Taxidermist, publisher, and marketing genius, Rowland Ward turned mounted animals into a fashionable sensation during the Victorian Age.
Hunters today know the name Rowland Ward mostly because of the record book that bears his name. But Rowland Ward was a fascinating character in his own right. An expert taxidermist (though he preferred to refer to himself as a “naturalist”), Ward was also a savvy businessman and marketing genius who became the most well-known taxidermist of his day, with a shop in London called “The Jungle” that became an almost mandatory stop for any hunter traveling through London on the way to Africa or India. His publishing empire, which he started in part to help market his taxidermy business, has lasted for more than a century.
Born in 1848, James Rowland Ward grew up in London, the son of Henry Ward, a taxidermist who had done some traveling with John James Audubon. Rowland and his older brother, Edwin, followed their father into the taxidermy business, and at one point all three Wards had separate shops in London and apparently competed with each other for business, which caused no end of confusion for customers. Eventually, however, the elder Ward passed on and Edwin moved to America, leaving Rowland as the last remaining Ward in the London taxidermy business.
Ward was also a sculptor, and his attention to detail and understanding of modeling materials stood him in good stead in terms of producing realistic taxidermy. He lived in an age when taxidermy was finally making a transition from the rough, ugly “stuffed animals” of the early 1800s to a time when he, along with noted taxidermists such as Carl Akeley in Chicago, were pioneering new methods of preservation and much more realistic mounts and poses. Ward carefully observed animals at the zoo and was careful to measure specimens he received very accurately, and he introduced the used of new materials into the trade, including excelsior and phenol.
In May 1880, Ward published a book called the Sportsman’s Handbook, and in it he published his personal creed: “…but something more may be done with a prepared group of animals or a single specimen, than preservation for identification… Its value may be preserved and increased by displaying its beauty truthfully to life, while the beauty is recognized for its own sake by even the unscientific.”
Ward’s taxidermy must have been good. He was granted a Royal Warrant, and did work for King Edward VII and many members of the British royalty, famous hunters, and social climbers of the day. But he was also a savvy marketer and publicist, and he was well ahead of his time in manipulating the media, creating “press releases” that were often run word-for-word in major newspapers and magazines. He had plenty of good stories to tell that, not so coincidentally, also functioned as advertisements for his business. A lion that had attacked and killed a lion tamer was mounted by Ward in a snarling pose; Ward subsequently sent the story and photographs to the newspapers, which were all too happy to reprint the piece. He mounted the heads and hoofs of famous racehorses and even a champion cow, distributing photographs and engravings of them with the Rowland Ward name prominently displayed.
Hunting trophies, of course, were the core of Ward’s business, and had you been an American sportsman stopping over in London on your way to Africa or India in the late 1800s, you probably would have made a point to stop in at 166 Piccadilly, the shop known as “The Jungle.” The shop window always had a dramatic display; in 1876 there was a scene with a tiger hanging from the face of an Indian elephant, “illuminated at night by limelight.” Hunters and explorers such as Fred Selous, J.G. Millais, and Sir Samuel Baker frequented the shop. Teddy Roosevelt sought Ward’s advice while planning his African safari. Being generous with advice paid off handsomely; at one point Ward had sixty rhinos consigned to him from a single expedition. “The Jungle” was where expeditions to the farthest reaches of the British Empire started, and Rowland Ward Ltd. proudly called itself “Taxidermists to the World.”
The business wasn’t just limited to hunters; museums all over Europe asked Ward to create exhibits for them. In 1906, his shop prepared the first full-size African elephant for the British museum. The shop also created animal furniture, or “Wardian” furniture, including crocodile umbrella stands, a chair made out of a giraffe, and a grizzly bear “dumbwaiter” holding a tray of drinks in its paws. These items became highly fashionable in Victorian-era homes.
One thing Ward insisted on was making detailed measurements of the specimens he received, and he urged hunters to record these details as soon as possible after the kill. This helped make the mounts more realistic, and having a collection of these measurements in his shop led to the publication of his most well-known series of books.
In 1892, he published a book called Horn Measurements and Weights of the Great Game of the World. Two years later, he published a second edition, even larger than the first, and retitled it Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. The measurements and weights of animals that had come through his shop were listed in order from largest to smallest, although at first this was simply a reasonable way of listing them and was not meant to create competition for the largest specimens.
The book series was a sensation among hunters and naturalists. In addition to detailed weights and measurements—information that was not widely available at the time—the books included information about species, subspecies, geographical variations, and distribution of the world’s big game. Scientists, taxidermists, and natural history museums all over the world used these books for reference. It wasn’t long, however, before the human side of Records of Big Game really came into focus as it became a who’s who of the big-game hunting world. Hunters who listed their trophies in “The Book” included King George V, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other royals, dignitaries, and celebrities. The book was updated frequently—by 1914 it was already in its seventh edition—and is still published today; the twenty-ninth edition came out in 2014.
The book was another of Ward’s brilliant marketing strategies—it became so popular that every hunter wanted to have his trophies mounted by Rowland Ward. In Legends of the African Frontier, David Chandler writes, “’The Book’ Was the Baseball Encyclopedia of the safari world—every young hunter yearned to see his name under one of the headings…. No matter where you were in Africa, no matter how remote a swamp you were in or how far up the Congo you were, if you could find a hunter’s camp, you found a copy of the record book.”
The listings in record books provide an important benchmark for wildlife management, and biologists can glean important information from noting whether average trophy scores have increased or decreased over time. The Rowland Ward books provide an especially interesting historical record, since the earliest listings go all the way back to 1892.
As Rowland Ward’s current ownership puts it, its record book “… is not there to establish records in the sense of biggest or best, nor to glorify the hunter. It celebrates the animal and it does not matter whether the animal’s horns, tusks or teeth were picked up in the veld from one that had died of natural causes, was killed by a predator or was shot by a hunter. By establishing the benchmark for what constitutes a trophy (particularly where the standards are high), The Book makes a most valuable contribution to ensure that trophy hunters concentrate on those big, old, lone males which have long since passed on their genes to younger generations.
“In addition, The Book is a valuable source of knowledge on the distribution of game and its taxonomic features as well as an historical, geographical, and biological record which few other sources can match.”
During his lifetime, Rowland Ward published many other books on hunting and natural history, including works by Frederick Selous, Powell-Cotton, and Richard Lydekker, all of which served to pique the interest of the traveling sportsman and deliver more work to the company, but it was the Record Book that was certainly his greatest and most lasting achievement. After Rowland Ward’s death in 1912, the company continued to function as a taxidermy business until the 1970s. Today, Rowland Ward Ltd. is a publishing company based in South Africa and continues to publish the Records of Big Game series as well as other natural history and hunting publications, continuing the legacy of its visionary founder.