William Bullock and Napoleon’s carriage
1 July 2008
Professor Michael Costeloe has written a biography of William Bullock (c1773-1849), who founded an early museum called the Egyptian Hall.
Professor Michael Costeloe, from the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, worked on the history of Mexico for many years. His interest in William Bullock (c1773-1849) derives from an important book Bullock published about Mexico in 1824. In fact, Bullock’s life turned out to be so interesting, Costeloe ended up writing his biography.
The Bullock family’s main occupation was a wax-modelling business in Birmingham, but when they moved to Liverpool in 1801 young William Bullock’s interest increasingly turned towards natural history. He had acquired a small ‘cabinet of curiosities’ with 200-300 artefacts, but once in Liverpool, then a thriving port, he was able to obtain a vast range of novelties from many countries, brought back by sailors. His collection rapidly expanded and what he called his Liverpool Museum quickly became the largest of its kind in Britain, and possibly in the world. Thousands of exhibits were on display including myriad specimens of the natural world, prepared by William who was an expert taxidermist. His ambition, he said, was to have an example of every known creature on Earth.
In 1809, William decided to capitalise on his growing reputation by moving his museum to London, opening at 22 Piccadilly in October that year. The London exhibition was an instant success and within weeks the museum was being hailed in The Times as the most interesting ever seen in the capital. William continued to buy and collect new exhibits such that within a year of his arrival in the metropolis, he needed larger premises. Noting vacant land at the south end of Piccadilly, he arranged for the construction of a purpose-built museum that for almost a hundred years was to be among the most instantly recognisable buildings in Britain. Soon known as the Egyptian Hall, reflecting its architectural style, the museum became the most fashionable place of entertainment and instruction in the capital. Everybody from Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Austen to British and European royalty paid the one shilling entry charge and wandered round the galleries.
The museum was being hailed in The Times as the most intteresting ever seen in the capital
By 1814, William and his Egyptian Hall had achieved an international reputation, but it was an incident following Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the battle of Waterloo that was to really make his fortune. In 1815, the French emperor’s travelling carriage, used by him in campaigns across Europe and filled with hundreds of his personal possessions, was captured by a Prussian army unit. Having removed items of immediate value – Napoleon had diamonds hidden in the tea caddy – the Prussian commanding officer took the carriage to London in October 1815 and presented it to the British government.
A few weeks later the carriage, with its contents and four of Napoleon’s horses to pull it, were bought from the government by William for something between £2,500 and £3,000. The carriage and contents were exhibited in the Egyptian Hall in January 1816. The show caused a sensation and thousands of people poured into Piccadilly to see it. Six months later William decided to take it to the provinces and after stopping off at Windsor to show it to the royal family, he brought it to the West Country. Large crowds lined the route wherever it went and on Friday, 30 August, it entered Bristol. Driven by two of Napoleon’s own coachmen and decorated with the flags of the Allied Powers, and the British standard in the centre above the French banner, the arrival strongly impressed Bristolians and the editor of The Bristol Mercury.
By 1814, William and his Egyptian Hall had achieved an international reputation
The exhibition was staged in a specially constructed building in Wellington Street, near St Mary Redcliffe. In the same building there was a separate exhibition of paintings depicting stages in the fallen emperor’s career, busts and figures of him in marble and bronze, and several cases of weapons that William had acquired from the palaces of Malmaison and St Cloud. Entry to each exhibition cost a shilling and in the first week it was reported that 1,700 people a day bought tickets. Within a couple of weeks, 16,000 had paid and, after a tour of Bath and other towns across Britain, William estimated that some 800,000 people had bought tickets, making him a profit of many thousands of pounds.
Within a couple of years, public interest in Napoleonic memorabilia waned and William sold the carriage and it contents. Years later, in 1842, it was bought by Madame Tussaud and remained on show in her exhibition until it was destroyed by fire in 1925. But the immense success of his Napoleonic venture encouraged William to look for other popular shows. He sold the entire contents of his museum of natural history in 1819 and used the vacant space in the Egyptian Hall to show other exhibits, including the first exhibition to be seen in Britain of ancient and modern Mexico, complete with what was said to be the first Mexican Indian seen in Europe since the Spanish Conquest. William and his son were among the first Britons to travel to Mexico after its emancipation from Spain in 1821. They spent six months there in 1823 travelling and collecting exhibits, several of which are still on display in the British Museum.
William acquired a silver mine during his first visit to Mexico and in 1825 he took all his family to live there. However, for his many adventures there and later in the United States, you will have to read the full biography. In the words of a New York newspaper in 1839, William was one of the greatest virtuosos and connoisseurs of his age. He died in London in March 1849.
Professor Michael Costeloe / Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies
Professor Costeloe’s book William Bullock, connoisseur and virtuoso of the Egyptian Hall: Piccadilly to Mexico (1773-1849) is to be published in the Bristol monograph series, HiPLAM. Copies will be available from the general editor, Professor David Hook, Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University of Bristol.