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Meet the Beast: Jumbo the Elephant

Our Beasts of London experience brings you face to fang with the animals of the city's history. Let's explore one of the most famous Beasts in London's history: Jumbo the Elephant.

Alwyn Collinson

Digital Editor

29 April 2019

Photograph of Jumbo the Elephant, ZSL collection.

Jumbo the Elephant, photographed c. 1882

Collection of the Zoological Society of London.

Jumbo was one of the first animal celebrities in London's history. Born in Sudan, in east Africa, he was imported to Europe and moved into London Zoo in 1865.

Jumbo was an African bush elephant, one of the largest ever seen in Europe. In fact, the word jumbo, meaning something large, is named after Jumbo himself. One of the zookeepers, Anoshan Anathjeysari, named him "Jumbe", the Swahili word for "chief". Jumbo weighed over 6 tonnes and was about 3.2 metres (10.6 feet) tall at the shoulder. Jumbo became a favourite of Londoners, being ridden by zoo visits from small children to Queen Victoria herself. But Jumbo's time in London was due to end soon.

In 1882, London Zoo sold Jumbo to the American entertainer and showman Phineas T. Barnum. Barnum wanted to display Jumbo in his circus, known as The Greatest Show on Earth. Jumbo was showing signs of bad temper and unhappiness- for example, he had ground down his tusks on the sides of his enclosure- and the managers of the Zoo worried that he would hurt visitors. The decision caused a public outcry.

Newspapers and members of the public petitioned Barnum, asking him to let Jumbo stay in London. Barnum refused, happy that his elephant was receiving so much publicity. Barnum toured America with Jumbo, advertising him as the world's largest elephant. In 1890, Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth returned to London, bringing Jumbo with it.

Here's a page from an illustrated programme sold at the show, now in the Museum of London collection. Click the numbers below to learn what happened to Jumbo.

Poor Jumbo had been killed in a train crash in Canada in 1885. What Barnum brought back to London was his preserved skeleton and stuffed skin. It was a sad fate for the greatest of London's beasts.

Poster of PT Barnum's Jumbo the Elephant display.

Poster advertising PT Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth

Public domain.

Hear from Jumbo and other animal ambassadors in Beasts of London, our interactive experience at the Museum of London.