A meeting between a demure English queen and a former buffalo hunter turned celebrity showman might seem an unlikely liaison. However, when Queen Victoria met Buffalo Bill Cody, they hit it off so well that she was forever known as “Grandmother England” to the American troupe!
Back in spring 1887, Buffalo Bill decided to bring his entire troupe from America to England to entertain the crowds in London as part of their European tour. Born in Scott County, Iowa, in February 1846, Bill Cody was a buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider and United States Army scout as a young man.
Later, he became an actor and impresario, who dramatised his own life and the facts and flavours of the Wild West through fiction in his thrilling show, featuring a cast of hundreds of people and performing animals.
Wild West show
Buffalo Bill launched his Wild West extravaganza in 1883 and toured America, playing to huge crowds. The cast included almost 200 people including cowboys, sharpshooters, native Americans, Mexican vaqueros and musicians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, ten mules, ten elk, five Texas steers and an old Deadwood stagecoach.
At the age of 41, he brought the show to England, travelling by sea. The opening night was in London on 9th May 1887, in a huge outdoor arena at Earl’s Court that housed 28,000 people. Buffalo Bill rode Old Charlie, a horse said to have “almost human intelligence”.
Cowboys rode bucking broncos and lassoed steers; sharpshooter Annie Oakley performed death-defying stunts, such as shooting a cigar out of someone’s mouth; while Mustang Jack the cowboy carried heavy dumbbell weights and jumped clean over a horse, landing on his feet.
Buffalo Bill galloped on Old Charlie at full speed while shooting dozens of glass balls propelled into the air and the native Americans chased buffalo across the arena, erected a tepee village and performed a traditional dance.
People in England had never seen anything like it before.
This was Queen Victoria’s 50th year on the throne and the Wild West Show was staged to help celebrate her Golden Jubilee. It opened in London just days before her 68th birthday, in front of a capacity crowd.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show made him one of the world’s first global celebrities. After opening night, the Queen personally wrote to Cody and requested a private performance of his spectacular show “by Royal Command”. Perhaps she had read the rave reviews in the newspapers!
According to a report in the Illustrated London News, Buffalo Bill’s show was the “most remarkable entertainment ever seen in this country” and had the crowd up on their feet cheering. A review in Sporting Life proclaimed, “It is new, it is brilliant!”
Royal Command performance
When the Wild West show came to England, Queen Victoria’s love of theatrical entertainment was reignited. She spoke to her son Edward, Prince of Wales, who said he had loved the show. The Queen wrote personally to Buffalo Bill requesting the “Royal Command” private performance. This was an extremely rare honour for any entertainer.
On the night of the show, Victoria arrived at the stadium in what one of the performers described as a “big shining wagon”, with soldiers on either side. The arena was empty apart from the royal box in the grandstand, where the Queen and her 25-strong entourage sat.
The show began with a horseman riding into the arena carrying the American flag, which ringmaster Frank Richmond said stood for “peace and friendship”. Victoria stood up and bowed to the sentiment. The whole company gave a “genuine, heart-felt, American yell”, according to Cody, as it was the first time since the Declaration of Independence that a British monarch had saluted the American flag. He rode Charlie up to the royal box and personally welcomed Victoria.
He later wrote that the whole company was fired up with a “determination to excel themselves”. Cody, Annie Oakley and fellow sharpshooter Lillian Smith, who was only 16, didn’t miss a shot; the choreographed horseback charges were perfect and the bucking bronco horses “bucked like steam engines”.
Cast member Black Elk, of the Oglala Sioux tribe, was chosen to dance and sing for the Queen. He believed he was picked because he was “young and limber” and could do many different dances. He described how the cast liked “Grandmother England”, as they nicknamed the Queen.
The Queen requested the performers go over and meet her after the show. She told Buffalo Bill personally how much she had enjoyed it. She said other things too, but he never revealed the full extent conversation, explaining, “Modesty forbids me to repeat them.”
Victoria had a long chat with Annie Oakley, who was 26 at the time, asking her how old she was when she took up shooting and telling her how “clever” she was. Oakley described it as the “highest compliment” coming from the Queen. Her Majesty also met several Sioux performers. Black Elk recalled she shook hands with everyone she met.
The cast gave a big cheer for the Queen, who was warm and friendly before she was swept away in her cavalcade of wagons.
On arriving home to Windsor Castle, the Queen recorded the special evening in her personal journal, proving what an exciting event it had been for her. She described the thrill of seeing members of different tribes riding the “wild bare-backed horses”.
Similarly, the cowboys and Mexican performers had torn around the arena on horseback “at full speed” while “shrieking and screaming”, with an “immense deal of firing”. She also described the “buffalo hunt and the bucking ponies”, calling Cody a “handsome man” who behaved like a true gentleman.
Members of the cast were equally complimentary about the Queen. Years later, in 1931, Black Elk recalled how everyone liked “Grandmother England” very much, as she was a “fine woman” who was good to them. He added, “Maybe if she had been OUR grandmother, it would have been better for our people.”
During Queen Victoria’s long reign, which ended in January 1901 when she died, aged 81; she had met many famous people including members of royal families in Germany, Romania, Greece, Norway Sweden and Spain. However, none of those meetings were as exciting as her audience with Buffalo Bill.
Victoria enjoyed his Wild West show so much that five years later, when he brought the troupe back to England, they were again summoned to appear for the Queen, this time at Windsor Castle.