This jolly piece of street art is on the side of a Leamington Spa electricity sub-station just across the river from Jephson Gardens. It commemorates not only the regular presence of elephants in the town in the late 19th – early 20th century, but also celebrates the local yarn that said eles were regularly marched through the genteel centre to a dedicated slipway on the River Leam so they could bathe.
The slipway is still there – its retaining wall barely visible behind the sub-station. There is also an Edwardian house next door with an apparently telling address:
But is it true? Were elephants brought here for a good wallow?
A little bit of internet digging revealed that the presence of elephants in town is not in question, only the river bathing bit; this on the grounds that no contemporary evidence, particulary newspaper reports, has so far surfaced.
The elephants’ owner was a trapeze artist cum renowned elephant trainer Samuel Lockhart (1850-1933), member of a famous circus family. He travelled the world with his elephants, and in between engagements returned to Leamington Spa, his wife’s home town. His last documented show was 1910/11 when he was on the bill at the Theatre Royal in Leamington with four elephants Mustard, Salt, Vinegar and Little Saucy.
I’m certainly no fan of performing elephants, but the notion of a dedicated elephant wash in a Warwickshire river does appeal. And it’s not so very strange either – depending on the depth of your chronological perspective.
On a visit to Ryton Pools Country Park between Leamington and Warwick I discovered that in one of England’s many warmer eras there had indeed been indigenous elephant herds in the locality, though much larger and tuskier versions than their Asian cousins. ‘They became extinct c.115,000 years ago when the climate became colder,’ says the graphics panel.
They was also an interesting ‘artist’s impression’ of past elephant kind at Ryton Pools.
You can find out more about Sam Lockhart and his elephants HERE
And now for some fabulous old photos of Royal Leamington Spa. Slide 40 has elephants parading along a main shopping street. If the embedded code doesn’t work the original link is HERE