Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks in the 1700 and 1800s

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks were as popular as Madame Tussaud‘s exhibitions were in her time. Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks was owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. Salmon. She made and sold toys — Dutch, English, and French — and was said to be highly eccentric, even sleeping in a burial shroud. She had modelling skills and taught “wax portraiture” and sold glass eyes and molds to students. In addition, she used her skills to create life-sized dolls that resembled living people and used “clockworks” to make her figures move. She exhibited her wax figures at fairs, such as at Southwark and Bartholomew, and her waxworks became an instant hit and were publicized in the Tatler of 1710 and mentioned several times in the Spectator.

Mrs. Salmon's Waxworks, Public Domain

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks. Public domain.

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks were also distinguished by the sign of a salmon. Addison noted:

“It would have been ridiculous for the ingenious Mrs. Salmon to have lived at the sign of the Trout, for which reason she erected before her house the figure of fish that is her namesake.”[1]

Mrs. Salmon, who later became Mrs. Steers, ran the business until she died in 1760, at which time a man named Clark purchased the business and when he died it went to his widow. Initially established with 140 wax figures at the Golden Salmon on St. Martin’s-le-Grand, Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks next moved near St. Dunstan’s Church before it relocated to the Horn Tavern, No. 17 Fleet Street. This building had been the office of the Duchy of Cornwall during the reign of James I, but sometimes erroneously called “the palace of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey.”[2] Horn Tavern operated in the rear of the building and in the front was Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks.

While at Fleet Street Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks distributed handbills that were long-winded and epic: 

“The Royal Off Spring: Or, the Maid’s Tragedy Represented in Wax Work, with many Moving Figures and these Histories Following. King Charles the First upon the Fatal Scaffold, attended by Dr. Juxon the Bishop of London, and the Lieutenant of the tower, with the Executioner and Guards waiting upon our royal Martyr. The Royal Seraglio, or the Life and Death of Mahomet the Third, with the Death of Ireniae Princess of Persia, and the fair Sultaness Urama. The Overthrow of Queen Voaditia [Boadicea], and the Tragical Death of her two Princely Daughters. The Palace of Flora or the Roman superstition. The Rites of Moloch, or the Unhumane Cruelty, with the manner of the Canaanitish Ladies, Offering up their First-bortn Infants, in Sacrifice to that ugly Idol, in whose Belly was a burning Furnace, to destroy those Unhappy Children. Margaret Countess of Heningbergh, Lying on a Bed of State, with her Three hundred and Sixty Five Children, all born at one Birth, and Baptized by the names of Johns and Elizabeths, occasioned by the rash Wish of a poor beggar Woman. Hermonia a Roman Lady, whose Father offended the Emperor, was sentenced to be starved to Dath, but was preserved by Sucking his Daughter’s Breast. Old Mother <Shipton that famous English Prophetess, which fortold the Death of the White King; All richly dress’d and composed with so much variety of Invention, that it is wonderfully Diverting to all Lovers of Art and Ingenuity. All made by Mrs. Salmon, and to be seen near the Horn Tavern in Fleet Street. Vivat Reginae.”[3]

At the entrance to Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks were two wax figures that bid visitors entrance and stood watch. One of the wax figures, Anne Siggs, was based on the real life Anne Siggs, an old, grey-haired match-woman. Her wax figure was described thusly:

“There she stood, a truly venerable-looking old body, supported on crutches, clad in a plain but clean gingham gown, with a book-muslin apron, mittens up to her elbows, a basket with matches in one hand, bills in the other, her bonnet (wide fronts were then in vogue) thrown back so as to draw attention to her head and face. The forhead was hung with a profusion of white horsehair ringlets, the grey eyes were as bright as glass could make them, the cheeks were rosy with carmine, and the lips had a dash of indigo — the whole in strange contrast with the yellowish paleness of the wax.”[4]

Mrs. Salmon's Waxworks - Anne Siggs, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Anne Siggs. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Siggs was not the only wax figure that greeted customers. She alternated with a Beefeater described as a burly figure, “truncheon in hand, sword at waist, a ruff round his neck, a velvet cap with a black feather, a well-laced scarlet surtout, shoes with roses for buckles; very red in the face, staring like the match-woman.”[5]

In the late 1700s, it took 6d to gain entrance to Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks. Inside there were two floors with numerous rooms and filled with a variety of wax figures. There was also a pastoral scene in one room complete with sheep, shepherds, and shepherdesses, and, in the center of the room was a miniature man-of-war sailing on a sea of glass. Many of the wax figures that visitors viewed were of royalty or famous people. For instance, visitors could see King George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales (later George IV), as well as the Princess Amelia lying in state. There was also Dr. Samuel Johnson, Admiral Horatio Nelson, and two famous political adversaries, William Pitt and Charles James Fox. The actress Mrs. Sarah Siddons was dressed as Queen Catherine, actor John Philip Kemble was clad as Rolla, and the English soothsayer and prophetess of the 1600s, Mother Shipton, offered a kick to visitors as they exited.

Mrs. Salmon's Waxworks - Mrs. Shipton, Courtesy of British Museum

Mother Shipton. Courtesy of British Museum.

In 1812, Mrs. Clark fell while taking the sacrament and, after being confined to her bed for several weeks, she died. The exhibition was then sold for less than 50l to a person by the name of Templeman. Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks then moved to Water Lane. In 1827, while at Water Lane, thieves broke into the building and caused extensive damage. They stripped numerous effigies of their finery, smashed half of the wax figures, and threw the mangled pieces into a heaping pile that almost touched the ceiling.

Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks recovered, but a few years later, the business found itself unlucky again. The English public decided Mrs. Salmon’s waxworks were unsophisticated and, perhaps, even foolish. Attendance was down and nothing could save Mrs. Salmon’s: not the famous beefeater or the well-known Siggs or even the hideously ugly Mother Shipton. Thus, in 1831, Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks closed her doors for good.

References:

  • [1] The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volume 16, 1830, p. 449.
  • [2] Harvey, William, London Scenes and London People, 1863, p. .59.
  • [3] Ashton, John, Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne, Vol. 1, 1882, p. 282.
  • [4] Harvey, William, p. 60.
  • [5] Ibid.

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