A Curious International Encounter

A dancing bear. Image via Wikimedia commons

Anyone believing that mid-Wales was a remote and scarcely visited area in the 19th century would be surprised by Thomas’ diary, as a remarkable number of people of great diversity seem to have passed the road leading to Palé Hall. In reading the following account, please note the difference in outlook of Thomas’ time and our own in the matter of animal cruelty.

March 1894. I took Alfred with me in the spring cart to Tyddynllan. It was very fine and sunny. We passed three three men, 3 women, several children, two brown bears and the monkey when going and returning.  They were sitting by the roadside as we went and walking along the road as we returned. [Tyddynllan was an estate near Corwen which seems at this time to have been in the hands of the Robertson family. it is now an upmarket restaurant.]

All of us went to the bridge in the evening to see the strange travellers.  They were halting at the bridge.  The men were pretty reasonable, but the women and children were impudent beggars; each of them asked us for “a few pence”.  I returned with Francie, Carrie and Millie to the encampment on the island by the bridge with some food and clothing for them, for which they were very thankful. They could speak but little English, and that very imperfectly, so I asked the leader if he could speak French, this he could speak very well and related to to his travels to me in French.  He said he was from Constantinople, that the two grown-up men were his sons and the women were the wives of his sons and self.  They had travelled most of Europe with their bears.  The bears were from the Balkans and the monkey (an ape) from Saigon.

It is impressive that Thomas had kept his grasp of French learned initially in the Bothy as an apprentice at Minto, and honed during his time studying horticulture in France in 1865-6. Perhaps he was glad of an opportunity to use it again.

The bears were having their supper of bread when we went; he said they fed them on bread, for meat would make them savage.  After one of the bears was fed they made him dance for the children to the music of a tambourine.  The elderly man was much pleased to have me speaking French with him. He said he said that they intended going to Bala, Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Brighton etc. They were evidently a hardy lot, for the women and children were barefooted and bareheaded, and one had a baby only three weeks old. They left Liverpool a fortnight ago. My French has got rather rusty, but we got on pretty well. The children were much pleased to see the bears and monkey.

Thursday the 29th. The bears and monkey here and performed at the Hall, and afterwards one of the bears danced in front of our parlour window to please Alfred who said when he saw the three performing at the Hall “Well Alfie never saw anything like that before”.  One of the sons who danced the bear here could speak French with me.  The travellers caused a great sensation in the village and here. The larger of the two bears stood quite erect when dancing and danced in a circle from right to left, that is going against the sun. He ended by placing his right fore paw on the crown of his head.  The smaller bear would not keep upright and was more clumsy at his performance.  The monkey was an ugly brute; it walked it sometimes on all fours, sometimes on three, and sometimes on 2 feet, went on 2 feet it was much like a boy walking.

And after the excitement, all returned to normal: Saturday the 31st.  It came on a shower of rain in the afternoon, but I went in the evening to the top of Palé Hill.