Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Tommy Ward's elephant
"When I was a child in Rotherham anyone heavily laden with bags was said to be 'done up like Tommy Ward's elephant', allegedly because in WW2 Thomas Ward used an elephant from the circus for transporting steel. Is it true?"
Thomas Ward was born in 1853, started work at 15, became a coal merchant and then, because the time was right for it, a scrap metal dealer in Sheffield. In the early 1870s there was a big demand for scrap metal. There were many big engineering projects and Thomas Ward developed an expertise in dismantling big structures, ships for instance. He had breakers' yards at ports round the country and became the biggest scrap dealer in the country, taking apart old warships and redundant luxury liners. These included the Majestic, sister ship to the Titanic, which was broken up at his yard at Morecambe, and the Olympic, which was finally towed to Inverkeithing.
Thomas Ward Ltd of Sheffield opened its ship dismantling department in 1894 and soon became the largest supplier of scrap metal to the growing steel industry. The keynote was efficiency - everything on board a ship was dismantled and resold. Ships' fittings and equipment were sold at the showroom in Sheffield. Books, lamps, toilets and carpets were all dismantled. It is said that even the timber was turned into garden furniture.
During the First World War, Thomas Ward's was heavily engaged in war activities. There was a shortage of horses which had been sent to the Front and in 1916 Ward leased an elephant (and a man to look after it) from a circus. Circuses had been stood down for the duration of the war. The firm had the elephant for a couple of years, stabling her near the factory and using her for hauling heavy loads of steel around Sheffield. The elephant's name was Lizzie and the records are full of anecdotes about her - eating a schoolboy's cap, putting her trunk through a kitchen window to help herself, and pushing over a traction engine.
The firm carried on until the early 1980s.
Geoffrey Howse, Sheffield: Past and Present (Sutton Publishing, 2000)
David Hey, Sheffield (Carnegie Publishing, 1998)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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