The world’s foremost elephant trainer began his working life as a circus acrobat and when he died was described by the Leamington Courier newspaper as a ‘retired giant of the entertainment industry’. The dapper little man with the magnificent white moustache was one of Leamington’s most recognisable residents in the years between the two world wars.
Early Years. Sam Lockhart was born in County Durham in 1850. His mother Hannah (nee´ Pinder), the daughter of a well-to-do French wine exporter, had run away from home as a young girl to form a circus with her brothers. Young Samuel’s father, also Samuel was an equestrian, stilt walker, acrobat and clown who described himself in the census returns as a ‘Professor of Gymnastics’ . His proper name was Locker but shortly after he married Hannah, she persuaded him to change the family surname to Lockhart which sounded ‘less common’. Interestingly, Samuel junior’s birth was registered under the old name of Locker.
Flying Trapeze Artists. The Lockhart had family ties with the Ginnetts, a circusfamily some of whom lived in Leamington in the mid nineteenth century and we know from newspaper reports that Sam and his brother George were in Leamington in 1869. The two young men were accomplished trapeze artists and gymnasts, apart from being talented horsemen. In 1869 they appeared as ‘The Flying Trapeze’ on the bill for George Ginnett’s Drawing Room Royal Circus. The rather grand name for the show was somewhat at odds with what we learn was little more than a temporary wooden building erected in Lower Bedford Street on the open ground that then existed in front of the ‘Pepper Box’ chapel. French newspapers spoke of the ‘wonderful performance of the young Lockhart’. Sam and his brother also performed their gymnastic act at the newly erected Victoria Pavilion in the Collonade and appeared in several Leamington pantomimes for Ginnett’s Model Cirque in the early 1870’s whilst also touring on the continent. Unfortunately, both Sam and George sustained injuries while performing and rehearsing their act and in 1875 a serious injury to George brought their double-act to a premature end. In the same year Sam married Alice Pavier a 19 year-old tailor’s daughter at Leamington Parish Church.
Sam the Elephant Trainer. Within a few years, Sam had travelled to Burma with Wilson’s Great World Circus and in 1881 in the timber yard of the Bombay & Burma Trading company in Molmien, he saw two baby elephants which he purchased and arranged to have shipped back to London on the ship SS City of Venice. Quite why Sam developed an interest in elephants is not known. It has been suggested that he saw young native children teaching elephants to do various tricks and realised that an elephant act would make a popular circus attraction and he very much wanted to continue as a circus performer, circus was in his blood.What we do know is that Sam christened his two baby elephants Jock and Jenny and almost by accident he began a career as an elephant trainer. Over the next thirty years Sam imported and trained a number of elephants and became the foremost elephant trainer in the world. His most famous troupe were three female elephants Wilhelmina, Trilby and Haddie known collectively as the Three
Graces. His original elephants Jock and Jenny generally performed together and appeared with Sam at Olympia in 1887 for Queen Victoria. Sam led a rather peripatetic life, living in Leamington for short periods when not touring with his elephants. Apart from performing throughout Britain, Sam also took his act to France, Germany and Belgium and much further afield to North America entertaining audiences in New York, San Francisco and Detroit. For some years his act was booked as part of a Vaudeville bill in large theatres and as a speciality act in large circuses. He appeared with Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ and with Ringling Brothers ‘Worlds Greatest Show’. The logistics involved in transporting large elephants across the Atlantic and then by rail across America were, to say the least, challenging.
It is difficult to determine where Sam and his elephants were at any given date and it is only through random mentions in The Era newspaper that we can compile a rather sketchy outline of events.In 1892 he was on the bill at the Theatre Royal in Leamington with a troupe of six elephants and in the same year he appeared with these in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show before leaving for shows in Rheims. During the 1890’s Sam was on foreign soil for much of the time and returned to Leamington infrequently. His father died in 1894 when Sam was in Antwerp with a circus and in 1897 his wife Alice died at the young age of 41 at the house named La Pallas in Warwick New Road, Leamington where they then lived. The same year he was again topping the bill at the Theatre Royal in Leamington with six elephants. He also found time in 1897 to put on a show at Warwick Castle for Lady Warwick to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Daisy Warwick was a close friend of Sams and she also owned an elephant which was kept on the river island at the castle.
Some Unresolved Questions. Quite where Sam housed the dozen elephants that he owned at various times isn’t known. It may well be that the large elephants did not return to England but stayed in America in the periods when they were not performing. We do know that what Sam called his ‘baby elephants’ were at some period quartered in a former carriage house in Morton Street which still bears the name of The Elephant House. Accommodating fully-grown elephants in a busy town is an altogether different matter and doubtless posed many problems and we have no information about this aspect of Sam’s working life. It goes without saying that large animals like elephants would need exercising on a regular basis and they would have to be walked to and from the railway station when they were en route to the docks for embarkation by ship. We can but speculate as to where Sam would have quartered the six elephants that made two appearances each day at the Theatre Royal for a week in 1897.
