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The brown bear who terrorised Saturday night revellers in Dundee in 1874

A drawing of brown bears being chained up and used as entertainment on the streets circa 1840.
A drawing of brown bears being chained up and used as entertainment on the streets circa 1840.

Saturday night revellers were certainly in for a big surprise in November 1874 as their plans for a night out were sent in to disarray with the arrival of an uninvited large brown bear to Dundee City Centre.

As the tale of an escaped polar bear causing havoc on Dundee streets in 1878 is immortalised with a new statue which was unveiled last week it may surprise many to find out that wasn’t the first instance of a bear exploring the city’s streets unaccompanied.

A power reversal

While now it might seem a ridiculous idea to have two bears chained up in the city centre for the amusement of locals, bears have often been used as cruel entertainment and back in 1874 European travellers made a living by displaying their two bears, one a polar and one a brown Russian, bringing the sideshow to Dundee.

Saturday night revellers, no doubt with some Dutch courage already in them, thought it was safe to cheer and prod at the massive bears.

Yet after a momentary lapse by the keeper, things turned ugly as the brown bear managed to stroll off with part of his chain dangling at his heel.

A drawing of brown bears being chained up and used as entertainment on the streets circa 1840.

This was at 7pm and the streets were crowded.

The bear was quite happy ambling through the crowd as an equal to the citizens of Dundee.

That was until his presence became known and just as quickly as he broke free, panic set in.

Hundreds of people stampeded towards the Wellgate, dashing into shops and closes with the helter-skelter of people only helping to fuel the brown bear’s excitement.

He upped his pace, bringing even more terror to those dressed in their Saturday night best.

Coal warehouse turns into a pantomime

As the bear enjoyed the dramatics of the evening, scores of terrified locals forced their way into a coal warehouse, much to the astonishment of the owner who was sitting quietly by candle light finishing his night’s work.

The Dundee Advertiser described the scene as “quite as good as a pantomime” with women in fine dresses and men carrying canes and hats scrambling up mountains of coals.

The brown bear would have been terrifying to locals on the street.

In the carnage, unbelievably someone must have forgotten to shut the warehouse door with the bear finding its way in only to be met with an “amphitheatre of frightened faces” from those who were now almost in the rafters having climbed up the walls of coal.

Obviously not finding what he was looking for, the animal turned away and entered the streets once more and began retracing his steps, almost as if he was going to return to his den.

A trip up Victoria Road

Just as quickly though he changed his mind and seemed to want to make a night of his new found freedom and so he headed up Victoria Road, making a pit stop at a crockery shop.

The astonished owner scrambled over the counter into the street shouting for the police and the fire brigade.

Victoria Road in the 1960s.

The bear seemed frustrated at still not being able to find anything for his supper and smashed some of the china before leaving the store, where he would come face to face with a young boy who had curiously wandered just a bit too close.

He took a bite at his hand and rather severely took off a few digits but the child wasn’t to his taste and he once again sauntered on leaving the poor boy howling in pain.

By this time the brown bear had really worked up an appetite.

Luckily for him the next shop was a bakery.

A doughy missile

We can only imagine the look on the baker’s face at the rather unusual customer who had just walked in and the quick thinker took what was nearest to hand, a four pound loaf of bread, and fired it straight between the bear’s eyes.

The baker began making plans for what to use as protection next.

However, there was no need.

The bear wasn’t angry at the violent reception he had received.

In fact he seemed pleasantly surprised as he settled down on the floor and began to gnaw at the missile which had been thrown and he was finally secured.

A postcard of Dundee Greenmarket in Victorian times.

In a matter-of-fact way, the Dundee Advertiser reported as a footnote: β€œIn another part of the town, consternation was caused by the sight of an old man running wildly up and down several streets wearing only a shirt.”

Despite the damage to the poor boy’s hand and the crockery store on Victoria Road, the streets were once again free from bear attacks following the recapture.

Until 1878 that is, when our aforementioned polar bear, which was brought back by Arctic whalers, escaped into the streets and caused just as much havoc.

It was recaptured after it got distracted by a mirror in a tailor’s shop, with the only casualty being a dress mannequin which was savaged by the bear.