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Hunt to solve mystery of where circus elephant is buried

PUBLISHED: 15:58 31 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:06 31 July 2019

E.H. Bostock and a young girl with an elephant from Bostock & Wombwell's Circus and Menagerie in 1920. Picture: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

E.H. Bostock and a young girl with an elephant from Bostock & Wombwell's Circus and Menagerie in 1920. Picture: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

A research project employing 21st century technology is trying to find the truth behind the legend that a circus elephant is buried in Diss.

UEA student Elena Damian who has carried out a geophysical survey of Fair Green in Diss searching for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region MediaUEA student Elena Damian who has carried out a geophysical survey of Fair Green in Diss searching for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region Media

Generations have grown up with the story that an elephant lies somewhere beneath Fair Green and was buried whilst the circus was in town.

Now the truth behind the mystery could be unearthed as part of a project that is using hi-tech methods including ground penetrating radar to try to pinpoint its last resting place.

University of East Anglia (UEA) environmental sciences student Elena Damian has been carrying out a geophysical survey of the historic green space in a search for the elephant remains.

UEA student Elena Damian and local historian Derek Potter working on a survey of Fair Green in Diss looking for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region MediaUEA student Elena Damian and local historian Derek Potter working on a survey of Fair Green in Diss looking for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region Media

"This is not something you hear every day so when I heard about a buried elephant I was immediately interested," she said. "As part of our geophysics studies we do have practicals and the idea of experimenting with the equipment and trying to find an elephant was something I was very excited about."

Origins of the local legend perhaps date back to 1867 and a newspaper report of how a Burmese female elephant called Madame Abdella collapsed on nearby Denmark Street during a visit to the town by the Wombells Menagerie.

She was taken to Fair Green but despite "cordials and restoratives" being administered she died a few days later. "As might be expected such unprecedented affair as a dead elephant caused considerable excitement in the town," the report added.

Colin Lond, from Wortham, who has a childhood memory of a circus elephant being buried on Fair Green in Diss in the 1940s. Picture: Simon ParkinColin Lond, from Wortham, who has a childhood memory of a circus elephant being buried on Fair Green in Diss in the 1940s. Picture: Simon Parkin

However local people have more recent memories of a second circus elephant that died and was buried at Fair Green sometime in 1946 or 1947.

Colin Lond, 81, from Wortham, who grew up in Stanley Road near the green, said: "It is quite vivid in my memory. It was in the school holidays and the circus was on the green. We wondered what the commotion was because there was this deep hole and a crane and they were hoisting this poor old elephant, minus its tusks, into the hole.

"They had a lorry and they covered with this white stuff which I now realise must have been quick lime."

A young girl with an elephant from Bostock & Wombwell's Menagerie in 1920 and a poster from 1889. Pictures: Tyne & Wear Archives & MuseumsA young girl with an elephant from Bostock & Wombwell's Menagerie in 1920 and a poster from 1889. Pictures: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Travelling menagerie featuring exotic animals and circus performers were regular visitors to towns in the 19th and early 20th century.

The most famous was founded by Victorian showman George Wombwell and Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie was still travelling until 1931.

Fair Green, which was also the scene of cock fighting and bear baiting in past centuries, still sees visiting circus pitch the big top on the open space today.

UEA student Elena Damian working on a survey of Fair Green in Diss looking for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region MediaUEA student Elena Damian working on a survey of Fair Green in Diss looking for where an elephant is buried. Picture: Tim Edwards/Eastern Region Media

Miss Damian, who is working on the project for her undergraduate final year project under the supervision of UEA geophysics lecturer Dr Jessica Johnson, is now collating the results of non-invasive radar, which uses radio waves to penetrate seven metres below ground, to see if she has located the elephant - or elephants.

She said: "It was not specified in the newspaper articles whether the elephant from 1867 was actually buried on Fair Green; however local people like Mr Lond do have memories of this other elephant buried in the 1940s.

"I am still gathering the data and processing the numbers, then I have to compare them, but I do have a feeling of where it might be."

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