On 16 January 1833, the young Victoria wrote in her diary: “At 1/4 past 12 we went out. Little Dashy went with us. He is a dear little dog … so fond of Mamma that he will never leave her.” Enter the King Charles spaniel known variously as Dash or Dashy – just one of the bewildering number of dogs which romped, begged and dozed in royal chambers, lawns and kennels from Balmoral to Osborne House, across almost 70 years. Given the cold and relatively friendless nature of Victoria’s early life, it is little wonder that she became devoted to “sweet Dashy”, whose health, travels and minor accidents are thoroughly detailed in her diaries.
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Before Dash died in late 1840, he had enjoyed the company of Prince Albert’s greyhound, Eos – of whom Victoria remarked on 12 October 1839: “she is so gentle, and so clever; gives her paw; jumps an immense height, eats off a fork.” On 27 January 1842, the gentle Eos had a close shave when out with a shooting party at Windsor. A stray shot from Victoria’s Uncle Ferdinand struck the dog in the lung, causing much anxiety in following weeks. It wasn’t until early March that the queen at last found it “a pleasure to see dear ‘Eos’ so well again, running about & playing with Cairnach”, another of Victoria’s dogs.”
Popular as Cairnach was, his fellow Skye terrier Islay seems to have been the most beloved of Victoria’s many dogs: “I am charmed with my new little dog, whom I have called Islay,” she wrote on 13 March 1839. “He is so gentle, so good natured and friendly and so funny, for he begs delightfully”. And he was certainly the most famous. Islay appeared in two works by the acclaimed painter and sculptor, Edwin Landseer, featuring in his Game Picture of 1845, and reputedly inspiring the celebrated painting Dignity and Impudence – with Islay being the cheekier half of the pairing.
By very bad luck, both Cairnach and Islay died in spring 1844. Although Islay allegedly perished due to his being worsted by a ferocious cat, both dogs fell into fits just before death – suggesting that they may have suffered from the same medical condition.
A queen’s best friend
Dogs seem to have been Victoria’s favourite animal. Like one or two men before or since, the early Victorian prime minister Lord Melbourne seems to have noticed that the way to a lady’s heart lies through her pets, and endeared himself to the queen when he “patted and fondled and kissed Islay, who stood up between his knees and seemed very fond of him” (30 March 1839).
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In August 1841, when enthusing over new St Bernard puppies just born at Windsor (“delightful little things, like bears”) Victoria could never have guessed at the encounter she would have with two of these animals in April 1899. Aged almost 80, she was riding in an open carriage during a Swiss holiday when her party encountered an old beggar man driving a cart drawn by two big St Bernard dogs. The Illustrated Police News, a weekly newspaper considered one of the earliest British tabloids, reported on the incident: “After doffing his cap to the Queen, the old man whipped up his team and kept pace with the Royal carriage” to the top of Montboron Hill. “Then, with a whoop, he dashed down the opposite slope”, leaving the royal horses hopelessly outpaced. Found “waiting, hat in hand” at the foot of the hill, he was then given a small reward and blessed Victoria, before turning his dogs towards home.
These sturdy race dogs remind us just how many working canines there once were across Europe. War dogs were another example. British regiments had various animal mascots: Victoria presented goats to Scots and Welsh regiments, and a rather unruly deer, named Mick, to the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
War dogs, meanwhile, actually fought. Regimental Jack of the Scots Guards saved his master’s life at the battle of Alma during the Crimean War, charged with the troops at the battle of Inkerman, and returned to be decorated with the Victoria Cross by the queen herself. Perhaps more impressively, a mongrel named Bobbie survived the devastating slaughter at the battle of Maiwand in July 1880, later trotting at the head of the 66th Berkshire Foot in London, where he too was presented to Victoria.
No less useful were the numerous railway dogs of the late 19th century. Beginning with a Scots collie called Help in the 1880s, hundreds of dogs were licenced to roam trains and stations, collecting charitable donations. Victoria had a fondness for several of these, and on 15 May 1899, after being helped from her carriage at Paddington by her Indian servant (apparently, Abdul Karim), she called specially for the Irish terrier, Tim, who received a gold sovereign for his box. Just over 20 months later, a pomeranian named Turi was lying on Victoria’s bed in Osborne House when she died.
