The self-styled nobleman was ‘Lord’ George Sanger, showman, circus proprietor and legend in his lifetime. He was the founder of the Hall-by-the-Sea in Margate, a combination of pleasure gardens, zoo and entertainment centre.
He was a member of a dynasty of show people, who for much of the mid-19th century, with his brother John, ran touring circuses and shows throughout Britain and the Continent. Hall-by-the-Sea came about because one of his daughters married the son of the then Mayor of Margate. In 1874 Sanger bought the land on which the Hall-by-the-Sea was to be built, and over time he became well established in Margate – to which he was a renowned benefactor.
His ‘title’ came about – he claimed – as a direct result of losing a lawsuit with Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody claimed that Sanger was trying to pass off his circus as being the same as or connected with Cody’s much more successful business. Sanger was disgusted at being defeated in court by Cody – who advertised himself as ‘The Honourable William Cody’. Sanger felt he could go one better, and decided to call himself ‘Lord George Sanger’. Such was his popularity that even Queen Victoria used the title in addressing him.
Sanger and his brother John had had an amicable business split in 1874, deciding by the toss of a coin how the animals, acts and wagons of their joint enterprise should be divided. With the opening of the Hall-by-the-Sea, Margate was treated to a most magnificent procession through the town publicising the incoming attraction. Sanger’s wife, a famous lion-tamer, was carried in a massive carriage dressed as Britannia, with trident and shield, with a real lion lying at her feet. Sanger brought up the rear of the long procession, dressed in his customary top hat and diamond tiepin, waving jovially to the cheering crowds which lined the route.
Margate’s connection with the Sanger dynasty continues after their death: St John’s Cemetery is the location of the Sanger family plot. The most magnificent of their monuments is that of John Sanger, who died in 1889. It is surmounted by an impressive statue of a ‘mourning horse’. ‘Lord’ George Sanger’s grave is more modest. He died in 1911, having retired from the business six years earlier. In circumstances which have never been fully explained, he died at the hands of an axe-wielding ex employee, who then committed suicide.
One of Sanger’s elephants at Margate also had a rather lurid end. Charlie, as a young elephant, had played with Lord George Sanger's grandson (also called George). The elephant would wrap his trunk around the child and swing him backwards and forwards. As an adult animal Charlie became the largest elephant ever seen in England and performed with the Circus for many years. However, as he grew older, he became grumpier and more dangerous. Eventually he killed one of the Circus carpenters in a fit of temper and ‘Lord’ George Sanger had to have the animal destroyed.
Sanger had other connections in Thanet. In 1883 he built the astonishingly lavish Sanger’s Amphitheatre in Ramsgate. It was used as a circus building, but also hosted opera and drama. In 1908 the famous theatre architect Frank Matcham carried out a major conversion of it to a theatre, and it remained as a No 1 touring theatre for many decades, until about 1950. It was demolished in 1960. The site is now occupied by an Argos shop. However traces still remain, of Sanger’s Hotel, which adjoined it.
Elephant Hill in Margate is sometimes said to have a connection with Sanger’s Menagerie. This wasn’t true. There was an hotel here, called The Elephant, by 1852, some time before George Sanger came to Margate. Some have also tried to suggest that Elephant Hill takes its name from the 8 HP, petrol-driven Mechanical Elephant, giving families ‘Elephant Rides’ on the promenade below The Fort in the 1950s. It is from this automotive beast that the Wetherspoons Pub took its name – but Elephant Hill had received this name, a hundred years before.
There is another Margate which has an interesting connection with elephants: Margate New Jersey, USA contains an artificial elephant six stories high – built in 1881 by James V Lafferty on land to the south of Atlantic City. He even went so far as to patent it: ‘My invention consists of a building in the form of an animal, the body of which is floored and divided into rooms... the legs contain the stairs which lead to the body ...’