The royal household

Queen Victoria in William Nicholson's lithographic reproduction of a hand-coloured woodcut, 1899. She is accompanied by a Skye terrier. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them, and for more information about them where available.]

Here, as in other areas of life, the royal family itself was hugely influential. As Simon Wenham shows elsewhere (see Castle Canines), Queen Victoria had many pets during her long reign, from her childhood companion Dash, a King Charles spaniel, to her favourite little Pomeranian, Turi, in old age. With her affectionate nature she loved and collected animals all her life, and wrote about them in her journals. She was knowledgeable about the different breeds and their characteristics, as suggested by her entry on her twenty-third birthday, when Prince Albert presented her with eight small dogs: "a beautiful white 'Spitz' which I had seen before, & greatly admired," she noted, and "a couple of beautiful white Truffle Dogs, — very rare, something like Poodles as to hair but much smaller, — a couple of beautiful little Blenheim Spaniels, & a clever, very small little Pug, — a most rare dark blue (as it is called) Scotch Terrier, — a very pretty little King Charles. I was quite delighted" (Journals, 24 May 1842). Every care was taken of them. At Windsor she had kennels with a cottage for the "Keeper of the Queen's Dogs," as well as stables and a Royal Aviary. Her pets were a special comfort to her after Prince Albert died, and she rarely went anywhere without taking several dogs with her. She had cats as well: "Read despatches. Drew the Cat; played and sung," she notes in her journal as a young woman, on 27 February 1839. If this shows no special affection, she made up for it in old age by knitting "a piece of wool" for her favourite fluffy Angora cat, White Heather (Royal Magazine, 390). She also insisted that a cat should feature on the Queen's Medal for Kindness, because she felt cats were generally overlooked and ill-treated: she drew one into the design "with her own hand" (Rogers 180).

Pampered pooches and dog shows

The Queen's love of animals, and her appreciation of their different traits, were widely shared by her subjects. Few fashionable Victorian women were without a lap-dog. Two popular breeds were pugs, of which the Queen had not just one but (in her own words) "a beautiful collection" (Journals, 19 October 1855), and Pomeranians, another royal favourite. As a result, breeding suitable "companion animals" became both a science and a business, and animal shows, the more upmarket successors of working-class "Fancies" (where fighting dogs and "ratters" were displayed in pubs and other such venues) attracted large numbers of entrants. The Queen herself was one: the Times reported that she showed several of her dogs at Crufts in 1891, when over 2000 dogs were shown in 473 different categories (see "The Dog Show"). Two of her collies and two of her Pomeranians won prizes. The latter's unpretentious names — Fluffy and Gena — suggest that they were pets first, and exhibits second. Such shows charged fees to maintain standards: "A respectable show required breed and quality among exhibitors as well as dogs" (Worboys et al. 101). But while "the association between lapdogs and refined femininity persisted throughout the century, mid-Victorian advice literature increasingly promoted dogs as suitable pets for every bourgeois home" (Worboys et al. 49). Pet ownership became popular right across the board.

Exotic Pets

Max Beerbohm's depiction of the Rossetti circle, complete with exotic creatures, the wombat looking up curiously at William Bell Scott, the observer in the foreground.

Not everyone was content to keep a conventional pet, such as a dog, cat, canary or rabbit. "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame Bear," wrote Byron to his friend Elizabeth Pigot on 26 October 1807, while he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (qtd. in Moore 175). He mocked the authorities by bringing it into the college, but had it looked after at the stables where he kept his horses, and eventually sent it to the family estate at Newstead Abbey. Its time in England was short: it died in May 1810 (see Chainey 127). The Queen's second son, Prince Alfred, acquired an even bulkier pet. Given a young Indian elephant on a visit to Nepal, he brought it home by sea. Unfortunately, the animal, christened "Prince Tommy," panicked in his confinement on the train from Plymouth, and crushed his keeper to death. He was kept at Sandringham for a while, but finally donated to Dublin Zoo, and his skeleton can still be seen at the Dublin Zoological Museum (he is now no. 671 in the online database — see "Prince Tommy"). One of the oddest choices of pet was the wombat, which became popular around the time that the Zoo in Regent's Park opened a "wombat lair." Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought his own wombat from Charles Jamrach (1815-1891), the well-known Stepney animal dealer, in September 1869: it never thrived, and died that November, so he had it stuffed. Another wombat appears later in the Rossetti Papers (see 414, 418, 468).