Cat and mouse
Although the queen was evidently much less fond of cats, in 1838 she took one into the palace with ready charity. Visiting her on 21 August, Lord Melbourne was amused to hear of how she had, that morning, received a basket containing “a pretty little kitten … which some poor people sent me as a present”. Up in Lincolnshire just before Victoria’s coronation, a whimsical old lady named Baker had decided that she must send a newly-born kitten to Her Majesty. She accordingly placed it in a hamper “with an abundant supply of bread and butter for its sustenance during its long journey” by coach, and a label which read: “To the Queen, in Lunnun or elsewhere: to be taken great care of.” Evidently it was; and so too were the old lady and her husband. Having been the subject of much mockery in their village, they were vindicated when a letter from the queen arrived, together with two £5 notes.
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We can only hope that this was not the cat which was said to have given Islay such a thrashing in 1844. We can certainly imagine that it was kept well out of sight in August 1843, when the smallest creature ever to give a Royal Command Performance was summoned to the palace. This was none other than the ‘famous singing mouse’ of London. Captured that summer by some bemused slum dwellers, this male house mouse could be heard singing like a canary for the paying public in Regent’s Street. Taken to the palace in late August to amuse the Prince of Wales and the princesses, the mouse was struck dumb with stage fright. Surviving accounts leave us tantalisingly unsure if it then recovered its voice before leaving… but we do know that some mice really can sing. The Victorian papers were full of them, and they were thought such a shrewd investment that in 1865 a single specimen could cost you £10 – or the price of a Newfoundland dog.
Bridging the divide between the tame and the wild, a number of pet parrots chattered their way through Victoria’s life. In August 1834, she was given a blue and green Brazilian parrot which she christened Pedro and described as the “tamest dearest little creature” she had ever seen. It evidently managed to get along with Dash, as both were travelling in Victoria’s coach through Sussex a few weeks later. She was no less delighted, in May 1836, with a highly-coloured lory (a type of small-to-medium sized parrot) given by her Uncle Ernest, and in 1838 Melbourne grew fond of talking to a new African grey which she acquired that autumn.
A grey parrot bought by Prince Albert just before Christmas 1840 lived up to the breed’s famed intelligence, and had an English vocabulary of 800 words. It could speak several sentences in French, and would also sing, “with great apparent feeling”, the first verse of The Flag That Braved A Thousand Years. Still more shrewdly, whenever anyone lifted a wine glass, this bird would hold up its right claw, and lustily sing out: “her Majesty Queen Victoria’s good health”. In 1843, an unidentified parrot also appears in Victoria’s watercolour of her son Prince Albert.
All these feathered prodigies, however, were outdone by a parrot given to the queen by a German bird-fancier named Cassuni, sometime before 1848. The bird was notorious for declaring: “I’ll go back if you don’t send £20!” – adding after a pause, “Oh, send the money, the bird’s cheap at the price.” Seeing the joke, Victoria sent a cheque to Cassuni through Coutts’ bank – despite which, the racketeering bird, tumbling jovially about the palace, “continues his old menace, and … persists in demanding the £20”.
Where the wild things were
If you wanted to see wilder and more dangerous creatures, Victorian Britain offered up a surprising number of opportunities. Victoria was lucky enough to grow up just as the country’s first zoos opened: Regent’s Park in 1828, and the Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1832. On 24 May 1835, she wrote: “Today is my 16th birthday! How very old that sounds” – noting, amidst a cascade of presents, how “Dashy gave [me] an ivory basket with barley-sugar and chocolate.”
The following day a grand fête was held at the Surrey Gardens in honour of her birthday. Although apparently not present, Victoria must have heard of the showpiece: the famed aeronaut Charles Green ascended in a balloon and threw out of the basket a monkey named Jacopo. Making a surprised and indignant descent by parachute, Jacopo landed safely in the nearby garden of a policeman – who, on reading the note attached to the animal, got him swiftly back to the gardens. Here Jacopo demonstrated his rude health by happily gobbling “the hundreds of cakes and oranges that were presented to him by the delighted multitude”.
In following decades Victoria continually visited the Regent’s Park Zoo with her expanding family. In July 1848, she reported that the children were “delighted with the giraffes & elephants, on the taller of which Albert rode with the three eldest”. In June 1851, she noted “the hyppotamous in its bath, in the open air, which it delights in”. And the following March, she wrote that the family were entranced by “a little lioness cub, four months old, which is brought up by a cat … we saw it suck out of a bottle, like a baby!”
Victoria and her family also loaned their more exotic presents to the zoo. Describing a visit of March 1877, she refers to lions, tigers, panthers, an ostrich, and four young elephants as “belonging to Bertie”; and in August 1884 an elephant given to her by Abyssinian visitors was sent to be “taken care of at the Zoological Gardens”.
Quite some time before Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, an 1842 visit to the zoo with Albert caused Victoria to exclaim that “the Orang-utan is too wonderful preparing & drinking its tea”, whilst at the same time finding him “frightful & painfully & disagreeably human”. This was, in fact, Jenny the orangutan, who wore human clothes, and who helped to confirm Darwin’s suspicions on the origin of humans when he saw her in 1838.
Orangutans aside, there is evidence that the zoo was not quite wild enough for Victoria’s taste. In January 1839, she found the Drury Lane opera a mixed affair, but sat up very straight for the afterpiece: a display by New York-born lion-tamer, Isaac Van Amburgh.
Already very famous by this stage, Van Amburgh was soon immortalised in paint. A few weeks after seeing him in action, Victoria went into the drawing-room at Buckingham Palace to see a “most beautiful picture”.
Back in the London theatres, you could see an impressive number of animals clawing the boards, from dogs to elephants. And at Covent Garden in 1842 Victoria and Albert were treated to a staging of John Milton’s courtly entertainment, Comus – in which one of the chariots was “drawn by tigers, who were remarkably well trained”.
In this period, you did not always need to travel to see wild animals. As explorers and entrepreneurs roamed through the British Empire with guns, nets and cages, there were an increasing number of exotic animals travelling to you, in the form of circuses and menageries. Author and academic John Simons has pointed out that, in Victoria’s reign, even the humblest Briton, though typically travelling no more than 30 miles from home, had a surprisingly good chance of seeing a hippopotamus. And, if you were the chief patron of George Wombwell’s Royal menagerie, your chances were naturally a lot higher.
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As well as keeping their own ostriches and kangaroos at Windsor, the royal family had a number of pet monkeys scampering through their homes – including a ring-tailed lemur which Victoria sketched in 1849. And occasionally, a much larger party of animals invaded the grounds of Windsor. In her diaries, Victoria describes 28 October 1847 as being “a very damp, disagreeable day” – but one that was enlivened by the arrival “of Mr Wombwell’s menagerie … which came up in 14 wagons! … On the one side were monkeys, parrots & birds — a gazelle, zebra & rhinoceros … & at the end, a very accomplished elephant, polar bear, jackal, hyena, a lioness, with two dear little cubs.”
There was also “a den in which there were a young lion, lioness, panthers & leopard, & another with a large lion, lioness & leopards”. These were set aside for Nellie Chapman, the second female lion-tamer in British history and a star feature of the travelling menagerie. Although on this occasion “it was thought safer that the ‘Lion Queen’ should not go into the dens”, the royals presently “saw her ride on a handsomely decked out elephant” – and later “fed the elephant in its enclosure”.
One particular wild encounter, however, was a little too unexpected. As John Simons explains, Victoria was gazing from the window of Windsor Castle into the deer park one day in early 1881 when a huge dark cat leapt suddenly onto one of the deer. Her redoubtable highland servant John Brown was sent down to deal with it, and took the matter in his usual burly stride. The animal proved to be a jaguar, with the deceptively cuddly name of Affums. He was the pet of the queen’s neighbour, Lady Florence Dixie – a very interesting woman, who happened also to be the aunt of Oscar Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie. As a result of this escapade, Affums was sent to the zoo. This being the Victorian period, we can suspect that there was a recognised form of etiquette to follow when your pet jaguar had just slaughtered Her Majesty’s deer. After which, venison pie all round.
Richard Sugg is the author of several books, including A Century of Ghost Stories (2017), A Singing Mouse at Buckingham Palace (2017) and Fairies: A Dangerous History (2018).
This article was first published by History Extra in January 2018