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The story of the Coventry Elephant

The astute observer will have noticed that an image of an elephant frequently crops up in Coventry. You might see it on top of the remaining metal bollards at roadsides in Coventry City Centre. You may notice it in the centre of the Armorial Bearings of the City of Coventry (the Coat of Arms). Why is there an elephant associated with Coventry?

Well, it's a good question! Some sources state that the elephant is a symbol for strength. Others claim it is a religious symbol for Christ, and is related to dragon-slaying. I doubt we will ever know. Sadly, the real historical meaning appears to have been lost. However, there is an unrelated, 19th century connection between an elephant and Coventry.

William Wombwell

In 1849, the Coventry Great Fair saw the sad death of William Wombwell, 25, who was killed by an elephant. William's grave can be found at London Road Cemetery, Coventry.

His gravestone reads: To the memory of William Wombwell, nephew of Mr George Wombwell (Wild Beast Proprietor), he died on the 12th June 1849 aged 25. Sincerely respected by all who knew him. Also in remembrance of Ellen Elizabeth Blight, cousin of the above, who died at Chatham in Kent on the 11th of January 1850 in the 17th year of her age. The tenant of this little grave, our hope and joy and pride, was snatched away from our embrace in early youth she died.

Transcript of the news from the Coventry Herald in 1849

I have transcribed the following record from the archives for its historical interest. I have kept most of the original punctuation, but added some paragraph breaks to help with legibility.

The grave of William Wombwell, Coventry

The grave of William Wombwell, who in 1849 was killed by an elephant in Coventry.

Fatal accident at Mr. Wombwell's Menagerie.

A most unfortunate occurrence took place on Sunday last, at Mr. Wombwell’s menagerie, in this City, which has proved fatal to a young married man, William Wombwell, nephew to the proprietor; and who has fallen a victim to the momentary anger of one of the elephants. An Inquest was held on the body before E. H. Jackson, Esq., Deputy Coroner, on Tuesday evening last, at Mr. Johnson’s, the Railway Tavern, Hertford-street, when the following evidence was taken :-

Mr. George Wombwell, being examined, said – I am the proprietor of the menagerie now at Coventry. When in London, I live in the Commercial-road. We came into Coventry on Sunday morning last. Deceased William Wombwell was keeper of the lions, but not of the elephants. He was about 25 years of age. He used to tell then names of the animals to the company. I saw the accident, which occurred last Sunday afternoon, between three and four o’clock; he was sitting on some straw, in the booth, when we heard the elephants fighting. Only myself and another man, besides the deceased, were there.

He was scraping his shoes with a knife in his hand, and it is my belief he went into the den with the knife in his hand. They were two male elephants; one was larger than the other, and both are in the same den. I believe he went to prick him with the knife as keepers sometimes do, when I heard him knocked down, and the elephant had taken his knife from him and crushed it to pieces.

The elephant had got him up in the corner of the den, and was boring at him with its tusks, and I cried out immediately, “for God’s sake come, for he is killing William,” and deceased at the same time was crying for help. The young man and I got a ladder, which had spikes at the bottom, put it into the den, and poked the elephant with it so as to get him away .-[The knife which had been picked up in the den, was here produced. It was a good-sized pocket knife, but the bone had been torn from the handle, the casing bent, the spring broken, and it was rendered entirely useless.]-From the time that deceased went into the den till we got him away, it was not more than three minutes.

He could just walk out, but I saw he was bleeding very much, and we were obliged to carry him immediately. It is usually a very quiet and tractable creature, and walked last year in the procession at Coventry; it has also performed at Astley’s; it is nearly seven feet high. The deceased has known it for six years, and has always shown it, and been in the habit of giving him his bread at night; but on this occasion I don’t think the elephant knew him when he first entered the den, which he did through a small door, and not by the way it usually entered.

I never had any accident with this elephant before. There is one particular season in the year, which lasts for about six weeks, when they are more prone to quarrel than at any other time, and it is the season now. The man whose particular duty it is to look after the elephants was lying drunk in another carriage. At the time when I cried out, and we went to rescue deceased, the elephant was just going to kneel on him; and had he done so he must have crushed him immediately.

Mr. Laxom, surgeon, was then examined – Being sent for to see the deceased on Sunday afternoon, between three and four o’clock, I went and found him in the caravan where he lived. On seeing the nature of the wound, I recommended that he should be taken to the Hospital, or to private lodgings; and deceased preferring the latter, he was brought to Mt. Johnson’s.

The principal wound was in the left groin. The tusk of the elephant (which was somewhat blunted and rough, from having been broken,) had penetrated through the thigh, separating the muscles, and exposing the large arteries. There was also extensive laceration, (too shocking to describe,) and the other thigh was wounded, though less severely.

I attended him up to the time of his death; he was much bruised about the thighs, but there was no apparent wound on the body, though probably the bowels might have been injured. Assisted by Mr. Barton and Mr. Dewes, I dressed, and to some extent sewed up the wounds; but deceased never rallied in the slightest degree from the first moment, and died about one o’clock this morning, (Tuesday,) of the wounds I have described.

The Jury, of course, returned a verdict of "Accidental Death."

It was stated to be just twelve months, on the 9th inst., since deceased was attacked and seriously wounded by a lion at Stafford.

On Wednesday afternoon, the deceased William Wombwell was buried in the Cemetery of this City, being followed to the grave by his kindred, and personal friends, in two mourning coaches, and eighteen couples of other individuals to whom he was known, who availed themselves of this sad occasion to show their attachment to him. The funeral service of the Church was read by Rev. Dr. Davis, in the presence of several thousand spectators.

The Elephant Whisperer: Learning About Life, Loyalty and Freedom
From a Remarkable Herd of Elephants by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence

When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of 'rogue' elephants on his reserve at Thula Thula, his commonsense told him to refuse. But he was the herd's last chance of survival - notorious escape artists, they would all be killed if Lawrence wouldn't take them. He agreed, but before arrangements for the move could be completed the animals broke out again and the matriarch and her baby were shot. The remaining elephants were traumatised and very angry. As soon as they arrived at Thula Thula they started planning their escape...As Lawrence battled to create a bond with the elephants and save them from execution, he came to realise that they had a lot to teach him about love, loyalty and freedom.

Further information

Follow this link for books about the History of Coventry.