AMONG THE LATEST acquisitions at the Crystal Palace museum which stands at the top of Anerley Hill is an item found above the doorway of an old cottage in Somerset.
It’s an elephant’s rib. The elephant’s name was Charlie, who was shot dead at Crystal Palace in February 1900 after killing a circus worker who had mistreated him.
Unfortunately Charlie, who was aged about 50, had, three years earlier, killed another employee of Mr Lord George Sanger’s circus who had also mistreated him. Charlie and another elephant named Archie both broke free of their chains in the incident. But while Charlie was content to remain in the Crystal Palace (in the south nave of the actual building!) Archie saw his chance of freedom.
The 4pm afternoon concert is about to start when Archie, who was also known as HRH having been ridden by the Prince of Wales in India, enters the concert room in the Palace and starts smashing up cane-bottomed chairs stacked in half dozens, causing those in the room to find various avenues of escape.
Archie then goes through the glass door into the refreshment room of J Lyons and Co where he knocks over tables ‘like ninepins’
Immediately after getting into the Palace grounds Archie went across the fair field and made for the North Tower, getting out on the Sydenham Road. By now it was dark.
Followed by officials and a growing number of excited pedestrians, his next stop was Sydenham Hill and then Cox’s Walk – named after Francis Cox.- where. at 4.30pm the station master at Lordship Lane looked out of a window and saw him.
Archie decided not to cross a wooden bridge over the railway line and passed the station yard without incident.
With his dogged, heavy, lurching gait Archie plodded on towards London Road. A not very stout iron railing which barred his way was snapped ‘like a twig’. Travelling along a footpath running parallel to a railway line Archie arrived at the gates of the Horniman Museum……!
A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM?
“There is really no saying how an elephant ordinarily views a turnstile” the South London Press noted. Archie chose instead to uproot an adjacent iron railing.
“This was broken and uprooted with a methodical violence that stamped Archie as quite a competent craftsman.” the South London Press reported.
The elephant was now in the museum grounds and there was concern he might try and get into the museum, so it was with a sigh of relief onlookers saw him turn tail and go diagonally across the grounds through a shrubbery and into Westwood Park..
Finding there was no way out of Westwood Park Archie demolished more iron railings, headed into Bevers Grounds and Devonshire Road before the SLP reported him moving on to Honor Oak Park but he eventually ended up in Beckenham.
One of his next ports of call was Newlands Park, Sydenham where a Mr Arthur Doyle was quietly reading in his drawing room when bang went the front gate. Hearing shouts of “He’s gone in there” Mr Doyle got up to see who ‘he’ was and was about to open the front door.
Hearing the rattling of a chain, a crash and a scream he decided instead to ask from a window on the first landing what it all meant.
“His visit, happily, was not a long one” Mr Doyle reported. “He came in the front gate and went out through the side fence , carrying about ten feet of it away. “He left us to make calls in Beckenham.”
The Beckenham Journal of Saturday February 24th 1900 reported how, on arriving in Beckenham, Archie crossed the South Eastern; and London, Chatham and Dover railway lines scaring two signalman and almost causing a railway disaster had not the driver of a passing train pulled up in time.
The elephant, then leaving Penge on the right, went along Copers Cope Road, Beckenham and, on finding a sandpit, rested there during the early hours of the morning watched over by a circus worker.
The Beckenham Journal, reporting the incident on the same day as the SLP noted that “Such big game seldom comes the way of the ordinary sportsman. “Numbers of people congregated in Copers Cope Road and other thoroughfares and some brought their guns with them hoping to get a shot at the huge living target.”
One well-known town councillor threatened to shoot Archie but was told: “Don’t fire. “You’ll only make him worse.”
The Journal commented: “He did not appear vicious and would probably have done less damage had he not been hunted. “Many continued to take part in the hunt until two or three in the morning.”
Some of the circus men kept the animal well in sight during the night. Archie moved on to Hayes where he enjoyed a good breakfast courtesy of a haystack at Marshall’s farm. He then doubled back towards Barnet Wood. (Records in Bromley local studies library show a J E Marshall at Hook Farm, Bromley Common for that year.)
He was enticed out of Barnet Wood after the circus brought four elephants down to help take him back.A crowd of between 200 and 300 witnessed his capture despite what was miserable weather. “He was the object of much interest on his way home” the Journal added.
