Jumbo the Elephant and His Life in England

As an adult, Jumbo the elephant was so immense that he was within five or six inches of the height of a railroad tunnel, which made his handlers wonder how they would transport him if he got any larger. But this immense elephant did not start out as a giant. He was, in fact, nothing more than a small, puny African elephant born in the French Sudan in the early 1860s. When the puny elephant arrived in France he was consigned to Paris’s Jardin des Plantes and languished there for several years attracting no particular attention, which was partially why Jardin des Plantes’s traded him to London’s Zoological Garden in 1865.

Music Cover

Music cover illustration. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In England, the elephant’s new keeper was Matthew Scott. He stated that when Jumbo arrived, he was the size of a Shetland pony, and he also noted:

“I never saw a creature so woe-begone. The poor thing was full of disease, which had worked it way through the animal’s hide, and had almost eaten out its eyes. The hoofs of the feet and the tail were literally rotten, and the whole hide was so covered with sores that the only thing I can compare it to was the condition of the man of leprosy.”[1]

Part of these sores could be attributed to rats that “by the hundreds … [gnawed] his hoofs, and … [snapped] viciously at his legs and tail.”[2] It was under these circumstances that Scott served as doctor, nurse, and servant to Jumbo and “watched and nursed him night and day with all the care and affection of a mother (if it were possible for man to do such a thing),”[3] until Jumbo was restored to perfect health.

Jumbo reaching for candy.

Jumbo reaching for candy, Author’s collection.

Jumbo was about four years old when another elephant arrived. She was named Alice. When Jumbo first saw her, he was wild with delight. Scott noted that

“[Jumbo] expressed … the liveliest manner … [possessing] more real affection and love at first sight than most of the young men of the present generation do in a like situation … [and, later, as the years passed he] always showed the greatest regard for [her], a good deal more so in fact than some young men show for their sweethearts.”[4]

The pair lived together happily for about seventeen years during which time never was there “more respect, deference, and affection shown by a male to a female than Jumbo paid … to Alice, even during his [own] sickness.”[5]

Soon after Alice’s arrival a photo was taken with Scott and Jumbo, and, at the time, Scott “stood head and shoulders above him in height.”[6] Jumbo might never have become famous if he had not undergone a growth spurt. Almost overnight Jumbo grew, and grew, and grew, until he was “twelve feet high, fourteen feet long, eighteen feet around the middle … and reached the very respectable aldermanic-elephantine weight of seven tons.”[7]

Jumbo and his keeper, Matthew Scott, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jumbo and his keeper, Matthew Scott. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During his years in London, Scott noted that Jumbo was “a remarkably clean animal … particular about his bed, and, indeed, in all his habits … [the] model of cleanliness.”[8] One of the things that Jumbo loved most was the water, and Scott called him a great swimmer. For many years Jumbo and Alice were taken to the river to bathe, but eventually it became inconvenient to take them there, and, so, the Zoological Garden constructed a special elephant swimming hole, an oblong bath. It was in this oblong bath that Alice and Jumbo swam, frolicked, and played. Scott claimed because of the height he sprayed water, Jumbo would have been “a good five- or six-story window-washer.”[9] When he did spray water, Alice would squeal with delight and then attempt to reciprocate, but she was never as good at washing Jumbo’s back because the height of her spray was never as high as his. In their special pool, at swimming depth Alice and Jumbo would roll “about like two ships in a storm at sea; and at other times [they] would swim most majestically along, Jumbo always leading the way.”[10]

Jumbo at work giving children rides

Jumbo at work giving children rides. Author’s collection.

At the Zoological Garden, Jumbo had a busy life and was an extremely popular animal. He entertained children and carried them around on his back almost daily, which was why he soon acquired the nickname “Gentle Jumbo.” Scott told a story about a toddler that had “escaped its mother’s apron-strings and had run and fallen in front of Jumbo.”[11] The mother was certain her child would be killed, but the elephant, an affectionate animal and careful walker supposedly “coolly [and gently put] his trunk around the body of … [the] infant … and laid it on the green grass besides its screaming mother, more tenderly than the mother afterward took up the frightened child in her excitement.”[12]

It was such stories that made Jumbo famous. In fact, he was so famous travelers from America even came to see him. As Jumbo’s reputation grew, P.T. Barnum, owner extraordinaire of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” learned of him and wanted to buy him just like he had wanted to buy Madame Tussaud‘s waxwork exhibition. At the time, the Zoological Garden was concerned that Jumbo might be seized by a “species of insanity” that attacked captive elephants, and, so, he was sold and became the chief attraction in Barnum’s touring show in America.

crossing the ocean with the elephant

Crossing the ocean with the elephant. Public domain.

Elaborate preparation were undertaken for Jumbo’s shipment to America. A special oak box was created and furnished with all of his favorite foods. Apparently, the elephant did not appreciate all the extra efforts and “vigorously refused” to enter the box. This occurred numerous times until eventually one day he went inside, and then he and the box were drawn to the river by sixteen horses. The commotion and noise from the throngs of people wanting to say good-bye, along with the noise of the machinery and the rolling steamship alarmed Jumbo, and Scott had to calm him.

It was a long and arduous trip, and when at last they reached America and Jumbo stepped onto American soil, Scott noted, he was “so joyful at his freedom that he twined his trunk around me in an ecstasy of delight.”[13] Barnum’s price for Jumbo was “$10,000; his final cost was $30,000 [but] he paid for himself the first ten days after his arrival.”[14]

“Jumbo Fever” caused the elephant to travel some ten-thousand miles and more than 50 million Americans went to see him. That may be why the word Jumbo first appeared in the dictionary in the 1800s and why Jumbo came to be associated with something large and immense.

If you are interested in learning about Jumbo in America, click here.


  • [1] Scott, Matthew, Autobiography of Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s Keeper, 1885, p. 44.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 80.
  • [3] Ibid. p. 45.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 49-50.
  • [5] Ibid. p. 50.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 48.
  • [7] Barnum, Phineas Taylor, The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World, 1889, p. 397.
  • [8] Scott, Matthew, p. 55.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 53.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 58.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid. p. 74.
  • [14] Barnum, Phineas Taylor, p. 399.

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