‘Lord’ George Sanger, an English showman and circus proprietor, grew up working in travelling peep shows and successfully ran shows and circuses throughout much of the nineteenth century with his brother John. He retired in 1905 and was murdered by a disgruntled employee in 1911.

Lord John Sanger

In the late 1890s, John Sanger developed a new attraction to include in his show – elephants that could play football. It was described as being ‘the greatest novelty in the world’ and the contemporary press suggested that it ‘undoubtedly proved a great factor in drawing such … large attendance[s]’.

The spectacle consisted of two individual elephants. First, there was a preliminary football match that was contested by a team of elephants who were opposed by six clowns. Two goals were set up at either end of the arena with a ball, which was about six times the size of an ordinary football.

The second aspect was an ‘elephant vs man’ football contest in which a member of the audience was invited to participate in a shooting competition against ‘Sanger’s centre forward elephant’. Both the elephant and challenger would take a set number of shots at the other (either three, four or five attempts) with the winner being the one that scored the most goals.

The challenger was often predetermined with Sanger encouraging prominent football players from clubs in the near vicinity of the circus to attend and participate in the contest. In March 1899, when the show arrived in Leicestershire, where they performed in Coalville, Hinckley and Leicester.  Sanger persuaded four professionals from the Leicester Fosse to compete against his star elephant with ‘a very massive goblet’ being offered for any victors. Three of the four Fosse players lost to the elephant and it was only when William Keech, the fourth member of the team, stepped up and used a crafty kicking technique that the elephant was defeated. Keech would feint to kick the ball towards one corner, tricking the elephant to raise its foot in anticipation, before placing his shot in the opposite side.