A gift of three lions, a polar bear in the Thames: the wild origins of the London Zoo.
When the Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826, the aim was not only to create a zoological collection that would “interest and amuse the public.” Part of the motivation was also to provide an adequate response to the Jardin des Plantes of Paris, France’s iconic botanical garden.
A plot of land in Regent’s Park was purchased from the Crown, animal houses were constructed, and, two years later, what is now the ZSL London Zoo opened its doors to the society’s members.
Today, this place is the world’s oldest scientific zoo—a zoo where animals are studied and managed methodically, rather than merely put on display. Curiously though, despite its stated aims, it was only some twenty-odd years later that the zoo opened its gates to the public. By that time, the ticket money gave a welcome boost to the Society’s depleted funds.
Keeping exotic animals, and giving them as gifts, were for centuries considered a sign of great royalty.
In 1110 King Henry I built a seven mile long wall at the Royal Park of Woodstock, to gatekeep his whole collection of animals. The park housed lions, camels, and porcupines, possibly becoming one of the first “zoos” in England. However, the term ‘zoo’ must be held lightly in this context, as it was mainly used to help the king's passion for hunting, and not the animals themselves.
A gift of three lions from the Roman Emperor led King Henry III to create his own menagerie—including a polar bear, which was allowed to fish in the Thames! Soon, the collection grew so large and varied that Edward the first built the Lion tower, at the entrance to the Tower of London to house this growing population. By this time, the menagerie included other exotic animals such as “a rough-hided animal that eats and drinks with its trunk”.
Keeping an elephant in the menagerie was a problem, as at this point it was assumed that they were carnivores, and the opposite was only learned after the elephant in question fell quite sick. In 1623, this assumption was further twisted, when King James the First was advised to feed the unfortunate pachyderm a diet of wine every year between the months of September and April.
This inaccurate knowledge of their dietary requirements,along with the cramped living conditions and extreme English climate changes lead most of these animals to live short, and rather difficult lives.
The public first gained access to the menagerie during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Admission was free if people were accompanied by cats or dogs—but only because the poor creatures were taken away and fed to the zoo’s larger predators. To avoid the same fate themselves, visitors were advised “not to approach too near the dens and avoid every attempt to play with” the animals.
This advice was not always heeded: on February 8, 1686, Mary Jenkinson was savaged to death after patting a lion’s paw.
However, by 1822 this collection had dwindled, and all that was left of the collection was a handful of animals. Fortunately for the zoo, that was when the role of head keeper was filled by an energetic showman named Alfred Cops. Within six years, he built up the stock to nearly 300 animals—representing sixty species—and improved all of their living conditions. A successful breeding programme led one commentator to observe that “those whelped in the Tower are more fierce than such as are taken wild”.
Despite Cops’ success, accidents and escapes still dogged the menagerie. Wolves broke into a keeper’s apartment, causing his wife and children to flee for their lives; a secretary bird inadvisably poked its head into a hyena’s enclosure, and a battle royal ensued between two tigers and a lion, accidentally let into the same cage, resulting in the lion’s death.
With the new zoo at Regent’s Park offering alternative accommodation, the government, tired of the problems associated with the menagerie, transferred many of their animals there. This new establishment was, of course, the London Zoo.
Cops was allowed to exhibit his own animals instead, but misfortune continued to follow him. Eventually, the authorities closed the menagerie down after an audacious attack by a monkey on a guardsman.
The public were allowed into the Lion Tower for the last time on August 28, 1835. Shortly afterwards, the remaining animals were sold to an American showman, Benjamin Franklin Brown, and the Lion Tower was demolished.
Alfred Cops was not the only entrepreneur to pander to the public’s desire to see exotic animals though. London’s bizarrest menagerie was founded in 1773 by the Pidcock family. Housed on the rickety upper floor of Essex Exchange, it was initially meant as the winter quarters for the animals in their travelling circus.
It soon became a popular tourist attraction on its own.
The room was decorated with lavishly painted sceneries of wild jungles . The caged dens housed the animals, which at this point included lions, tigers, jaguars, tapirs, and, to test the strength of the floorboards to their maximum, several pachyderms. Higher up on the walls were enclosures for birds and monkeys. The roars of the animals could be heard from far off, often even startling passing horses.
Edward Landseer painted some of these animals while Lord Byron was charmed by the menagerie’s elephant, Chunee. It “took and gave me my money again”, he noted in his diary for November 14, 1813, “took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well that I wish he was my butler”. (While the panther, he excitedly noted, was the “handsomest animal on earth.)
When Edward Cross acquired this menagerie in 1814, it was renamed the Royal Grand National Menagerie. Chunee, the star attraction of this place, took up residency in 1809, regularly parading in the streets, and appearing on stage—even completing a forty-night stint at the Theatre Royal! Unfortunately, in 1826, this all proved to be too much, as Chunee attacked and killed his own keeper.
It took three days, a civilian firing squad, soldiers from Somerset House, a small cannon and 152 balls of ammunition to put him out of their misery.
Chunee’s demise led to tremendous public outrage. The attendance at the menagerie plummeted, and, to add to Cross’ woes, Essex Exchange was demolished as part of the redevelopment of the area. Cross moved his menagerie to King’s Mews for a while, before selling his animals to the London Zoo and a zoological society which he had founded.
That site, King’s Mews, is now the site of London’s National Gallery.
Under his Cross direction, the Surrey Literary, Scientific, and Zoological Society established Surrey Gardens in Walworth. Its eighteen acres boasted promenades, spectacular gardens, firework displays, and historical re-enactments including the eruption of Vesuvius and the Great Fire of London.
At its height, upwards of 8,000 people attended the gardens every day, happy to pay their shilling admission. Among the visitors one day were Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children.
For all its amusements, though, the principal attraction was still the zoo—which in its pomp was home to 170 species. At its centre was a large, circular, domed, glass conservatory, in which exotic fish, birds, and animals were displayed—a precursor to the Crystal Palace. Feeding time was a particular draw, and the keepers were not averse to teasing the animals to guarantee “a good show”.
The zoo was also the home to five giraffes, the first to be publicly displayed in Britain, which were transported from Africa in 1843 and walked from the docks to Walworth at night so that residents were not disturbed by “these strange horses”.
The death of Edward Cross in 1854 hastened the Garden’s end. The animals were sold off in 1855 to fund a 12,000-seater music hall which burnt down six years later, and the site was eventually bought over by property developers.
In an entirely different turn of fortune, the London Zoo survives to this day—its collection greatly increased since the days it received animals from the Cross menagerie. Today, it is the world’s oldest zoology centre dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, with a team of experts to ensure the animals are well looked after.
The elephants and polar bears have eventually been sent away to more suitable locations, but any animal now entering the zoo can rest assured it will be better looked after than its less fortunate predecessors.