Bears once lived in Sheffield Botanical Gardens - but they didn't kill a child

A Sheffield historian has been looking into the story of the Botanical Gardens bears – including a mythical gruesome incident.

Thursday, 16th July 2020, 2:26 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th July 2020, 2:33 pm

Alison Hunter is the historian for the Friends of the Botanical Gardens, Sheffield and has been researching the history of the gardens since 2006, including the story of the bears once kept in the bear pit – and the tale that they killed a child.

She said the Sheffield Independent reported the first black bear was present at the opening of the Gardens in July 1836, along with “a deer, a fox, a tribe of monkeys, a number of parrots and two fine eagles”.

After a visit on May 27, 1839, famous landscape gardener J C Loudon said “the filth, stench, roaring and howling, and other annoyances… are inconsistent with the repose which is essential to a botanic garden”.

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David Mayne's sculpture in the bear pit, which has inspired a Bears of Sheffield sculpture trail in the city next year in aid of Sheffield Children;'s Hospital Charity

In June 1848 the Independent reported that the bear pit, “which had long been used only as a store for lumber had been laid out and planted” by John Law, who was curator from 1846 to 1858, changing “an unsightly place into a pleasant and cool summer retreat”.

John Law had been employed by Sir Henry Hunloke of Wingerworth Hall before he became curator.

Alison said: “Sir Henry was rather an eccentric gentleman who owned an extensive menagerie and in 1855 he donated two brown bears to the Gardens and so there were new occupants in the bear pit. Sir Henry died in 1856.”

At the 1855 annual meeting comments were made about the Gardens being “sunk as low as possible by being bear and balloon gardens”. At the 1856 AGM the bears were described as a “useless expense”.

An old picture of the bear pit, which is a listed structure

John Law was forced to resign on August 16, 1858 after upsetting the management committee.

The next curator was John Ewing, former head gardener at Osberton Hall, Worksop, who took up his duties on December 1, 1858 and quickly set about making improvements.

Alison said: “I was puzzled by the fact that I could never find anything else about the bears after 1857.

Artist Simon Kent with his installation in the bear pit, part of the 2014 Art in the Gardens event

“Recently a chance find by my colleague Jill Sinclair, former chair of the Friends of the Gardens, shed light on the situation.

“She discovered a small advertisement offering the two bears for sale (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, February 19, 1859) – very soon after John Ewing took charge.

“So where does the story of the child being killed come from? It was Hannah Ewing, granddaughter of John Ewing, who started the myth (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, March 24, 1932).

“She stated that “the reason that the bears were removed was that one day a nursemaid was holding up a baby to look at them and one of the bears snatched it and it was killed”. This is obviously untrue but may well be a misremembered childhood story.”

This view of the pit shows where a child is claimed to fallen to its death

Alison added: “J Edward Vickers claimed the event happened in 1870 in his A Popular History of Sheffield (1978). However, Robert Eadon Leader’s Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, published in 1875, does not mention it – although several other bear stories appear. Other people have picked the legend up and thus it has continued.”

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