This Famous Victorian Dog Was A Card-Playing Pro

by Mimi Matthews

Recently, while researching Victorian pleasure gardens, I came across a listing of acts scheduled to appear at Cremorne Gardens in 1857. Among the humourists, contortionists, and tight-rope walkers were various animal attractions. Most notable of these was a little English spaniel billed as “The Learned Dog, Lily.” According to the 17 July edition of the Morning Chronicle, Lily’s “whist playing, arithmetical calculations, and general shrewdness” formed one of “the great attractions” of the gardens.

Lily first came to public notice at Cremorne Gardens during the Easter holidays of 1857. The April 14 edition of the Morning Post reports:

“In the course of the afternoon, a new candidate for public favour, the dog Lily, was introduced to the British public, and played a game of whist and three games of dominoes, with some ladies, in a manner to evince that, though ‘every dog may have his way,’ he is less likely to be drawn into otherwise than the most honest play than would be a biped puppy.”

It was not entirely clear to the public how Lily knew which cards to choose. As the Morning Post goes on to state:

“How the instructor of Lily gives his signs to his pupil we are not sufficiently learned in ‘dogology’ to determine; but anything more truly interesting in connection with the quadrupedal world, has rarely been seen.”

cremorne 90cb1The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin, 1864.

After her April debut at Cremorne Gardens, Lily’s fame grew rapidly — as did her origin story. An article in the June 7 edition of the Era reports that the little spaniel was “born in London, but educated at the ancient University of Utrecht under Professor J. P. Van Shaalen.” Formal education notwithstanding, Lily is reported to have been a uniquely clever dog. As the Era relates:

“This little creature with an instinctive sagacity bordering closely upon the domains of reason, will play a game of cards with any one duly introduced to her, is always ready to take the fourth hand at a rubber of whist, will indicate the time on any watch, knows all about dice, is a capital arithmetician, and a first-rate actress.”

Lily was soon renowned for her cleverness. Describing her repertoire, an article in the July 29, 1857 edition of the Morning Chronicle states that Lily:

“…tells the time of day, counts to any extent (better to be sure than many of you young fourth-form Etonians) and plays whist as shrewdly as a Bath Dowager.”

In fact, though Lily was capable of counting, performing arithmetic, and playing dominoes, her greatest fame came from her skill at whist. In some publications she is even referred to as Lily, the Whist-Playing Dog. An article in the June 4, 1857 edition of the Morning Chronicle declares that Lily “plays at whist like a professional gamester, and, when she cannot follow suit, trumps the trick, and takes it with strange sagacity.”

spaniel ebc9dA Spaniel Looks Out at a Departing Ship by Carl Johann Arnold (1829-1916).

Regrettably, I can find no records of Lily’s performances in England after 1857. It’s possible that she and her trainer took their popular act to Europe or America. It’s equally possible that Lily simply retired from show business—or even died. How she ended her days, we shall probably never know, but for that brief spring and summer of 1857, The Learned Dog, Lily, was one of the brightest stars in Victorian London.

Top image: A Spaniel on a Cloth by Friedrich Leopold Hermann Hartmann, 1869.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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