The Bear in the Bishopdale Sketching Club

On August 17th in 1890, Emily Harris wrote in her diary about ‘the bear’:

A few months ago two Frenchmen came to Nelson with a dancing bear. A splendid animal not two years old, quite an infant its master said, although it was much taller than the man when it stood upon its hind legs. It was a dull buff colour. I think it was a young grizzly. The poor bear was very clever, went through exercises, attitudes & danced. The man sang when the bear danced & the bear seemed to enjoy it. The men were French. I shall never forget the sight of this huge animal standing up, shouldering arms with a stick.

One afternoon we were invited by the Bishop to go to Bishopdale with the Sketching & Camera Club to sketch the bear. The Bishop had the two men & the bear there for a couple of hours. We all made some rapid sketches several, for of course the bear would not stay still for more than a minute or two at a time. Frances has made hers into three most charming little pictures.

page of emily's diary
Harris, Emily Cumming collection. Collection of Puke Ariki (ARC2002-190).

The three bear pictures by Frances were being shown in the art exhibition that Emily and her sisters were putting on that same week in the Shelbourne street schoolroom, prompting Emily to record the story of the bear just as reports were circulating of its demise. A review of the Harris art exhibition from the Nelson Evening Mail makes mention of both the sketches and the bear’s fate:

To these must be added a set of three small pictures entitled [“The Innocents Abroad,”] which was suggested by the [appearance] of the bear which was recently to be seen in the streets, but which, we hear, has since been shot at Westport in consequence of the death of its owner). (12 Aug 1890)

The life and death of the bear made a big impression on Nelson residents. Local newspapers were full of tales of the bear all throughout June before its departure for the West Coast. The story took a new turn in September as the Nelson Evening Mail discovered that the rumours of the bear’s demise had been greatly exaggerated:

It was reported some time ago that the bear, which was in Nelson a few months ago and afforded so much amusement to so large a number of both children and adults, was dead, the current rumour being that its owner had died suddenly, and that the bear had become so savage that it had to be shot. It appears, however, that the story was a pure canard, in proof whereof it may be stated that both man and bear passed through Nelson on Saturday in the Mawhera on their way from the West Coast to Wellington. (29 Sept 1890)

Looking at the bear’s arrival, its miraculous reappearance and everything in-between, we can trace much of the story through PapersPast, seeing the sensation of the bear in the streets of Nelson as it unfolds over the course of the month, from its arrival on June 4th to its departure for the West Coast on June 25th:

An unusual exhibition was on view in the street this afternoon, which possessed immense attractions for the youngsters who crowded around, and seemed to amuse a number of their seniors as well. Two men arrived this morning by steamer bringing with them, a dancing bear, which has evidently been remarkably well trained with the result that he goes through his various performances among them being the manual exercise. a long pole being used instead of a rifle, with wonderful accuracy. If the owners of this clever animal are as successful in gathering coppers as they are in attracting a crowd, they should do a very good business. (Nelson Evening Mail 4 June 1890)

MEMBERS of the BISHOPDALE SKETCHING CLUB and NELSON CAMERA CLUB, and any Friends they like to bring with them, are invited to BISHOPDALE THIS AFTERNOON, from 2 to 3 p.m., to Sketch and Photograph the BEAR. (Colonist 7 June 1890)

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Notes From Nelson. (From Our Own Correspondent.) Things are very-quiet in ‘‘Sleepy Hollow” just now. To a stranger passing through, the town would appear to be deserted but it is not so. Perhaps you might go through two or three streets without seeing more than a dozen people, but, suddenly, upon turning a corner, you find yourself in quite a crowd. The “bear-man”— as the little boys call him—is accountable for this gathering,- or, perhaps, it would be more correct to say the bear without the man. On Saturday afternoon the Nelson Camera Club and the Bishopdale Sketching Club members met at the Bishop’s residence to photograph and sketch the animal. Some exceedingly good likenesses were obtained, but in some of the photos it was a very difficult matter to tell which was the bear and which was the keeper! Of course these were purely amateur affairs. (Pelorus Guardian and Miners’ Advocate, 17 June 1890)

newspaper reporting on the bear
Pelorus Guardian and Miners’ Advocate., Volume 1, Issue 41, 17 June 1890, Page 2

Peter Levy in charge of a few stray horses, whose owners would have a day or two later to respond to his invitation, to meet him at the R.M. Court, or occasionally running in a man who had been paying too frequent visits to a public house, was at one time by no means a novel sight, but even when he was a man in authority Nelson people would have been a little astonished to find him in such queer company as he was keeping yesterday afternoon, when he was to be seen driving spring cart with a bear comfortably seated alongside him with its head resting against his side. Accompanying the bear was its leader, and on enquiring where the trio were off to, we learned that the very clever animal which has recently proved such an attraction to the youngsters of Nelson had been chartered by Mr Percy Adams to pay a visit to St. Mary’s Orphanage at Stoke, where it went through its performances to the delight of the assembled boys, who, after being immensely diverted by its tricks, gave three hearty cheers for the gentleman who had displayed so much thoughtfulness in providing them with a rare treat, the reminiscences of which will form a topic of conversation in the playground and dormitory for a long time to come.’ (Nelson Evening Mail 17 June 1890)

The Colonist added to its own reporting on the bear’s visit to St. Mary’s Orphanage at Stoke that “Last week a similar treat was afforded the girls at the Convent Schools through the kindness of Father Mahoney” (18 June 1890).

