Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

The Learned Dog, Lily: A Whist-Playing Victorian Canine

A Spaniel on a Cloth by Friedrich Leopold Hermann Hartmann 1839 1897 1869

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

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 14 April 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.”

The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin 1864. e1508280435269

The 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 7 June 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 29 July 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 4 June 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.”

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.

A Spaniel Looks Out at a Departing Ship by Carl Johann Arnold 1829 1926 e1508281399828

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

Thus concludes another of my (long overdue) Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. If you are interested in adopting a dog or if you would like to donate your time or money to a rescue organization, I urge you to contact your local animal rescue foundation or city animal shelter. The below links may also be useful as resources:

The Humane Society of the United States (USA)

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (UK)

*Author’s Note: For more on Cremorne Gardens, see my article on The Dangers of Victorian Pleasure Gardens at English Historical Fiction Authors’ blog.


The Era (London, England), 7 June 1857.

Morning Chronicle (London, England), 4 June 1857.

Morning Chronicle (London, England), 17 July 1857.

Morning Chronicle (London, England), 29 July 1857.

Morning Post (London, England), 14 April 1857.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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