In 1862, while the new buildings of St Thomas’ were under construction near Westminster Bridge, the hospital temporarily moved to Surrey Gardens. Now a populous area between the Kennington and Walworth Roads, the Gardens were once, according to Punch Magazine, ‘the most charming place of amusement in London’.
Purchased by the animal dealer Edward Cross in 1831, this 15 acre site with its fine landscaped garden and lake soon opened as the Surrey Zoological Gardens. Most of the animals originally came from Cross’s previous menageries in the West End. They included Happy Jerry, a mandrill who died shortly after his arrival and was embalmed in ‘what we hope was his favourite spirit’ then put on display, the ’emasculated lion’ (believed to be the now extinct Barbary Lion) and Billy the hyena who, after his death in 1846, had his skeleton displayed in the Royal College of Surgeons. His skin survives today at the Natural History Museum.
Through gifts and purchases the collection grew and the 8,000 people who marvelled through the Gardens each day could gaze at a pair of Indian elephants, various monkeys, black swans, gold and silver pheasants, an onager ‘taken in a pitfall in Astrachan’, condors, boa constrictors and an Indian rhino. There was also a giant tortoise on which children could ride.
Among the visitors were, in 1848, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children. Her Majesty was particularly taken by a friendship she observed between a tigress and a humble hound.
Most of the animals were kept in a vast circular conservatory, 300 feet in circumference, covered with 6,000 square feet of glass: the largest building of its kind in England (anticipating the Crystal Palace of 20 years later). Its supporting columns, hung with bird cages, formed a colonnade where visitors could perambulate and enjoy ‘the greatest number of distinct species of climbing plants ever seen together’.
In 1843 five young giraffes were procured for the zoo, the first to go on public display in Britain. Their journey took them across Africa, travelling for 35 days to Cairo. The giraffes were too young to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels. Passage to Britain was booked via ship – however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. On arrival in London the animals were walked from the docks under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents.
A transpontine rival to the more fashionable Zoological Gardens in Regents Park, Surrey Gardens was generally thought to have the more attractive grounds and experienced keepers, animals and plants were better labelled and its buildings considered more suitable than those at the London Zoo.
It quickly became apparent though that a zoo was not enough to bring customers back and new attractions were needed. Cross introduced ‘fancy fairs’, flower shows, archery competitions, balloon ascents and spectacular night-time pyrotechnic displays including recreations of the Eruption of Vesuvius (1837) the Great Fire of London (1844) and Napoleon’s Passage over the Alps (1850).
Unfortunately the Great Exhibition of 1851 proved too formidable competition and by this time the zoo had become dilapidated. Five years later the animals were auctioned to pay for the building of a 12,000 capacity music hall on the site, the largest venue in London. Following the end of the war in the Crimea, a four day military festival was held there in 1857 to raise money for Mary Seacole. There were over 1,000 performers, and her name was ‘shouted by a thousand voices’.
The hall burnt down in 1861 and the gardens closed to the public the following year. The land was eventually sold for building development in 1877.
Billy the hyena was one of the last animals to be sold: ‘a stuffed hyena on a stand, 24 years in the Surrey Zoological Gardens.’
Alnick, Richard. 1978. The Shows of London. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Grigson, Caroline. 2016. Menagerie: A History of Exotic Animals in England. Oxford: OUP Oxford.
Velton, Hannah. 2013. Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. London: Reaktion Books.
*Other information courtesy of Southwark Local History Library and Archive, 211 Borough High St SE1.
To cite this post : Gareth Miles, “An Englishman’s Paradise’”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), September 22nd, 2016.
Gareth Miles is the Education and Outreach Officer at the Old Operating Theatre. He is involved with the museum’s education programme and leads historical and medical walks around the local area.