It was inevitable that a degree of folklore sprang up about Sam and his elephants and many stories gained currency about how they were walked down the Parade and bathed in the river Leam. In the preparation of this article I went to great lengths to try to establish the historical veracity of this story but it has to be said that no confirmatory evidence of any sort was found. Not one of the respected Leamington historians mention such an event and neither Morley nor Manning who wrote at the turn of the century make any reference to it or indeed to Sam Lockhart and his elephants. The local newspaper The Leamington Spa Courier never once mentions such an eminently news worthy story. One wonders why it was that if such an unusual event did occur in a conformist town like Leamington Spa why none of the many enterprising photographic studios managed to take a photograph of it, at least one of them operated from the Collonade alongside the river. Similarly, the oft-repeated story about the noise made by elephants splashing about in the river and disturbing worship in the parish church is not supported by evidence of any sort. The All Saints parish magazines for the period are silent on the subject. The water wash next to Victoria bridge from which the elephants are said to have accessed the water was constructed in 1880 and was in existence for little over a year. A replacement waterway was built upstream next to Oldham’s mill in August 1882 when the land between the bridge and the newly-built post office was levelled and paved by the Town Council as a town improvement. These river slipways are always referred to as waterways and were gated to restrict public access. Their original purpose was to provide a public watering place for the large number of hunters and carriage horses then stabled in the town. My scepticism about the elephants being bathed in the river Leam was reinforced when I read in the local paper about the truly dreadful state of the river in the 1880’s which was described as being ‘little more than an open sewer, the stench of which gave rise to continual complaints by residents.’ One article described the river as being ‘filled with black mud, which was simply sewage matter washed into the river.’ It is inconceivable that Sam would ever think of putting his much-loved animals into such a stinking quagmire. There is some anecdotal evidence that circus elephants were indeed bathed from what is now called the Elephant Walk in Priory Terrace in the 20th century but if anyone can supply documentary evidence of Sam ever bathing his animals in the Leam I would be delighted to receive it and re-write this article.
Elephants for Sale. Sam married his second wife Harriett at St Matthews church in Brixton in 1898 and the couple moved to a large detached house next to Milverton Station in Warwick New Road. By the turn of the century he was beginning to wind down his professional involvement with elephants. A notice in Bill Board magazine in November 1900 informed the readers that ‘Sam Lockhart has sold the five elephants that had been with the show for a long time to Ringlings.’ He carried out engagements in North America in 1902 and 1903 and a performance in Detroit that year was billed as ‘the last of these elephants which have been sold to James A Barnum of the Barnum & Bailey circus.’ The following year Sam received the terrible news that his brother George who had also pursued a parallel career as an elephant trainer had been crushed to death by one of his elephants that was being unloaded from a rail wagon at Walthamstow in London.
The last record of Sam appearing with his elephants comes in 1910/11 when he was on the bill at the Theatre Royal in Leamington with four elephants Mustard, Salt, Vinegar and Little Saucy. Sam lived in Leamington up until his death in 1933, Harriett survived him and died in 1938. The couple never had a family and are buried in Milverton Cemetery. By the time of his death Sam had become a fairly wealthy man and left estate valued at £15,324. What is clear is that the sums of money commanded by such circus acts in the late nineteenth century were phenomenal. It is reported that Sam Lockhart was paid $1,000 a week for a 52 week season when four of his elephants appeared with the Ringling Circus in America. The well-groomed little man rose from comparative obscurity to become one of the most significant figures in the Victorian and Edwardian entertainment business. He was a kindly, generous man who had a great love of the animals that he had owned and nurtured for many years. His efforts brought great enjoyment to generations of circus-goers many of whom were entertained at Sam’s expense. Whether he did or did not bathe his elephants in the river is in most respects irrelevant, his achievements speak for themselves.
Sources and Acknowledgements
The Legend of Salt & Sauce. Jamie Clubb [Aardvark Publishing 2008]
Elephants in Royal Leamington Spa. Janet Storrie [Weir Books 1990]
The Illustrated London News
Leamington Spa Courier newspaper [various issues]
The Era newspaper [various issues]
Leamington Library [local studies section]
Alan Griffin, July 2014
On Wednesday 10 June 2015, a Blue Plaque sponsored by current residents, was unveiled by one of Sam Lockhart’s great-nieces at no 1 Warwick New Road. This had been Sam ‘s home for a number of years, and it had long been rumoured that one of Sam’s elephants was buried in the garden. Much to everyone’s delight, when the house and garden were sold for redevelopment, and the former car park of WDC Planning Office was dug over for the foundations of a new apartment block, elephant bones were indeed discovered there. Janet Storrie, author of the children’s story quoted above, was presented with a small fragment as a keepsake.