Victorian zoos: animal attraction in the 19th century
If the Surrey Zoological Garden was anything to go by, a zoo in the Georgian and Victorian eras was so much more than a place to see animals from around the world. Joanne Cormac reveals how the entertainments put on – which included pyrotechnic re-enactments of the Great Fire of London – reflected Britons’ growing taste for the exotic in the 19th century
One fine day in late spring 1835, veteran aeronaut Charles Green climbed into a hot air balloon from a raft floating on a lake, and soared into the sky. Flight was nothing new for Green – this was his 198th ascent – but today he was joined by an unusual passenger: Jacopo the monkey, a resident of the Surrey Zoological Gardens.
As this unlikely duo floated above Walworth, then just south of London, Jacopo, wearing a smart red jacket, descended “with great velocity” in a specially made parachute, to the delight of the watching crowds. Jacopo was physically unharmed, though newspaper reports of the event noted that he “seemed not much to relish the ride”. A label was attached to the poor primate, promising a small fee – and free admission to the gardens – for anyone who found him. Evidently, Jacopo was brought back safely; two years later he returned to the skies, this time with Margaret Graham, the first British woman to make a solo balloon flight.
The hot air balloon ride was one of many attractions at Surrey Zoological Gardens, which had opened on 13 August 1831 in the grounds of Walworth Manor House, Kennington. At the time, zoos were rare novelties but, as the public clamour for encounters with exotic animals swelled, they began popping up across Great Britain and Ireland.
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Many of them no longer exist. Surrey Zoo was one of the casualties, yet in its heyday it was an enormous hit with the public. It is the quintessential example of the menagerie-style zoo that struck such a chord with Britons in the 19th century. In its day Surrey’s zoo was the main rival of London Zoo at Regent’s Park. These were, however, very different establishments. Like most early zoos (including those in Dublin, Bristol and Manchester), London’s had lofty ambitions and was aimed at educated society seeking enlightenment.
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Surrey Zoo, on the other hand, offered exoticism, imperial display and commercial entertainment for its fashionable clientele – all typically Victorian phenomena. A look at its popularity, as well as the activities visitors enjoyed, provides us today with intriguing insights into Victorian ideals and leisure pursuits.
The driving force behind the Surrey Zoological Gardens was animal dealer Edward Cross. He had bought a small menagerie in 1814, which he exhibited at the Exeter Exchange, a building on the north side of the Strand in central London. His collection, which attracted such famous figures as William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, included lions, tigers, leopards, monkeys, hyenas, an emu, an Andean condor and a male Asiatic elephant named Chunee.
The animals were kept in small cages in conditions that were troubling even at the time. Chunee was confined to a small wooden enclosure, and was frequently aggressive. Cross, fearing he might escape, decided to have him put down – a feat that took 152 musket shots to complete. Press reports of the episode created considerable adverse publicity for Cross.
By the late 1820s, he was considering the future of the menagerie. Cross wanted to join forces with the new Zoological Society of London (ZSL) that had formed in 1826, establishing London Zoo in 1828. His offer to sell his collection – on the condition that he also be taken on as manager of the zoo – was refused three times. ZSL was keen to move away from the idea of a menagerie as spectacle and entertainment. Instead, they were interested in the nascent science of zoology.
Chunee the elephant was confined to a small wooden enclosure, and was frequently aggressive. Fearing he might escape, Cross decided to have him put down – a feat that took 152 musket shots to complete
True, there were educational aspects to Cross’s menagerie: some of these animals had never been seen before – or only rarely – in England. However, his was primarily a commercial venture; he bought and displayed animals for the entertainment of the public and his own profit.
By contrast, London Zoo was an innovator in the scientific study of animal life, taxonomy, conservation and captive animal husbandry. Its habitat designs, including the world’s first aquarium, provided exemplars to other zoos. And its staff members became leading authorities on the animals in their care, spreading their growing knowledge of thousands of species through regular publications. Edward Cross was just not their sort of person.
Forced to find an alternative, Cross decided to sell his menagerie to another fledgling society: the Surrey Zoological and Botanical Institution (which he had co-founded in 1831). It accepted the collection, and Cross became superintendent of the new Surrey Zoological Gardens.
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Establishing a zoo was a risky venture. New exotic animals had to be sourced and transported to Surrey to populate the larger premises, and the arrival of such creatures was big news in the 1830s. London newspapers regularly reported on acquisitions made by the Surrey Zoological Gardens, naming each ship transporting the animals, and its captain. Excited members of the public waited at the dock to catch a glimpse of a tail or a flash of teeth and claws. Sometimes the animals were unloaded at night to evade the crowds. The papers eagerly printed exquisite drawings of the animals, alongside descriptions of their habitats in exotic locales – and daring stories of their violent capture.
Sadly, many animals did not survive the journey to Britain; others died soon after the ship docked. A couple of weeks after the zoo opened, papers reported that a rhinoceros had died during the crossing from the Cape Colony (now part of South Africa).
A pack of hounds
In the 19th century, the British empire encompassed colonies in Africa, India, the Americas and Australia, providing rich pickings for British collectors and zoologists. Cross was one of those tapping into the empire’s networks of trade and exploitation to source new animals. Soon after the loss of that unfortunate African rhinoceros, the zoo successfully sourced an Asian rhino from Calcutta (now Kolkata), reportedly owned previously by one of the “Rajahs” of India who had traded it for a “full pack of English hounds”.
