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Lions and elephants make hazardous workmates

In London Road Cemetery in Coventry stands a gravestone to William Wombwell and Ellen Blight. When I read the inscription I just had to look into it. Who could resist?

William was a lion keeper with Wombwell’s Menagerie.. He was killed by an elephant in Coventry in 1849. As reported in the Derby Mercury on 27 June 1849, an eyewitness stated:

It was obviously a hazardous place to work, William’s cousin Ellen Blight is also commemorated on the same stone, a tiger killed her the following year. Ellen was the daughter of John Blight (or Bright), a bugle player and bandleader with George Wombwell's menagerie, and his wife, Elizabeth, was George Wombwell's sister. As a young child Ellen travelled with the menagerie and showed no fear of the animals, and frequently rode on the back of the Bengal tiger. In 1849 she succeeded Ellen Chapman as the ‘Lion Queen’ in the menagerie, and performed that year before Queen Victoria. On Friday 11 January 1850, while the menagerie was at Chatham, on the Military Road, some naval officers strolled in at about nine o'clock after the conclusion of the public performance, and asked to see the act. Ellen Blight complied, entered a cage containing a lion and a tiger, and rashly clipped the dozing tiger on the nose with her small whip. The animal jumped up, catching the Lion Queen by her dress. She fell; the tiger's claws stripped the flesh from her right leg, and then the animal caught her by the throat, mortally wounding her. The tiger was driven off with an iron bar, and Blight was removed, unconscious, to a living-van, and attended by a doctor who was present, but she died within minutes. Both her parents and a brother witnessed her death. She was buried at Coventry on 15 January, in the grave of her cousin William Wombwell. The incident turned the public against the performances of Lion Queens. It was said that George Wombwell had always had a lurking fear of such an accident's happening to his niece, and banned any replacement. The tiger was retained, kept in a separate cage, and was later advertised as the animal which killed the Lion Queen.

John M. Turner, ‘Blight , Ellen Eliza (1833/4–1850)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

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