Hunt is on for the Kingswood Elephant

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have been commissioned to look into a 132-year-old mystery – the burial of an elephant in Kingswood.

The study comes as part of the regeneration of the town centre.

Local legend has it that the Victorian elephant belonging to Bostock and Wombwell’s travelling ‘beast show’ died and was buried in Kingswood.

Now Wessex Archaeology has been asked to carry out a geophysical survey. 

Tom Richardson, terrestrial geophysicist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “Searching for Victorian elephant burials isn’t our usual fare but a grave of that size would leave a large hole and would certainly be identifiable with the Ground Penetrating Radar equipment we will be using to survey the site. Watch this space!” 

Councillor Chris Willmore, cabinet member with responsibility for planning, regeneration and infrastructure at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “Our work as part of the Kingswood regeneration project has presented us with a unique opportunity ahead of the high street pedestrianisation work. We’re excited to see what archaeologists may uncover and if we can finally solve this local mystery or find some new mysteries to solve.” 

Purported to have been buried in the area of Whitefield’s Tabernacle or Holy Trinity Church, the elephant is said to have died in 1891 from yew leaf poisoning. Although no historical sources reference the death or burial of an elephant in the area, the Kingswood elephant is etched in local memory.

Alan Bryant, curator at Kingswood Museum, said: “I first heard about the Kingswood elephant burial in the 1970s when I was doing my rounds as a local milkman. Since then, I have had countless conversations and debates with local people about it. I remember a new mains sewer pipe was installed in the 1980s and I made a point of having a look to see if there were any anomalies in the ground. Alas, nothing to report but I for one am delighted at the potential of discovering the legendary Kingswood Elephant burial.”

The long and infamous history of animal entertainment is well documented, from shows in Roman amphitheatres to Elizabethan bear-bang, but behind the spectacle of these shows the reality for the animals was oen less glamourous. Menageries featuring wild and exotic animals were a fashionable form of entertainment throughout the Victorian era and early 20th century.

Dr Steve Ward, circus historian, said: “During the 19th century, the fascination with the natural world allowed both travelling and static menageries to flourish. People wanted to experience exotic and strange animals. Seeing these creatures was seen as educational, indeed the government actively encouraged families to take their children. But merely viewing them was not enough; the public also wanted to be entertained. In some menageries, animal keepers began to perform tricks with their beasts, especially with the large carnivores and elephants.” 

Exotic animals were imported into the UK to join the animal exhibitions, performing circus acts and parading the streets. The close relationship between animals and their handlers is well-documented but the conditions for Victorian animals would not have met modern welfare standards. 

Lorrain Higbee, zooarchaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “This initial archaeological investigation aims to locate the elephant burial but should we do so, you may be surprised at what we could learn about the life of this animal from studying its skeletal remains.” 

“In the case of a menagerie elephant, as well as understanding where the animal came from and its age, we may be able to see the impact of its life as an entertainer, this may include evidence of confinement including trauma from shackling the animal or arthritis. It may also be possible to detect injuries or strains resulting from its performance duties, such as repetitive movements.” 

There are various accounts of elephant burials in UK, including Norfolk, Warwickshire and Sleaford. Although many of these are considered urban myths, a survey at Norfolk did identify underground patterns that supported the claim.