellie continued to work with big cats, and subsequently appeared in parades and tableaux dressed as Britannia, with a lion by her side.

George and Nellie were married in Sheffield on 1 December 1850. The marriage produced two daughters, Laurina (‘Topsy’) Sanger and Sarah Harriet Sanger, who both became circus performers.

Over the following years John and George Sanger established their own travelling circus. In 1871 they also acquired Astley’s Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue in Westminster Bridge Road, just over the river from the Houses of Parliament, where they ran a successful circus for over twenty years, until the London County Council closed the venue in 1893.

Nellie Sanger died, aged 68, on 29 April 1899 at Tottenham in north London. She was buried alongside other members of her family at St John’s Cemetery in Margate.

That journal of the entertainment world The Era published a lengthy obituary and a detailed report of her funeral (6 May 1899): ‘The lady was a distinguished figure throughout the United Kingdom and the greater part of the Continent, having for fifty years appeared before the public. In October, 1847, she had the exceptional honour of appearing, by a special command, before their Most Gracious Majesties the Queen and the Prince Consort, with the Royal children at the time, at Windsor Castle, as “Miss Ellen Chapman, the British Lion Queen,” in connection with Mr George Wombell’s menagerie, and since that time had taken an active part in raising Sanger’s Circus to the position it now holds. […] Later with the circus she has for many years ridden as Britannia with the noble lion Prince, then Havelock, and then Nero by her side in nearly every town and city in the country; and on the occasion of the Thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales in 1872 Mrs Sanger rode with the splendid lion Prince in the rear of the Royal procession, and also rode on horseback through London at the time of the marriage of the Duke of Edinburgh, and again upon the occasion of the marriage of T.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales on March 10th, 1863. [...] As a fitting climax to a long and honourable public life, on the occasion of the Royal command to Balmoral Castle of the circus company, June 17th, last year, her Majesty was graciously pleased to present Mrs Sanger with a magnificent diamond and sapphire pendant.’

Photographed by A.M. Bliss and Co of Lewes, identified by a crude wetstamp verso.

An inked inscription verso reading 'Mama / Mrs G. Sanger / year 1893' must have been written by Harriet Sanger, since Laurina had died in 1882.


Code: 127000
© Paul Frecker 2024