Keeping unusual animals generally required space, and special care. It could therefore be a status symbol. For the wealthy, having a menagerie on their estate was all the rage, and many wild animals were traded in London and other big cities. On 7 May 1852, for instance, a Captain whose ship was berthed at St Katherine Dock offered for sale in The Times "a fine, tame, young LEOPARD, six months old" ("For Sale"). Inevitably, some of these acquisitions got loose. In 1857 Jamrach (or his man, depending on the source) showed great heroism in saving a young boy from a Bengal tiger that escaped after being transported from the docks, before it could be secured in its cage. According to the Times report, the boy was "fearfully mangled" ("Fearful Occurrence"). Many newspapers reported the incident and the court case that followed, but Jamrach was exonerated, the boy recovered (evidently with some psychological damage), and the tiger was sold to Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie, where its story was used to boost ticket sales. C. J. Cornish in his Life at the Zoo (1895) makes an entertaining anecdote of it all (186-87). Other escapes were less sensational, but Matthew Arnold's friend, William Evelyn (1822-1908), kept a variety of unusual pets at his estate, Wotton House, in Surrey, and for some years kangaroos bounded around the Surrey Hills after being let loose from the paddock there (see Evelyn 450).

As noted above, while in Cambridge, Byron's bear was kept in the stables at Ram Yard with his horses. One of the horses was called Oateater (see Chainey 127), perhaps because it was greedy. Unlike bears, horses like Oateater would have been a perfectly normal and much valued part of any gentleman's equipage. He would depend on them for travel and often for recreation: for riding, hunting, racing, and (from the end of the 1860s), polo. Riding out in the park was not just an acceptable but a fashionable pastime for well-to-do women too.


Left: Pet Maltese terrier of Elisabeth Wellesey, The Duchess of Wellington, by kind permission of Elmbridge Museum, Esher, Surrey. Right: Mixed exotic bird dome, attributed to William and Sons, Dublin, Ireland, in the late nineteenth century. [Click on these images to enlarge them. The one on the left, like images from our own site, can be reproduced for non-commercial, educational use only.]

Few people could afford to keep their own horses, let alone exotic creatures like kangaroos. Most had to content themselves with stuffed animals — not soft toys, but real animal-skins filled by taxidermists, and posed in perfectly lifelike ways. This was the great age of taxidermy, and this practice alone tells much about the Victorian attitude to animals:

Any animal, including a pet, could become taxidermy, and the same or similar taxidermy might be used as a household ornament and then a museum exhibition. As taxidermy, animals were transformed into manufactured objects and different kinds of commodities that journeyed across empires, through zoos, and between households, taxidermists’ workshops, department stores, and museums. Stuffed animals were put into human situations, integrated into human society, and subjected to the imagination in ways not possible with living animals. Made into taxidermy, animals were fashioned into possessions of surprising diversity, such as chairs, lamps, ornaments, monuments, trophies, clothing, scientific specimens, and a variety of museum installations. These objects reflected the Victorian and Edwardian belief that animals should be useful to humans, even in death. At the same time, taxidermy extended the biographies of animals and granted them diverse afterlives as dead things. [Amato 183; emphases added]

Many, if not most, Victorian homes had at least a few exotic birds singing soundlessly under glass domes, and, while clearly a case of objectifying animals and seeing them as ornamental, the practice (especially when it involved pets) also showed an interest in and attachment to animals that went beyond exploiting them.

Related Material


Amato, Sarah. Beastly Possessions: Animals in Victorian Consumer Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Chainey, Graham. A Literary History of Cambridge. Rev. ed. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cornish, C. J. Life at the Zoo; Notes and Traditions of the Regent's Park Gardens. London: Seeley & Co., 1895. Internet Archive, from a copy in the Smithsonian. Web. 5 October 2020.

"The Dog Show." The Times. 12 February 1891: 10. Times Digital Archive. Web. 5 October 2020. Web. 5 October 2020.

The Duchess' Pet. Elmbridge Museum. Web. 5 October 2020.

Evelyn, Helen. The History of the Evelyn Family, with a short memoir of William Evelyn. London: Eveleigh Ash, 1915. Internet Archive, from a copy in Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 5 October 2020.

"Fearful Occurrence." The Times. 27 October 1857: 12. Times Digital Archive. Web. 5 October 2020.

"For Sale." The Times. 7 May 1852: 2. Times Digital Archive. Web. 5 October 2020.

Moore, Thomas. Life of Lord Byron: with his Letters and Journals. New ed. London: John Murray, 1854. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 5 October 2020.

"Prince (Tommy) an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) at Dublin Zoo." The Elephant Database. Web. 1 October 2020.

Queen Victoria's Journals: Information site (with search facility).

Rogers, Katharine M. Cat. London: Reaktion, 2006.

Rossetti, W.M. Rossetti Papers 1862-70 . London: Sands, 1903. Internet Archive, from a copy in the Robarts library, University of Toronto. Web. 1 October 2020.

Royal Magazine. Vol. 20 (1908): 390. [Limited view on Google Books.]

Worboys, Michael, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton. The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. [Review]

Created 5 October 2020