‘Done up like Tommy Ward’s elephant,’ is a common expression in Sheffield. Used to describe someone laden like a beast of burden, the idiom dates back nearly a hundred years, to the days of the local scrap metal merchant and ship breaker Thomas Ward, and Lizzie, his rather unusual employee. As the head of Thomas W. Ward Ltd, one of his company’s most prestigious tasks had been the demolition of the SS Majestic. Built by the White Star Line in 1890 and captained by Edward Smith, who went down with his new ship, the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, she was turned into scrap at Ward’s Morecambe yard in 1914. A family business, Ward’s brother Joseph was also involved, and was appointed Chairman of the Scrap Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Munitions during the war.
In 1916, having given up his horses for the war effort, Ward hired Lizzie from William Sedgwick, who was struggling to look after the animals of his popular travelling menagerie, after a number of his employees had been conscripted. Indian elephant Lizzie was one of the show’s main attractions, but on a practical level, Ward’s need for her was greater – her immense strength enabled her to undertake the workload of three horses.
For those who had never seen a real elephant before, the sight of Lizzie lugging scrap metal and munitions across the city was an unusual spectacle. However, she soon became a well-known figure, with stories appearing about her exploits in the press, including the occasion when she was accused of breaking a window to steal a pie that had been left to cool, or the time when she was alleged to have pinched and then eaten a cap from the head of a cheeky schoolboy. In February 1916, an article about Lizzie featured in The World’s Fair newspaper claiming that some of the city’s remaining horses, who had crossed her path, ‘were startled by this unexpected ‘dilution’ of their labour, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed.’
By modern day standards, for both humans and other animals, working at the yards of Thomas W. Ward Ltd was most likely far from pleasant, but by all accounts Lizzie was treated with kindness by her employer and colleagues, who became quite fond of her and often gave her treats as a reward for her labours. Ward even had a pair of leather boots made for Lizzie to protect her feet from Sheffield’s cobbled streets.
To work alongside Lizzie, Ward also leased several camels from Sedgwick, Elephants and other creatures were used in places of horses elsewhere. For instance, in Horley, Surrey, where elephant’s from Lord Sanger’s Circus ploughed fields transported agricultural goods. The use of exotic animals occurred in Germany too, where it was reported that, in 1915, one circus was ordered to hand all of its elephants over to the military.
Above: British Pathé footage of elephant farm workers in Surrey (1917)
After the war ended, Lizzie stayed with Ward for a brief period, but little is known as to what eventually became of her. Some reports suggest that she then went to work for John Hopwood, a farmer in Sandygate, on the outskirts of Sheffield, who had apparently offered ‘a good opportunity for a willing beast to learn farming.’ Alternatively, it was believed that she may have joined a circus. Thomas Ward died on 3rd February 1926, at the age of 73 and in 1982, Thomas W. Ward Ltd was taken over by the British-Australian Rio Tinto Group.
The Protection of Animals Act (1911) which stipulated that anyone found failing to provide adequate care for domestic or captive animals could be prosecuted, in tandem with the increasing prominence of the The Blue Cross as it raised funds for the veterinary treatment of war horses, caused the British public to become more concerned about animal welfare. By 1932, the majority of the country’s travelling menageries had closed down for good as people began to express disdain for the poor conditions under which the animals were frequently kept.
In 2004, the Animals in War Memorial was unveiled in Hyde Park. Emphasising that ‘They had no choice,’ and designed by the sculptor David Backhouse as a tribute to all animals the British military used in conflict, the invaluable contribution on the domestic front made by those like Lizzie must equally be remembered. Of all the animals depicted, an elephant proudly leads them, and to the rear of the memorial, is the inscription, ‘Many and various animals were employed to support British and Allied Forces in wars and campaigns over the centuries, and as a result millions died. From the pigeon to the elephant, they all played a vital role in every region of the world in the cause of human freedom. Their contribution must never be forgotten.’
The Home Front: Sheffield in the First World War – Scott Lomax (2014)
Beneath the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain – Steve Ward (2014)
Great War Britain Sheffield: Remembering 1914-18 – Tim Lynch (2015)