A tale of two elephants

Maharajah Duleep Singh who lived at Mulgrave Castle for four years in the 1800s
The advert for the Lord John Sanger Circus in the Whitby Gazette in 1901
The front page of the Whitby Gazette from 7th June 1901

A recent email came from reader David Payne who mentioned that some friends of his ‘visited the school at Lythe and were able to view the school records and found therein mention over 100 years ago of an Indian maharajah who apparently was staying as a guest at Mulgrave Castle. The school records mention that this gentleman had brought with him his herd of elephants and it also mentioned that he regularly used to exercise them on the beach at Sandsend.’

Well of course, this had to be investigated, and I quickly found references to said maharajah, who did indeed live at Mulgrave Castle for some time. He was called Duleep Singh and was the last Maharajah of Lahore before the British annexed the Punjab in 1849. He pledged obedience to the British Empire, sealing his promise by handing over the famous koh-i-nor diamond to Queen Victoria. As a reward, he was given a pension equivalent to £40,000 a year, a huge sum.

He was exiled from India in 1854 and converted to Christianity, becoming a favourite among the British aristocracy, including the Queen herself. He leased Mulgrave Castle from the Marquess of Normanby in 1858 and lived up to his reputation for lavish parties and an extravagant lifestyle.

The story goes that the maharajah had brought his elephants with him from India, and would ride them on along the beach from Sandsend to Whitby. However, because the elephants didn’t like the sand rubbing between their toes, Duleep decided to build a road along the cliff top, making his trips to Whitby much easier.

However, there is little actual evidence to suggest that Duleep brought any elephants with him at all. I trawled through local newspapers from the time that he was at Mulgrave Castle (1858-1863), and although I found plenty of references to the maharajah, I could find no mention of him having any elephants, which you’d think would have been quite newsworthy.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I did come across an old, undated picture of two elephants, surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers, dipping their toes in the water at Whitby Beach (unfortunately I can’t include the picture here but if you Google it, it will come up). At some point, this picture and the maharajah have been linked, and thus, I believe, elephants were woven into the tale about the building of the road.

My own theory is that these elephants were in fact from a visiting circus, which again I found in the newspaper archives. Judging by people’s clothes, I would guess the picture was taken at around the turn of the 20th century. The Lord John Sanger Royal Circus visited the town, a rare occurrence, on 14th June 1901. Before the show, which was held in a field at Stepney Farm, the circus paraded around Whitby on a route that took in West Cliff, Khyber Pass and West Pier. The picture of the elephants has them standing in the water just below the Battery next to West Pier, and so it is my belief that they are two elephants from that very circus parade.

Maharajah Duleep Singh died suddenly in a Paris hotel on 21st October 1893 at the age of 55. I found an obituary for him in the Yorkshire Herald written ten days later. The unnamed writer claims to have known Duleep personally and says he was ‘the kindest and most liberal of men in every relationship of life, the best friend of the poor, the pleasantest of neighbours…’ and described how he regularly attended Sunday morning services at Lythe Church. He had spoken of his stay at Mulgrave as ‘the happiest of his life’.

The writer also talks about the famous road. Before it was built, unless you walked the three miles over the sand, the route to Whitby from Sandsend was ‘very circuitous and inconvenient’. He describes how Duleep built a new road at his own expense to make the journey quicker and easier for the locals. There is no mention that it was to provide relief for irritated elephant toes.

Yet, as mentioned at the start of this piece, the elephant story appears in Lythe School records. So are those records contemporaneous and verifiable? I’d love to read them for myself because perhaps therein lies the answer to this mystery.

(This story was so captivating that I’m afraid I haven’t referred to my dad’s 1980 column this week. Normal service will no doubt resume next week!)

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 12th June and the Gazette & Herald on 10th June 2020

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