The dancing bear, which has been so frequently seen in the streets of late, has been affording immense amusement to the large number of Maoris who are congregated in the town just now. Some of them are half disposed to try a wrestling bout with him, but have not yet been able to summon up quite enough courage to attempt it. (Nelson Evening Mail 20 June 1890).

The bear which has afforded so much amusement to the youngsters of Nelson during the last three weeks, will no more be seen in our streets. Accompanied by its two keepers it left to-day for the West Coast in the Brunner. (Nelson Evening Mail 25 June 1890)

Between the bear’s departure in June and the rumours of its death circulating in August, there was another bear-tangential story rife in Nelson. In July, one of the Frenchmen, Harry Belin, returned to rob the Nelson Hotel:

Mr Cornish, landlord of the Nelson Hotel, had an unpleasant awakening about one this morning. It appears that one of the men who were lately exhibiting the bear about the town, has recently returned from the West Coast, and lodged for a night or two at the Nelson Hotel ; but for some reason was cleared out yesterday morning, taking his swag with him. Last night Mr Cornish retired to bed about 11:30, and an hour later was awakened by hearing a slight noise in his bedroom and called out “Who’s there”, and at the same moment struck a light, when he discovered a man, whom he identified as the “bear” man whom he cleared away in the morning — leaning on the drawers, and without boots. On being questioned by Mr Cornish, the intruder gave an unsatisfactory account of himself, and Mr Cornish there upon ejected him from the premises. It was subsequently discovered by Mr Cornish that a small sum of money, a pair of boots, and other articles were missing. The police were then informed of the matter, and search was made for the accused, and Constable Phair succeeded in arresting him this morning at the Port, and on searching- him the boots, a pair of gloves, a shirt, and other articles belonging- to Mr Cornish were found in his possession. The accused, who gave the name of Harry Belin, and says he is a Frenchman, was brought before the Bench this afternoon, and on the application of the Police was remanded to Friday next. (Nelson Evening Mail 30 July 1890)

Harry Belin pleaded guilty to the theft of the clothes, although denying stealing the money, and was charged and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour on each charge (Nelson Evening Mail 1 Aug 1890). And the clarification came that Harry Belin was in the employ of the proprietor of the bear, not one of the proprietors himself (Colonist 31 July 1890). Meanwhile the other Frenchman, the proprietor, and his bear continued on their journey around New Zealand:

A live bear of the brown species is among the latest distinguished arrivals in Reefton. The bear was an object of great curiosity to the school children as it passed through the town in the care of its keeper. The animal, though securely muzzled, appears very tame, and is an uncommonly fine specimen. His performances are said to rival those of the educated pig, but it is to be hoped that bruin will escape the fate which befell the erudite porker on its first Reefton appearance. (Inangahua Times 1 Aug 1890)

Despite some searching, we have not been able to confirm what happened to said educated pig.

TO-NIGHT! TO-NIGHT! QUIGLEY’S HALL. GRAND PERFORMANCE OF THE MONSTER GRIZZLYBEAR, The Greatest Wonder of the Animal Kingdom, Afternoon Performance at 2.30 p.m. Evening Performance at 8 p.m. Front seats, 2s; back seats, 1s; Children half-price. M. POUECH, Proprietor. (Inangahua Times 4 Aug 1890)

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Some excitement was caused yesterday in Havelock amongst the juvenile population, owing to the arrival in the district of the bear, which has been amusing so many youngsters in other parts of the colony. (Pelorus Guardian and Miners’ Advocate 14 Oct 1890)

And then later in Wellington, Monsieur Pouech has an unfortunate encounter:

Two mounted individuals, who had apparently been drinking, created a scare on the reclaimed land at Te Aro this morning by their escapades. An unfortunate foreigner with a performing bear was singled out for special attention, and one of them charged him repeatedly, the man having several narrow escapes from being ridden down. The bear got away and trotted across the flat, but was soon caught. Several indignant spectators at length pulled the chief offender off his horse, and threatened if he did not desist to duck him. One of the men was afterwards seen to fall off his horse while riding away. (Evening Post 29 Oct 1890)

One of two horsemen who yesterday morning amused themselves at the expense of the proprietor of a performing bear, paid somewhat expensively for his fun to-day. Robert Colley was brought up in the Magistrate’s Court before Mr. Robinson, R.M., and fined 10s, or in default 24 hours’ imprisonment, for being: drunk whilst in charge of a horse, and for assaulting Baptist Pouech, the owner of the bear, he was fined £3, and ordered to pay 10s 6d expenses, half of the fine to go to the person assaulted. (Evening Post 30 Oct 1890)

And finally, the last appearance of the bear we have been able to find which possibly signals Mr. Pouech and the bear’s imminent departure:

The children have been greatly excited the last day or two at Ormondville and Makotuku, the occasion being the appearance of Bruin. Some of the little ones were very anxious to see the monkey. On dit the bear was booked on the N.Z.R. as 2 ½ dogs. (Bush Advocate 15 Nov 1890).

Pulling on a thread from Emily’s diaries often leads us to stories and also to the gaps in them. Frances’s three bear drawings titled ‘The Innocents Abroad’  carry the same title as a travel book by Mark Twain. We haven’t been able to locate any sketches or photos from the afternoon at Bishopdale, but Nelson Provincial Museum does have a photo of a bear on the street that may be the animal in question.

Lead Writer: Brianna Vincent
Research Support: Michele Leggott

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