The life and adventures of Toby, the Sapient Pig

May 26, 2009
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.

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.

James Norris – an insane American.

September 18, 2008
the insane American

James Norris: the insane American

“Rivetted alive in iron, & for many years confined, in that state, by chains 12 inches long to an upright massive bar in a cell in Bethlem.”


The sad tale of James Norris (mistakenly called William by the press) captured the attention of the public in 1814 when he was discovered in Bethlem Royal Hospital, mechanically restrained and in poor health, having been confined in isolation for more than ten years. Norris, a seaman from America, was originally incarcerated in ‘Bedlam’ for an unnamed lunacy and was, after a number of violent incidents, restrained in this extraordinary device designed specifically for him. No less than six members of parliament visited Norris during 1814, each maintaining that he was rational, quiet, and capable of coherent and topical conversation.

As a result of the publication of this image and the interest it generated in asylum reform, Norris was released from his restraints in 1814, yet remained confined in Bethlem. However, the conditions he had endured for more than ten years had so weakened his constitution that he died within a few weeks of his release, of either pneumonia or tuberculosis. The case of James Norris, and the public interest it created, was instrumental in the creation of the Mad House Act of 1828, which sought to license and regulate asylums for the insane, and to improve the treatment of the insane.

Three men were responsible for exposing the plight of William Norris, and eventually gaining his release: Edward Wakefield (1774-1854), member of parliament, reformer, and philanthropist, William Hone (1780-1842), political writer and publisher, and James Bevans, architect. These men were concerned by the condition and ill-treatment of patients in lunatic asylums and thus formed a committee with the aim of visiting asylums around the country and making reports on what they found. The illustration of Norris and its subsequent publication was part of an orchestrated drive by these three men to bring the issue of asylum reform to the public. The number of times the image was copied by different artists pays tribute to the vision of the committee. This particular etching by G. Cruikshank, was published in 1815 by William Hone, sketched from life by G. Arnald in 1814. – Liz Mathew


William Norris – an insane American

Human Freaks 4 (39) Proquest durable URL


Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.

Miniature theatre

August 15, 2008

Explosion at the mill

Explosion at the mill from The miller and his men

This magnificent explosion helps explain why The Miller and his Men was one of the most popular of the toy theatre plays. With twenty illustrated sheets, some paints, and a pair of scissors, a child could amass all the ingredients of a successful night at the theatre: an evil miller who doubles as the leader of a nefarious gang of thieves, a pair of lovers kept apart by said miller, and the gallant Count Friberg, who orchestrates the reunion of the lovers and the dramatic destruction of the mill. A picturesque windmill, late night smuggling scenes, and plenty of sword fighting keep the action building to the final crescendo that is the explosion.


This toy theatre set was published by Benjamin Pollack sometime around the end of the 19th century, but its beginnings may be traced to Covent Garden Theatre, October 21st, 1813 when Isaac Pocock and Henry R. Bishop’s stage version of The Miller was first performed to great acclaim.  Capitalising on the popularity of plays like this, theatrical print sellers first sold images of the actors and actresses in costume, but were soon selling smaller vignettes of entire scenes and then entire plays.  Accompanied by a condensed script, these miniature plays indoctrinated generations of British children into the wonders of the theatre during the 19th century. Miniature theatre enthusiasts included Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Claude Lovat Fraser.


Characters from The miller and his men
Characters from Pollock’s The miller and his men

Early toy theatre prints were made from engraved copper plates, the engravings often from sketches made at the theatre on the night. Sets, costumes, and even the actors’ likenesses were copied, and could often be recognised. Inexpensive lithography made the reproduction of these images even easier, and thousands of cheap litho sheets were sold “penny plain, tuppence coloured” during the Victorian era, along with paints, tinsel, card board, and an array of sundries to make as realistic a replication of the original drama as possible.   J. K. Green,  Arthur and Alexander Park, William G. Webb, Matthew Skelt and Benjamin Pollock’s father-in-law J. Reddington were only the most prolific of a host of publishers who made a living out of selling “plays and characters”.  The popularity of miniature theatres was waning by the end of the nineteenth century, although Benjamin Pollock and his daughters kept the art alive until his death 1937.  Today, when toy theatre has almost been forgotten, these vibrant theatrical documents provide us with insights into the world of early 19th-century theatre, and a glimpse into Victorian childhood. – Kathy Whalen Moss

 Images: Scene 11. Pollock’s scenes in the Miller and his men.  No. 9. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (61a) (ProQuest durable URL)

Pollock’s characters in the Miller and his men. Pl. 4. John Johnson Shelfmark: Miniature Theatre 2 (54a) (ProQuest durable URL)

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.