I’m not sure I can think of two more opposite environments than a jungle-coated Indian valley and a sterile, dimly-lit museum case in Yorkshire. And there’s the tiger itself: full of movement and vigour and untamed life in the wild… and stillness, rigidity and teeth in Leeds.
There’s lots of symbolism and analogy to be unpicked in the Leeds Tiger’s history. However, I wanted to concentrate on the tale of this cat’s journey from 1860s India to a permanent place at Leeds City Museum, in the UK, at its opening in 2008.
This tiger lived in northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Uttarakhand. He was killed in the valley of Deyrah Dhoon near the hill station of Mussoorie in 1860 by a British man called Charles Reid.
What put these two together? How did someone born in London in England end up feeling it was completely reasonable to shoot a Bengal Tiger and send its skin back to Britain? It’s a big question and the answer is long and nuanced. However, that tiger is still prominently displayed at Leeds City Museum. We as an organisation must respect that it comes straight to us, as straight as any arrow, out of Britain’s time as a colonial power. Is it enough just to acknowledge this or do we need to spend more time understanding how to use and interpret this object? (I’m a natural scientist, I have a biology bachelor’s degree. I think it’s really interesting that so many of us are now becoming historians – my worst GCSE grade!).
Charles Reid was a British Army officer. He would eventually rise to become a General but in 1860 he was a Colonel, and out hunting tigers for sport. He wrote later to a friend about it:
‘I had a tiger in the Exhibition of 1862, and which is now in the museum at Leeds, which was the largest tiger I ever killed or ever saw. As he lay on the ground he measured 12 feet 2 inches – his height I did not measure – from the tip of one ear to the tip of the other 19.5 inches. I never took skull measurements, nor did I ever weigh the tiger…. The three tigers mentioned are the largest I ever killed – all Dhoon tigers’.
The ‘Exhibition’ is the International Exhibition (or Great London Exposition) at South Kensington, London which ran from 1 May – 1 November 1862. Here the plunder or splendour, depending on how you look at it, of the Empire was laid out for the admiring general public to see.
Although tigers were often vilified as man-eating monsters, unable to resist swallowing villagers and slaughtering livestock, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this particular animal having that reputation at the time. During the British Raj in India, hunting tigers was seen as good entertainment but it was also justified by framing tigers as a dangerous pest species that needed controlling.
After the exhibition, the skin was made into a mount by the London taxidermist Edwin Henry Ward (father of Rowland Ward): ‘The [tiger] at Leeds 12 feet 2 inches, as before mentioned, is not now more than 11 feet 6 inches. Mr. Ward was not satisfied with the Indian curing, and had it done over again, and it shrunk nearly a foot.’ The tiger is often talked about as being enormous, and this is put down to its time as a skin at the 1862 exhibition in London. Notable objects which have been in a museum collection for a while seem to accumulate these stories like snowfall obscuring what’s really underneath. It wasn’t stretched as a skin, it was a pretty large tiger in the first place.
The mount was finally purchased by Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and put on display in Philosophical Hall on Park Row. The site is now occupied by a branch of HSBC.
…and the rest is history. The tiger has been one of Leeds’s most popular objects for over 150 years. Stories flurry around it and myths about its horrific exploits are passed down from generation to generation. One particular curator, Henry Crowther in 1906, couldn’t help himself and stated that it ‘destroyed forty bullocks in six weeks and was considered so formidable that no native dare venture into the jungle where this noble beast reigned supreme’. I have no idea where he got this from.
Does it make us feel better perhaps, to talk about this great white man who came along with his superior firepower and saved ‘the natives’, or is it just a good story to tell the kids whilst you’re standing in front of it? I can’t find any evidence that it was anything other than a large tiger minding its own business in a quiet Himalayan valley on the day Charles Reid turned up and shot it.
By Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science.