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Circus elephant’s tooth

1941
This tooth, taken from the corpse of the Asiatic elephant Princess Alice after she died at Wirths' Circus headquarters in Melbourne, is a reminder of the attachment felt by members of the Wirth family to their long-serving circus animals.

The inscription on the plaque attached to the tooth states that Princess Alice died in 1941. A great deal of mythology surrounds her origins. The Wirths liked to publicise her as the oldest elephant in captivity. She was reported to have been born in 1787 but this is disputed. A newspaper clipping from the time of her death states that she was aged 152, having been was born in northern India in 1789. Princess Alice had been in Regents Park Zoo where, according to Wirth legend, Queen Victoria let her son the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, ride her. Princess Alice came to Australia from England with Bostock & Wombwell's Circus and Menagerie, which opened in Sydney in July 1906. When Bostock & Wombwell's disbanded in Melbourne and sold its assets, William Anderson bought the elephant at auction and shipped her to Sydney to provide rides for children at his new amusement park, Wonderland City in Tamarama (near Bondi), where she arrived on 20 November 1906 . By November 1908 Princess Alice was with once again a circus elephant, having been bought by Wirths'.

It appears that until this time she was known as Alice (which was certainly the name of the elephant at Wonderland), and that some time well after the Wirth brothers acquired her from Anderson, they changed her name to Princess Alice, to avoid confusion with another elephant they obtained that was also named Alice. A 1930 publication by Wirths' Circus titled 'Past Review and Programme' (in the archive that forms part of this collection) has a photograph of the two elephants with their trunks entwined, captioned 'Princess Alice, 146 years old. Alice, the Utility Elephant'. The photo shows that Alice, who became renowned as a working elephant, was larger than Princess Alice.

The Wirth name has a special place in Australian circus folklore. Billed as Australia's own 'greatest show on earth', the Wirth Brothers' Circus was indeed one of the world's great circuses. The Wirths' Circus collection documents the family's involvement in the business from the 1870s until 1963.

The sons of a German immigrant, the Wirth brothers began their show careers as members of their father's travelling band. They established a variety troupe, developed their performing skills and began touring as a small circus. Despite the hardships associated with travelling in wagons throughout the rural districts of the Australian colonies, their circus grew rapidly. Philip and George Wirth had the vision to do conduct their enterprise on a large scale. They recruited star attractions from Europe and North America. Members of the extended Wirth family featured as artists. Their circus included a menagerie of exotic animals. In 1893 the Wirth brothers took the circus on a seven year international odyssey to South Africa, South America, England, Ceylon, India, Burma, Singapore and Java.

Wirths' became Australia's pre-eminent circus, travelling around the country by rail and visiting New Zealand regularly. Posters proclaiming that the circus was 'Coming by special trains' created anticipation and excitement for country people. Watching elephants skilfully push and pull wagons from the railway siding to the circus site was a spectacle in itself. Wirths' Circus toured from 1880 until its demise in 1963.

Peter Cox
Curator
July, 2012

Summary

Object No.

2012/104/58

Object Statement

Elephant's tooth with label, made by Princess Alice, used by the Wirths' Circus family, Australia, 1941

Physical Description

Tooth of the elephant 'Princess Alice'. Small metal plaque attached with the text 'To Miss Doris from Charlie. In memory of Princess Alice Who died Melbourne Nov 24th 1941. Aged 159 Years'.

Dimensions

Height

180 mm

Width

120 mm

Depth

135 mm

Production

Notes

Extraction of tooth, engraving and attaching of plaque organised by Charlie West, a New Zealander who was the long-serving transport manager of Wirths' Circus.

History

Notes

Presented to 'Miss Doris' Wirth, manager of Wirths' Circus, by Charlie West after the death of the elephant Princess Alice in 1941. Held by the Wirths' Circus family at their Coogee mansion. Kept by Marizles ('Rill') Wirth, the youngest child of Philip Wirth, until her death in 2007. Donated to the Powerhouse Museum by her nieces Margaret and Georgina Wirth.

Source

Credit Line

Gift of the Wirth family, 2012

Acquisition Date

3 September 2012

Cite this Object

Harvard

Circus elephant's tooth 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 12 August 2020, <https://ma.as/444450>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/444450 |title=Circus elephant's tooth |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=12 August 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

Incomplete

This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.

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