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Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Big Charlie - A Giant Contemporary


Salt and Sauce may have been Britain's most famous elephants, but "Elephant" Bill Williams ensured that a contemporary of theirs - a prospective "husband" in fact - was immortalized in words almost half a century before my book will be published. Williams was a good friend of my grandfather's, Dick Chipperfield Snr., and mentions our circus family several times in his first book "Elephant Bill". "Big Charlie" was his final book.

Big Charlie - A Giant Contemporary

It is difficult to say when Salt and Sauce’s fame peaked. After Salt’s death, the Kentish Gazette recalls a dubious “40 years” of visits to the city by the two well-known elephants. Whether the overwhelming response to Salt’s death by the inhabitants of the city can be seen as a reflection on her fame, as the journalist suggests, or just simply because many had seen her trapped in the lake, we will never really know. Sadly it is most likely the latter. By the time “Saucy” was sold to Harry Coady a new name had already been decided for her: Jumbo. She would be called “Saucy” again when she appeared at Butlin’s Holiday camp in Skegness, but, although she was featured on many of their postcards and souvenirs, such as mugs and toys, her fame existed only in the considerable shadow of another grey giant. His name was Big Charlie and if Salt and Sauce were the elephant queens of British Circus, Charlie certainly ruled as the king tusker of Butlin’s Holiday Camps.

Charlie’s fame really hit its height when Billy Butlin decided to move him from his Holiday camp in Ayr, Scotland. Originally Sauce was to be scheduled to be his “bride” when he arrived at Butlin’s larger camp in Filey, Yorkshire. However, it was decided that she was too old and was instead used in an attempt to replicate Charlie’s success at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness. In a move that was part-request-part-publicity stunt, the holiday camp innovator placed an advert in “The Times” offering £1,000 in cash for the safe delivery of Big Charlie from Ayr to Filey. Of the recorded 3,500 applicants, Billy Butlin chose elephant expert Colonel J.H. “Elephant Bill” Williams to act in an advisory capacity alongside Charlie’s former owner, Willie Wilson. Wilson had moved Charlie before, from his zoo in Craigend to Ayr. Williams was brought in mainly for his fame, but also helped a lot with the move. He had written two books, “Elephant Bill” and “Bandoola”, which detailed his experiences with domestic elephants in Burma (now Myanmar), and it was thought he would help add to the public profile of the move.

As predicted, the advertisement caused a media storm and Big Charlie became an overnight celebrity. He was described by Butlin’s publicity as “the largest elephant in captivity” and Williams was so impressed by him that he wrote his last book about the move and Charlie’s life entitled “Big Charlie”. The journey took three days and over the period, Williams absorbed a lot new knowledge about circus elephants, such as Charlie, and became very impressed by Charlie’s dedicated mahoot, Shaik Ibrahim.

Unfortunately Charlie, like Salt and Sauce, was also notoriously dangerous. He was a bull elephant, which was something the British circuses generally tended to keep away from. Williams had argued quite a few times with both Ibrahim and Willie Wilson about the dangers of not controlling a bull elephant when it came into “musth”. Musth was the sexual condition that male elephants experienced periodically around the year. The most obvious sign of an elephant coming into musth was the large secretion of moisture around his cheeks. As Charlie matured his temper at these times became worse. Shaik Ibrahim was really the only man who could properly control Charlie and it was upon his death that serious problems arose resulting in Charlie’s tragic death.

Charlie had been coming into “musth”, which made him, as a bull elephant, become unmanageable and very dangerous. Famous Director, Dick Chipperfield had foreseen Charlie’s dangerous potential, when Mrs. Cotrelli first purchased him in India. Dick shared the same ship as Charlie and on being fully aware of the damage a bull elephant could do when in must he made a point of purchasing an elephant gun when he arrived back in UK. This was all in spite of the fact that Dick had nothing to do with Charlie; the elephant did not even appear on his circus. He was sure that one day someone was going to require the services of an elephant gun and someone who knew how to use it. Years later the call came from Andy Wilson, who ran his zoo at Craigend. He now owned Charlie who he feared had now become uncontrollable and was a dangerous liability. Dick arrived ready to take on the task, but as he approached Charlie his heart sank. Dick later told me how he apologised to Andy that he could not shoot such a “beautiful animal” for no real reason.

Allegedly the RSPCA were called in years later when it was once again decided Big Charlie was unmanageable and therefore dangerous. Once again, the order was given for Big Charlie to be killed. Apparently the method decided upon was by gassing. On hearing the news of Charlie’s eventual demise, Dick Chipperfield lamented “what a tragic end to such a magnificent creature”.

Sources: WILLIAMS, J. H. "Big Charlie" London, Rupert Hart-Davies. 1959.
Also: Reports given to me by my father through his conversations with my grandfather, Dick Chipperfield Snr.
©Copyright. Jamie Clubb 2007

2 comments:

penandspindle said...

Jamie, congrats on your blog. It is super and I wish you well with Salt and Sauce. Heather, The Pen And The Spindle.

Jamie Clubb said...

Dick Chipperfield, in fact, was my grandfather. Here is a better account I have written that better places Bigh Charlie's chronology and the incident with my grandfather taken from my recently updated book "The Legend of Salt and Sauce".

"According to my grandfather’s story to my father, that day did come when Charlie was owned by Andy Wilson, who ran a zoo at Craigend Castle. The zoo lost a lot of money and had to be closed with Big Charlie literally eating the Wilson family out of house and home. The family tried many different ventures to get money for Big Charlie, resorting to putting him up for sale, only to be accompanied by his devoted Ibrihim, and even offering to give him away. None of this came to fruition and with Ibrihim growing very old they also feared no one else would be able to handle the great tusker once his lifetime human companion had passed on. In “Big Charlie” by J.H. “Elephant Bill” Williams, the great elephant expert tells in the final chapter’s last few pages how Dick Chipperfield was called in to finally put his elephant gun to the use he had prophesised. The book describes his loathing to kill anything, but understanding the predicament he went to Craigend, where he was moved by the way Ibrihim declared “You kill Charlie, Ibrihim kill Ibrihim”. He told the Wilsons that the animal was “too big” and he wouldn’t know where to shoot. Years later he confided in my father – and this comes across in Elephant Bill Williams’ account - that he couldn’t find it in his heart to kill “such a beautiful animal” and believed he could still be handled. Big Charlie’s publicity attracted the attention of Billy Butlin and the rest is history. Sadly Charlie was eventually killed after Ibrihim’s death, apparently under the instructions of the RSPCA, who had him gassed to death whilst he was still at Butlin’s Holiday camp. For more information on the Big Charlie story, read Bill Williams final book “Big Charlie”, Williams, J.H. London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1959".