As soon as I heard about Lizzie the Sheffield elephant I knew I wanted to write a story about an elephant in World War One. I decided to have my elephant helping on the Home Front and on a farm after reading in the newspaper archives about an elephant that went to live and work on a farm in 1901. The man bought the elephant at a circus auction and initially thought he would start his own circus with her. But when he found out how good she was at working on the farm he changed his mind. He never did start a circus but he did keep the elephant, who he described as gentle and docile.
I like to use local newspapers from the time to aid my research and another snippet I found was an advert by a farmer in Yorkshire wanting to buy an elephant to work on his farm, having seen the work Lizzie was doing. I thought maybe the ringmaster of my fictional circus could sell an elephant without the true owners knowledge. Two hundred pounds was being offered which would have been a phenomenal amount for a struggling circus.
This is a picture of Lizzie’s commemorative statue close to Steelhenge in Sheffield’s Centenary Riverwalk. There’s also a community bus named after her.
Lizzie was an Asian elephant who in WWI was conscripted from Sedgwick’s menagerie and went to work carting munitions, machines and scrap metal around Sheffield.
She was by all accounts a bit of a character. There’s stories of her eating other carter’s lunches, putting her trunk into somebody's window and stealing their dinner, stealing a schoolboy’s cap, and being in goal during a football match against a rival team.
She was made a special pair of leather boots to protect her feet from the metal rubbish, which littered the ground at the scrap metal yard. They were probably a lot like these elephant boots on display in Northampton museum.
When I started my research for the book I didn't know what a journey it would take me on as I discovered more and more about these amazing animals. I was horrified and appalled when I learnt about some of the cruel ways they’ve been treated and are being treated today. (Did you know that an elephant’s skin is so sensitive it can feel a fly land on it?) But also uplifted and given hope by the many stories of human kindness and elephant awesomeness. All the things the elephants do in the book are based on only a very few of the discoveries I made during my research. I loved seeing Peter the elephant bashing on the piano and this elephant playing with a ribbon. Just playing for the fun and with no one forcing them to.
I spent lots of time reading about elephant sanctuaries like the elephant one in Tennessee for retired circus and zoo elephants. Have you seen this video of two very old elephants being reunited after 22 years?
Hopefully the Born Free Foundation is going to be able to raise enough funds for a European sanctuary although of course the best thing is for elephants, who are able to do so, is to be free and live in the wild. (The oldest elephant at the Tennessee sanctuary was born in 1948!) Only a little older than Anne the circus elephant that was rescued in Britain and taken to Longleat Safari Park where she now has a purpose built new home.
Of course helping healthy elephants to remain in the wild is even better and I’m now the adopter of two elephants who I hope will continue to live long healthy lives there. Carol Buckley’s Chain free means Pain free work has helped lots of working elephants to be set free from a life in chains.
I was very lucky and got to meet some elephants at Woburn and spent the day with them. This little elephant is called Tarli and I got to hand-feed her some strawberries.
The Runaways is the story of an old circus dog called Harvey and a baby elephant called Tara who runaway from the circus and embark on a perilous journey in a desperate race against time to reunite Tara with her mum, Shanti, who’s been sent to work on a farm, before it’s too late…
There is still time to enter the PDSA writing competition if you know of a child who likes to write animal stories.