The Bessingham bear

Stories about Denham Spurrell's bear have been told and retold hundreds of times in Bessingham, but it is only now, thanks to the discovery of a contemporary newspaper article, that a fuller account of its life can be given. 

Victorian newspapers are filled with fascinating but trivial local gossip, so it comes as no surprise that on 6 January 1898 the Eastern Evening News published what can only be described as a 700-word obituary entitled 'The Bessingham Bear'. 

According to the article the bear arrived at Bessingham Manor House around Christmas 1890, an unusual gift for Denham Spurrell from his brother Robert, a cavalry officer who was then serving in India.  The article also reveals the bear's name: Toby.

Toby was a Himalayan brown bear cub, barely nine months old when he was crated up and shipped to England.  Robert's own obituary in The Times many years later described him as a 'keen big-game hunter [who] had shot in India and Africa'.  Perhaps Toby was an orphaned cub whose parents Robert had despatched during a hunting expedition.

After arriving in North Norfolk, Toby unsurprisingly 'soon became an object of interest in the district, and indeed in more than one instance was also the cause of no little dread'.

The article mentions several of Toby's adventures.  One day Denham was taking him for a walk in the grounds of the Manor House when they spotted the local policeman.  Denham reassured the constable that the bear would not hurt him, but as soon as his eyes met Toby's, 'terror soon seized the worthy man'. 

The policeman thought it best to leave at once but Toby, not wanting to be given the cold shoulder, chased him and caught up with him at the gate.  Struggling to close the gate while Toby was pulling at it from the other side, the policeman decided to run off down the street instead, but the bear was in hot pursuit, 'to the intense delight of some villagers, who did not bar the course'.  The 'exhausted and perspiring policeman' was finally rescued when Denham caught up and tied Toby to his chain.

This was not the only time Toby escaped.  One Sunday morning Denham was sitting in church when a lady came up to him and whispered 'The bear; the bear is out'.  Not only had Toby broken loose but he had also found a barrel of beer and had started sampling it. 

Denham dealt with the matter and, returning to his pew, assured the congregation that the four-legged fugitive had been secured.  Needless to say, 'the little adventure had caused quite a commotion in church'.

Toby was often brought out of his kennel and chained up near the Manor House with an 80 foot chain.  One of his favourite pastimes was to chase after the housemaids whose job it was to feed him.  One day Denham wanted Toby to go back to his kennel and asked the servants to run in that direction so that he would follow them.  At first they refused but they were eventually pursuaded to go.   The cook, however, tripped and fell a couple of times, giving Toby the chance to catch up with her and jump on top of her.  Once again Denham had to come to the rescue, though fortunately the cook sustained no injuries.

One guest at the Manor House was eager to see Toby but when he was taken outside by Denham and saw the bear in the distance, he stopped in his tracks and said he would go no further. 

But Toby wanted to meet the visitor and ran towards him.  The visitor, panicking, decided to seek refuge in the conservatory but the gardener slammed the door in his face, not wanting the bear to follow him in there.  The man then made for the gun room in the courtyard on the other side of the house.  By now Toby's chain had been secured but he still managed to poke his head into the gun room to catch a glimpse of the cowering visitor.

On yet another occasion Toby broke loose from his chain and jumped through an open window into the dining room of the Manor House.  He sat down at the writing desk and started picking the lock.  Denham's sister Kitty, coming in shortly afterwards from the conservatory, dropped the flowers she was holding when she realised she was not alone.

She ran out of the room.  Toby was distracted by the sight of himself in the mirror and it was left to Denham's mother to keep him busy with some food until Denham arrived to take him back to his kennel.

Denham was taking Toby for a walk one day when he darted through a hole in the fence and ran across the fields towards the village.  Seeing the door of one cottage open, Toby sauntered in, but once again Denham was quick on the heels of the inquisitive beast and came to recapture him.  The lady at the cottage said she had 'always had a great wish to see the bear, but didn't expect it would be in that way'.

So far Toby's adventures, even though they were 'the cause of no little dread', have all been innocent.  Nobody had come to any harm.  But as he got older people realised they needed to be wary of his size and strength.

Except, that is, for one of the housemaids at the Manor House who 'would ... persist in being incautious'.  One day she got a little too close to Toby when giving him some water.  The bear knocked her over and pinned her to the ground.  The more she screamed, the louder were Toby's roars.  He got hold of a piece of her clothing and 'was chewing it up with savage contentment' when Denham appeared, struck Toby on his head with a pole and rescued the housemaid, who was shaken up but not hurt.

It was this incident that brought Toby's adventures to a sudden conclusion.  For the remainder of his life he was to be confined to his kennel.

They say you shouldn't believe everything you read in the papers, and even though this article was written shortly after Toby died, the stories may well have been embellished for effect.  But it can't all be wrong, and so this obituary - for now, at least - is the nearest thing we have to an actual account of Toby's life.

It also helps us to date the photo at the top of this page.  If you look closely, the chain mentioned in the article can be seen around the bear's body.  Toby looks bigger than he was in the drawing by the Rev. R. J. Simpson, who in 1893 sketched the bear sitting outside the Manor House and described him as 'tame'. 

The photo, therefore, probably dates from about 1895, before Toby was confined to his kennel.

The article also confirms that Toby's kennel was in the now derelict outbuildings near the old Manor House, where John Tuck, gardener and coachman on the Bessingham estate, was living at the time. 

Entertaining though Toby's adventures are, we cannot help but be struck by the cruelty involved in transporting a small bear cub half way across the world and keeping it on a chain for seven years.  But Toby was not alone in suffering this fate.  Exotic pets were not unusual in late Victorian Britain.  In 1895 London alone had 118 wild animal dealers selling everything from bears and kangaroos to elephants and tigers.  London was at the centre of the global trade in live and dead animals that continued at an astonishing rate well into the twentieth century.  Between 1900 and 1950 one Indian taxidermist stuffed 43,000 tigers and leopards for the European market.

But Toby appears to have had some fun at least while in Bessingham and he probably remains the village's most famous resident.  Hopefully even more information about his life will come to light in due course.


Published by Jonathan Spurrell on 3 August 2017, the bear's obituary having recently been added to the British Newspapers Archive website as part of the British Library's ongoing project to digitise and upload local newspapers.

© Bessingham History Project 2017