Given the Victorians’ love of animals and the efforts (from 1824) of the RSPCA to stamp out animal cruelty, I was a little surprised to see that dancing bears were still a sight seen on London streets in the last decade of the 1800s.
It must have been quite a sight as well which explains why over 200 people were drawn to Bridge Street in Homerton in May 1890. Two Frenchmen – De Love Chamary and Agas Jean – who both gave addresses in Edmonton – were charged at the Dalston Police court with obstructing the highway and refusing to ‘move along’.
A huge crowd had gathered on Bridge Street to see the men prod the muzzled animal into performing, which had blocked the street entirely. PC Munro asked them to move along but they only went a few yards before starting up the entertainment again. When they failed to comply again he arrested them. Goodness know what they did with the bar but presumably the poor animal had to be taken into custody as well. I can well imagine the desk servant’s face when the trio arrived at the station!
A gentleman named Edward Young took the stand at Dalston to complain that along with the obstruction the bear represented a threat to the public. He himself had seen the beast ‘make for a servant girl twice that morning’. The bear was, he conceded, muzzled, but he wanted to let the court know that with bears it was ‘the hug that did it’. His intervention added to the entertainment element of this prosecution and prompted some laughter.
The defendants were ‘picturesquely-dressed’ as French ‘peasants’ and were, the reporter suggested, of ‘the gipsy class’. It is likely them that they lived in the countryside north of the capital, in caravans and tents at Edmonton rather than in suburban housing.
They assured Mr Haden Corser that the bear was harmless, and so the magistrate said there was little he could do to them beyond making them aware that were to obey the police’s instructions in future. He cautioned them and let them go.
The practice of forcing captive bears dance was prohibited in Britain in 1911 but sadly continues in many countries in the world, even after prohibition. An organisation called Bear Conservation monitors the abuse of these magnificent animals worldwide and you find out how to support their efforts here.
Daily News, Saturday 3 May 1890; Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10 May 1890