Archaeologists hunt for burial site of 19th century circus elephant in south Gloucestershire

030723 Elephant burial National Fairground & Circus Archive/PA
The animal belonged to Bostock and Wombwell's menagerie. Credit: National Fairground & Circus Archive/PA

Archaeologists are investigating where a circus elephant is thought to have been buried in south Gloucestershire town more than 130 years ago.

Local legend suggests the elephant, possibly named Nancy, was buried in Kingswood in 1891.

The animal belonged to Bostock and Wombwell’s menagerie as a highlight in its travelling “beast show”.

Members of Wessex Archaeology are carrying out a geophysical survey in a bid to identify the burial site which is said to be in the area of Whitefield’s Tabernacle or Holy Trinity Church.

Tom Richardson, terrestrial geophysicist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “Searching for Victorian elephant burials isn’t our usual fare but a grave of that size would leave a large hole and would certainly be identifiable with the Ground Penetrating Radar equipment we will be using to survey the site."

It is thought the elephant died from yew leaf poisoning. Credit: National Fairground & Circus Archive/PA

Although no historical sources reference the death, the elephant is said to have died from yew leaf poisoning.

Alan Bryant, curator at Kingswood Museum, said: “I first heard about the Kingswood elephant burial in the 1970s when I was doing my rounds as a local milkman.

"Since then, I have had countless conversations and debates with local people about it. I remember a new mains sewer pipe was installed in the 1980s and I made a point of having a look to see if there were any anomalies in the ground.

"Alas, nothing to report but I for one am delighted at the potential of discovering the legendary Kingswood elephant burial.”

Local newspaper the Bristol Mercury reported in February 1891 that Bostock’s Star Menagerie had exhibited nearby in that year, with the show including Nancy who was described as a “fine nine year old elephant”.

Lorrain Higbee, zoo archaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, said: “This initial archaeological investigation aims to locate the elephant burial but should we do so, you may be surprised at what we could learn about the life of this animal from studying its skeletal remains.“

"In the case of a menagerie elephant, as well as understanding where the animal came from and its age, we may be able to see the impact of its life as an entertainer, this may include evidence of confinement including trauma from shackling the animal or arthritis.

"It may also be possible to detect injuries or strains resulting from its performance duties, such as repetitive movements.”

Councillor Chris Willmore, cabinet member with responsibility for planning, regeneration and infrastructure at South Gloucestershire Council, said: “Our work as part of the Kingswood regeneration project has presented us with a unique opportunity ahead of the high street pedestrianisation work.

“We’re excited to see what archaeologists may uncover and if we can finally solve this local mystery or find some new mysteries to solve.”