The life and adventures of Toby, the Sapient Pig

Handbill advertising Toby, the Sapient Pig

Handbill advertising Toby, the Sapient Pig

Billed as ‘the greatest curiosity of the present day’, Toby the Sapient Pig trotted into the limelight around 1817. He made his London debut at the Royal Promenade Rooms, in the Spring Gardens, where he captivated audiences with his promises to ‘spell and read, cast accounts, play at cards; tell any person what o’clock it is to a minute by their own watch… tell the age of any one in company’, and, most remarkably, ‘discover a person’s thoughts’, a trick indeed ‘never heard of before to be exhibited by an animal of the swine race’. Unsurprisingly, his enterprising handler Mr. Hoare was a former magician, who had turned to training novel animal acts (he would later appear in company with a Learned Goose). 

An earlier sapient pig going through its tricks.

An earlier sapient pig going through its tricks.

There had been a previous wave of performing pigs in the late 18th century, but something about Toby appears to have particularly gripped the public imagination. Verses were written comparing him favourably to the greatest actors of the day, like Edmund Kean, and ‘Toby’ quickly became the generic name for all of his porcine competitors. His fame was such that, boasting he was ‘the first of my race that ever wielded the pen’ (an earlier literary pig had merely dictated its memoirs), Toby even wrote his own autobiography, The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself (London, c. 1817). 

Embellished with a frontispiece showing ‘the author in deep study’—or Toby settled comfortably in a pigsty with his nose in a book—the work was full of playful conceits. Describing his father as an ‘independent gentleman, who roamed at large’, and his mother as a ‘spinster… of a prolific nature’, Toby mused on the idea that his unusual talents resulted from his mother’s love of books:  

My mother, in the early stages of her pregnancy, unwittingly entered a gentleman’s flower garden; where … she came obliquely to the entrance of his library…she entered, and in a short time cast her eye over the numerous volumes it contained; such was her haste, she disordered some, while others she minutely perused, nay absolutely bereived [sic] of their leaves, chewing and swallowing them, so great was her avidity’

Toby told of being talent-spotted at a young age by his trainer (who made him a special cart to ride around in), claimed to have been named for whether he might be famous or not in a pun on Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be, or not to be’, and described an upbringing to rival that of any clever schoolboy. He also talked at length about the performance advertised in this very handbill, and confessed that he felt nervous before his London debut, convinced it would ‘make me or mar me for ever’. Happily for Toby, he was apparently a raging success: 

‘…the house was crowded at an early hour by persons of the first rank and fashion: such an assemblage of beauty I had never before witnessed. My first appearance was greeted with loud and reiterated plaudits; from every part handkerchiefs waving—fans rapping—placards exhibited; in fact, the tumults of applause were greater than ever was known before.’ 

Priced at one shilling, Toby’s magnum opus was printed and sold—and, one suspects, also authored—by Nicholas Hoare, Toby’s canny trainer and manager. The autobiography was, of course, also a powerful advertisement for Toby’s performances, as suggested by the verse with which ‘Toby’ chose to conclude his tale. Supposedly written by a gentleman much moved by the sight of Toby spelling out his letters, it was carefully calculated to entice curious punters: 

His symptoms of sense, deep astonishment raise,

And elicit applause of wonder and praise…

Of the crowds who the Sapient Toby have seen,

Not one of them all disappointed have been;

But all to their friends have been proved to repeat,

That a visit to Toby, indeed is a treat.

But then, for a shilling, who wouldn’t queue up for a look at a mind-reading pig called Toby? – Amanda Flynn


Toby the Sapient Pig. John Johnson Shelfmark: Animals on Show 2 (70). ProQuest Durable URL

The wonderful pig of knowledge. John Johnson Shelfmark: Animals on Show 2 (74). ProQuest Durable URL 

Copyright © 2009 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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4 Responses to The life and adventures of Toby, the Sapient Pig

  1. I was pleased to come across your blog on Toby the sapient pig. At a time when pigs are seen as the no more than the cause of swine flu – a recent vox pop on local television in Manchester concluded that avoiding bacon was the best way of staying healthy – it’s good to be reminded that pigs had and have other purposes. We have a nice 1780s broadside of the learned pig from London and another from the early 19th century where the pig does nothing other than simply exist. His sheer size and handsome appearance will satisfy those who are described as ‘the curious in pigs’, providing they pay a penny for the privilege. Clearly a forerunner of Britain’s Got Talent.

  2. I certainly enjoyed reading about this interesting popular entertainment of the day. It appears that though the species that captivates our pop culture sensibilities has changed in the 21st century, we still are enamored by swine dressed up to impress. The only difference seems to be that the 1800’s were marked by an interest in the mental feats of the performer where as now we hold up beauty and “reality” TV as popular entertainment.

  3. johnjohnsonproject says:

    The ‘curious in pigs’ might also enjoy a handbill we have for another celebrity pig from the 1830s which, despite being apparently gigantic in size, seems to have been most remarkable for the fact it was ‘to be seen, ALIVE’. A further attraction was that the animal was being kept at the Red Lion in Smitham Bottom, near Croydon, so both its extraordinary size and state of existence could be admired, debated and disputed over a few drinks. It certainly does seem an amusing forerunner of reality TV on the pub wide-screen.

  4. thesapientpig says:

    A subject close to my heart :). I have spent the past two and a half years working on a series of artwork about learned animals. They are currently on display at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and had their first outing at the Magic Circle in London in May of this year. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into this blog, it looks wonderful!

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