His pursuers had been out on horses for 16 hours. Directly he got back home Archie picked up a trunkful of hay and began eating it “with an air of indifference as though he had just been out for a stroll and had come in to tea as usual” said the Journal.
But it was not until the Monday that many residents knew of the tragedy at the Crystal Palace.
The Journal trumpeted: “The unfortunate occurrence should be a warning to all circus and menagerie attendants many of whom, it is well known, are accustomed to tease or cause pain to the captives without any reason whatsoever.”
The unfortunate Charlie had been given a loaf of bread containing four ounces of potassium cyanide. In the south nave he sank into a dazed state against a statue called ‘Sleeping Student’, was shepherded back to his stable and shot at 10.10pm.
The inquest into the labourer who died – Emmanuel Cook Baker, aged 31 also known as ‘Chippy’ Woods was held in the People’s Hall, Arpley Road (town not given but probably Penge)
Witnesses had seen Baker pick up a lance used in the Sudan and said he was going to “pay Charlie for striking him.” He lunged at Charlie who, becoming infuriated, burst away from his chain, seized Baker with his trunk, threw him to the ground then trampled on him.
Sanger told the inquest he had discharged the man but had re-employed him as a labourer 16 months later. A keeper who wrote from his hospital bed said Baker had “got no more than he deserved” – to cries of ‘Hear, Hear!’ from the jury.
Charlie was stuffed. Four skilled butchers spent six hours skinning his carcass.Charlie was given to the Crystal Palace Company and displayed in the Palace’s natural history section where he perished in the fire of 1936
Sanger’s grandson was sent to deal with all the people whose properties had been damaged. These included the home of one man where Charlie had walked into his conservatory on one side and then out the other while he was sitting listening to his wife playing ‘Just a song at twilight’ on the piano.
PS: You may be wondering how Charlie managed to get from the circus into the south nave of the actual Palace. The (likely) answer lies in the (unlikely) surroundings of the Imperial War Museum’s archives.
The museum moved into the Palace in 1920 There were regular, angry exchanges of letters between the museum secretary Charles ffoulkes and the general manager of the Crystal Palace, Henry Buckland.
One of ffoulkes complaints owes more to Monty Python’s Flying Circus than Lord George Sanger’s circus.It appears that coaches were being lined up in the museum prior to being driven into the circus, which appears to have taken place in the area where the Handel concerts were performed.
On December 23rd 1920 ffoulkes wrote a letter to Buckland headed ‘Removal of the circus coach in the army section’: “I think that I should point out that the driving of a coach past our models and exhibits may injure the models or glass cases.
“I suggest the horses might be harnessed and taken into the circus enclosure without passing our exhibits.” The following day Buckland wrote to ffoulkes saying he would give instructions for the coach to be removed.
Note on Cox’s Walk: The Crystal Palace district annual of 1881 says that in 1789 “A tavern called the Green Man by Francis Cox (hence Cox’s Walk) occupied a corner of the ground now occupied by the Grove Tavern and ‘Ginny’s Corner’ Lordship Lane”. But it is not clear if Cox ran the pub – or designed it.
Beckenham Journal Saturday February 24th 1900
South London Press Saturday February 24th 1900
The Sanger Story by George Sanger Coleman as told to John Lukens. White Lion Publishers 1974.
Imperial War Museum archives.
Thanks to staff at Bromley local studies library; Jerry Savage, local studies Upper Norwood joint library.
(A version of the above originally appeared in the Norwood Society’s Norwood Review of Autumn 2011. In the last few months I’ve finally got round to visiting Cox’s Walk which is at the Forest Hill end of Sydenham Hill. There’s a road sign which takes you into Sydenham Hill Wood. Carry on down and you’ll find the footbridge – it’s where Camille Pissarro did his painting of Lordship Lane station from. Once across the footbridge turn left and you can follow the old railway track back to the bridge at Crescent Wood Road, where you can see the London Wildlife Trust sign on the gates there. Upper Sydenham station’s platforms stood immediately in front of the bridge. 363 bus from Crystal Palace Parade to the last (request) stop ‘Sydenham Hill Kirkdale’ then walk back towards Cox’s Walk. Proper shoes essential.)
Copyright Jerry Green 2013