Wealthy collectors returning from their travels would sometimes donate animals to the zoo. In 1832, former naval officer and colonist Captain William Langdon returned from Australia and the Falkland Islands with kangaroos, possums and geese, which he presented to the zoo. Sometimes the animals’ keepers travelled with them. The zoo proudly advertised its “Giraffes attended by Nubian keepers”, who themselves became part of the exotic displays.
Even when animals arrived safely, further challenges often arose. Many died simply because the keepers were not knowledgeable enough to care for them. Others escaped. A black swan was reported missing in September 1833, when a “handsome” finder’s fee was offered. There were also human fatalities. In August 1833, one of Cross’s employees, George Chard, was gored to death by a wildebeest he’d whipped in an effort to force it to perform for spectators.
Such was the enthusiasm for exotic creatures in the Regency era that some animals became celebrities. One of the oldest inmates at the zoo – one that had been among Cross’s original collection at the Exeter Exchange – was a mandrill named Happy Jerry. He had been brought to England on a slave ship captured off the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1815, reports claimed.
He had, according to those same reports, been taught to sit in a chair, smoke and drink liquor, and was fed from Cross’s table “as a parlour guest”. Jerry became so famous that George IV invited him to dine at Windsor Castle, where the king was said to have been delighted by watching the mandrill eat specially prepared venison.
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On its opening, the Surrey Zoological and Botanical Institution emphasised its contribution to the new science of zoology. By the 1840s, though, the animals began to be overshadowed by other attractions – firework displays, historical tableaux comprising 20-metre-high painted sets and trapeze acts. In June 1844, the zoo advertised a “Terrific Representation of the Great Fire of London in 1666” as viewed from the Thames. It would include “new and extraordinary effects” and would be the “crowning triumph of the pyrotechnic art”.
During an “Eruption of Vesuvius” in June 1846, crowds gasped as smoke and red and green flames issued from the “volcano”. Rumbling noises built up to a huge explosion after which lava gushed “in an overwhelming torrent” over models of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Of course, such tumult would surely have had a traumatising effect on the nervous animals.
National and imperial values underpinned many of the tableaux. In the summer of 1847, visitors enjoyed a recreation of the siege of Gibraltar, advertised as featuring “the blowing up of the battering ships!” and a demonstration of “the invincible prowess of British Arms!” Other displays celebrated the vast reach of the empire – one example being a recreation of the “Temples of Elora from Hindoo Mythology”, at a time when Britain was increasing its control of India.
Adding some music
Music was increasingly introduced to indulge the Victorian taste for variety entertainments. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, the zoo hosted concerts by a Russian horn band, a quadrille band and a concertina soloist. In 1844, it invested in a house act: Mr Godfrey and his wind band. Alongside the regular polkas, quadrilles, national songs and waltzes that were so popular with audiences, in August 1844 Godfrey conducted a full performance of Beethoven’s Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony, arranged for wind instruments.
Seeing the huge popularity of Godfrey’s concerts, the zoo’s directors invested yet more heavily in musical entertainment. In 1845, they hired charismatic French conductor Louis Jullien, a celebrity skilled in self-promotion. He encouraged fantastical stories circulating in the press claiming that he had moved to London to escape Parisian creditors, having been injured in a duel, reported dead and forced to hide in a farmhouse. Jullien was handsome, it was said, sporting a shock of curly hair and a neat moustache, and was always fashionably dressed, wearing white gloves.
In June 1845, he gave his first “Concert Monstre” at the zoo, conducting an orchestra of 300 musicians on a huge covered platform to an audience of 12,000 people. Jullien continued Godfrey’s model of promenade concerts but on a larger scale, recruiting musicians from all over Europe. He was a real showman, adding extra effects including fireworks and dioramas, weaving the music directly into a story. During the “storm” section of the Pastoral he rattled a box of dried peas to evoke the sound of falling hailstones, and added “Military Effects” to his performance of Beethoven’s Battle Symphony. He himself was theatrical and energetic; indeed, he was often accused of “over-conducting” – visibly acting out the music.
During the “storm” section of the Pastoral he rattled a box of dried peas to evoke the sound of falling hailstones, and added “Military Effects” to his performance of Beethoven’s Battle Symphony
Surrey Zoological Gardens was now far more than a place to admire or learn about exotic animals. Its various performances, sights and experiences constantly evolved to appeal to the fashionable public’s desire for novelty. Jullien’s arrival coincided with the peak of the zoo’s popularity, but it began to struggle in the 1850s.
Stiff competition had emerged from other zoos and pleasure gardens, and from the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, with its wide variety of exhibits including music and exotica. The gardens became run down and no longer as fashionable as they had seemed in their 1840s heyday. Finally, in 1855, the animals were auctioned off, and Surrey Music Hall was built on the site (though that was itself destroyed by fire only a few years later, in 1861). The gardens closed the following year and in 1877 were sold for housing development.
Today, a small part of what was Surrey Zoological Gardens – now named Pasley Park – is open to visitors. An information board and two ostrich sculptures are the only reminders of the exotic animals, the monster concerts and the magnificent firework displays that drew such crowds in the 1840s. The simian aeronaut Jacopo is long forgotten.
Joanne Cormac is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine