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The Natural History of London

A Cockney flower-seller dressed in the traditional accoutrements of her trade. Flower-sellers congregated around Eros in Piccadilly Circus, and were last seen in the early years of the twentieth century. They were generally poor and dishonest.


Give the Lydy a Flower

It may come as a surprise to those who see nothing but narrow streets and acres of rooftops that, according to the latest Land Cover Map taken from the Landsat satellite, “over a third” of London’s total land area “is semi-natural or mown grass, tilled land and deciduous woodland.” It has always been so. One of the first delineators of London, Wenceslaus Hollar, was surprised by the contiguity of city and country. His London, Viewed from Milford Stairs, View of Lambeth from Whitehall Stairs and Tothill Fields, all dated 1644, show a city encompassed within trees and meadows and rolling hills. His “river views” also suggest the presence of open countryside just beyond the frame of the engraving.

In the first years of the eighteenth century, pastures and open meadows began by Bloomsbury Square and Queens Square; the buildings of Lincoln’s Inn, Leicester Square and Covent Garden were surrounded by fields, while acres of pasture and meadow still survived in the northern and eastern suburbs outside the walls. Wigmore Row and Henrietta Street led directly into fields, while Brick Lane stopped abruptly in meadows. “World’s End” beside Stepney Green was a thoroughly rural spot, while Hyde Park was essentially part of the open countryside pressing upon the western areas of the city. Camden Town was well known for its “rural lanes, hedgeside roads and lovely fields” where Londoners sought “quietude and fresh air.” Wordsworth recalled the song of blackbirds and thrushes in the very heart of the city and De Quincey found some consolation, on moonlit nights, in walking along Oxford Street and gazing up each street “which pierces northwards through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and woods.”

From the early medieval period onward, almshouses and taverns, schools and hospitals, had their own gardens and private orchards. The city’s first chronicler, William Fitz-Stephen, noted that “the citizens of London had large and beautiful gardens to their villas.” Stow recorded that the grand houses along the Strand had “gardens for profit” while within the city and its liberties there were many “working gardeners” who produced “sufficient to furnish the town with garden ware.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries gardens occupied the area between Cornhill and Bishopsgate Street while the Minories, Goodman’s Fields, Spitalfields and most of East Smithfield were comprised of open meadows. Gardens and open ground were to be found from Cow Cross to Grays Inn Lane, as well as between Shoe Lane and Fetter Lane. Milton, born and educated in the very centre of the city, always professed an affection and admiration for the “garden houses” of London. His own houses in Aldersgate Street and Petty France were fine examples of that construction, and it is said that at Petty France the poet planted a cotton-willow tree in the garden “opening into the Park.”

Today there are many “secret gardens” within the City itself, those remnants of old churchyards resting among the burnished buildings of modern finance. These City gardens, sometimes comprising only a few square yards of grass or bush or tree, are unique to the capital; they have their origin in the medieval or Saxon period but, like the city itself, they have survived many centuries of building and rebuilding. Seventy-three of them still exist, gardens of silence and easefulness. They can be seen as territories where the past may linger—among them, St. Mary Aldermary, St. Mary Outwich, and St. Peter’s upon Cornhill—or perhaps their lesson can be adduced from the open Bibles in the hands of sculpted monks in the church of St. Bartholomew in Smith-field. The page to which they attend, as they congregate around the recumbent figure of Rahere, reveals the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah. “For the Lord shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her waste places; and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

The image of the garden haunts the imaginations of many Londoners. Among the first painted London gardens is Chiswick from the River by Jacob Knyff. This urban garden is small in scale, and set among other houses. It is dated between 1675 and 1680; a woman walks along a gravelled path, while a gardener bends down towards the earth. They might have appeared in the twentieth century. Albert Camus wrote, in the middle of that century, “I remember London as a city of gardens where the birds woke me in the morning.” In the western areas of London of the twenty-first century almost every house either has its own garden or shares a community garden; in northern areas such as Islington and Canonbury, and in the southern suburbs, gardens are an integral feature of the urban landscape. In that sense, perhaps, a Londoner needs a garden in order to maintain a sense of belonging. In a city where speed and uniformity, noise and bustle, are characteristic, and where many houses are produced to a standard design, a garden may afford the only prospect of variety. It is also a place for recreation, contemplation and satisfaction.

The man known as “the father of English botany,” William Turner, lived in Crutched Friars and was buried in Pepys’s church of St. Olave’s, Hart Street, in 1568. It is not at all paradoxical that the first established botanist should be a Londoner, since the extensive fields and marshes beyond the walls were fertile ground. Turner followed the intellectual practice of his time in not giving locations “for the 238 British plants he records for the first time”—this is noted in the indispensable Natural History of the Cityby R.S. Fitter—but it has been revealed that one of them, the field pepperwort, was found in a garden in Coleman Street. Another sixteenth-century botanist, Thomas Penny, lived for twenty years in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft and collected many of his specimens in the area beside Moorfields. The Tower ditch was also famed for its “aquatic” or water-loving plants such as flote grass and wild celery, while a naturalist of Holborn registered wild celery from “the fields of Holburne, neere unto Graies inn” and vernal whitlow-grass from “the brick wall in Chauncerie Lane, belonging to the Earl of Southampton.”

If the suburbs of the west were good hunting-places for naturalists, the unlikely areas of Hoxton and Shoreditch became known for their nursery gardens. A native of Hoxton in the late seventeenth century, Thomas Fairchild, introduced “many new and curious plants”; and wrote a treatise on how best to order “such evergreens, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, flowers, ex-otick plants etc as will be ornamental and thrive best in the London gardens.” He entitled his book the City Gardener and by that name he was always afterwards known. Another native of Hoxton, who lived just outside Bishopsgate, George Ricketts, brought into the area trees such as the myrtle, the lime and the cedar of Lebanon. But there were many other gardeners in this strangely fruitful area amid the mud and rubble of the northern suburbs, where grew the buddleia, the anemone and the striped phillyrea.

It has always been said that Londoners love flowers; the craze for “window gardening” in the 1880s represented only the most prominent manifestation of the window boxes or window pots to be seen in almost all prints of the London streets from generation to generation. But the most striking sign of the London passion for flowers comes with the London flower-seller. Scented violets were sold upon the streets, while in early spring primroses were “first cried.” To the Cockney, wrote Blanchard Jerrold in London: a Pilgrimage, “the wall-flower is a revelation; the ten-week stock a new season; the carnation, a dream of sweet Arabia.” They are all part of a busy London trade which began in the 1830s. Before that time the only visible London flowers— or, rather, the only flowers on display—were the myrtle, the geranium and the hyacinth.

Then as the taste for floral decoration extended, particularly among middle-class Londoners, flowers, like everything else in the city, became a commercial proposition, and many of the outlying suburbs began production and distribution on a large scale. The entire north-western corner of Covent Garden Market was given over to the wholesale vendors of roses and geraniums and pinks and lilacs, which were then sold on to shops and other dealers. Very quickly, too, flowers became the object of commercial speculation. The fuchsia arrived in London in the early 1830s, for example, and the traders prospered. The interest in flowers spread ineluctably down to the “humbler classes” with hawkers at street corners selling a bunch of mixed flowers for a penny, while in the market were sold basket-loads of cabbage roses and carnations. Female vendors at the Royal Exchange or the Inns of Court hawked moss-roses; the violet girl was to be seen on every street and the “travelling gardener” sold wares which were notorious for their short lives. The price of commerce, in London, is often death and the city became nature’s graveyard. Many millions of flowers were brought into London only to wither and expire. The establishment of large extra-mural public cemeteries, located in the suburbs, in turn led to an enormous increase in the demand for flowers to place upon the newly laid tombs.

The trees of London may also become a token. “We may say,” Ford Madox Ford has observed, “that London begins where tree trunks commence to be black.” That is why the plane tree is London’s own; because of its power to slough off its sooty bark it became a symbol of powerful renewal within the city’s “corrupted atmosphere.” There was a plane tree growing some forty feet high in the churchyard of St. Dunstan’s in the East, but the oldest are those planted in Berkeley Square in 1789. Curiously enough, like many Londoners themselves, the London plane tree is a hybrid: an example of successful intermarriage between the oriental plane introduced into London in 1562 and the western plane of 1636, it has remained the tree of central London. It is the single most important reason why London has been apostrophised as a “City of Trees” with “solemn shapes” and “glooms Romantic.”

That gloom may also descend upon London’s parks, from Hyde Park in the west to Victoria Park in the east, from Battersea to St. James’s, from Blackheath to Hampstead Heath. No other city in the world seems to possess so many green and open spaces. For those in love with the hardness and brilliancy of London, they are an irrelevance. But they call to others—to vagrants, to office workers, to children, to all those who seek relief from life “on the stones.”

When the horse-drawn omnibuses, going from Notting Hill Gate to Marble Arch, travelled beside Hyde Park “hands on the upper deck would greedily snatch at a twig to take to the City” to be met with “the cries of nuthatch and reed-warbler, cuckoo or nightingale.” This observation is taken from Neville Braybrook’s London Green. Matthew Arnold suggested in “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens,” that

The birds sing sweetly in these trees

Across the girdling city’s hum

immediately setting up a contrast between the quiet presence of pine, elm and chestnut, “amid the city’s jar.” The paradox is that London contains this peace within itself, that Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are as much a part of the city as Borough High Street or Brick Lane. The city moves slowly, as well as quickly; it provides a history of silence as well as of noise.

There were also once oases of the countryside to be found in Clerkenwell and Piccadilly, Smithfield and Southwark; here the trades included threshing and milking. The names of the streets bear evidence of London’s hitherto rural nature. Cornhill, by obvious derivation, is a token of a “hill where corn was grown,” according to Ekwall’s Street Names of the City of London, and Seething Lane is to be interpreted as “where chaff was plentiful … the chaff came from corn threshed and winnowed in the lane.” Oat Lane and Milk Street speak of the countryside. Cow Lane was not a place where cows were kept but a “lane along which cows were driven to or from pasture.” Addle Street, off Wood Street, and a few yards up from Milk Street, is derived from Old English adela or stinking urine and eddel or liquid manure; so we derive from it “lane full of cow dung.” The Huggin Lanes in Cripplegate and Queenhithe were both known as Hoggenlane in early transcripts. There were no fewer than three Hog Lanes—in East Smithfield, Norton Folgate and Portsoken. Chicken and Chick Lanes occur, together with Duck Lane, Goose Lane and Honey Lane—the latter indicating “that bees were formerly kept in the street.” The name of Blanch Appleton, a district of Aldgate, comes from appeltun, Old English for orchard.

The natural life of London deserves, then, to be celebrated. There are photographs of horse chestnuts in Watford and of cedars in Highgate, wood-pigeons nesting by the Bank of England and of hay-making in Hyde Park. Insects innumerable and other invertebrates have made their homes in the stones of London while various wild plants such as charlock and mayweed, broad dock and sun spurge, grow luxuriously in the natural habitat of the capital. While the rook and the jackdaw have been slowly driven outside the range of the city, the woodpigeon and the martin have moved in to take their place. The canals intersecting London have preserved territory for aquatic birds as have large water reservoirs. The development of sewage farms in the 1940s, recreated the conditions of the primeval Thames marshes with such inadvertent skill that many thousands of migrating birds descend upon London each year.

There are more than two hundred different species and sub-species of birds in the London area, ranging from the magpie to the greenfinch, but perhaps the most ubiquitous is the pigeon. It has been suggested that the swarms of feral pigeons are all descended from birds which escaped from dovecotes in the early medieval period; they found a natural habitat in the crannies and ledges of buildings as did their ancestors, the rockdoves, amid the sea-girt cliffs. “They nest in small colonies,” one observer has written, “usually high up and inaccessible” above the streets of London as if the streets were indeed a sea. A man fell from the belfry of St. Stephen’s Walbrook in 1277 while in quest of a pigeons’ nest, while the Bishop of London complained in 1385 of “malignant persons” who threw stones at the pigeons resting in the city churches. So pigeons were already a familiar presence, even if they were not treated with the same indulgence as their more recent successors. A modicum of kindness to these creatures seems to have been first shown in the late nineteenth century, when they were fed oats rather than the now customary stale bread.

From the end of the nineteenth century woodpigeons also migrated into the city; they were quickly urbanised, increasing both in numbers and in tameness. “We have frequently seen them on the roofs of houses,” wrote the author of Bird Life in London in 1893, “apparently as much at home as any dovecote pigeon.” Those who look up today may notice their “fly-lines” in the sky, from Lincoln’s Inn Fields over Kingsway and Trafalgar Square to Battersea, with other lines to Victoria Park and to Kenwood. The air of London is filled with such “fly-lines,” and to trace the paths of the birds would be to envisage the city in an entirely different form; then it would seem linked and unified by thousands of thoroughfares and small paths of energy, each with its own history of use.

The sparrows move quickly in public places, and they are now so much part of London that they have been adopted by the native population as the “sparrer”; a friend was known to Cockneys as a “cock-sparrer” in tribute to a bird which is sweet and yet watchful, blessed with a dusky plumage similar to that of the London dust, a plucky little bird darting in and out of the city’s endless uproar. They are small birds which can lose body heat very quickly, so they are perfectly adapted to the “heat island” of London. They will live in any small cranny or cavity, behind drain pipes or ventilation shafts, or in public statues, or holes in buildings; in that sense they are perfectly suited to a London topography. An ornithologist who described the sparrow as “peculiarly attached to man” said it “never now breeds at any distance from an occupied building.” This sociability, bred upon the fondness of the Londoner for the sparrow as much as the sparrow for the Londoner, is manifest in many ways. One naturalist, W.H. Hudson, has described how any stranger in a green space or public garden will soon find that “several sparrows are keeping him company … watching his every movement, and if he sit down on a chair or a bench several of them will come close to him, and hop this way and that before him, uttering a little plaintive note of interrogation—Have you got nothing for us?” They have also been described as the urchins of the streets— “thievish, self-assertive and pugnacious”—a condition which again may merit the attention and admiration of native Londoners. Remarkably attached to their surroundings, they rarely create “fly-lines” across the city; where they are born, like other Londoners, they stay.

And so they become associated with, and characterised by, their surroundings. The “Tower sparrows” were notorious as “feathered murderous ruffians” who kept up continual warfare with the pigeons and starlings of the building even though they had shared quarters with them for many centuries. In the autumn of 1738 a bolt of lightning left the ground covered “with heaps of dead sparrows” at Mile End Turnpike. There is something pitiful and yet splendid about this mass slaughter, as if again they represented the spirit of the city itself. These little creatures embody “sheer invincible fecundity,” according to E.M. Nicholson, the author of Bird-Watching in London: “they may be massacred perpetually and raise no obstacle, only they never diminish, that is the salvation of the species.” So their “incessant and indescribable” noise, when congregated in a roost, is the sound of collective triumph, “all mad and very happy,” fluttering and darting in the boughs as if the trees themselves had come alive.

Gulls are now perpetual visitors, although they first arrived in London as late as 1891. They came to enjoy the warmth of the city during a severe winter, and their entry soon excited the attention of Londoners. The citizens thronged upon the bridges and the embankments in order to watch them dive and tumble. In 1892 London magistrates forbade anyone from shooting them, and at that point for the first time the habit of feeding the gulls appeared; clerks and labourers of the 1890s would, during the free hour for lunch, go down to the bridges and offer them various foods. Theodore Dreiser walked upon Blackfriars Bridge one Sunday afternoon, in 1912, and found a line of men feeding “thousands of gulls” with minnows which they purchased at a penny a box. A sense of awe and kindliness, combined, would seem to characterise the native attitude. Yet their success in obtaining food from humans hands led to the continual reappearance of the gulls, until they acquired the reputation of being the principal scavengers of the city, supplanting the services of the raven. So the activity of the city can change the habits, as well as the habitat, of birds.

There are some birds, such as the robin and the chaffinch, which are less approachable and trustful in the city than in the country. Other species, such as the mallard, grow increasingly shyer as they leave London. There has been a severe diminution of the number of sparrows, while blackbirds are more plentiful. Swans and ducks have also increased in number. Some species, however, have all but vanished. The rooks of London are, perhaps, the most notable of the disappeared, their rookeries destroyed by building work or by tree-felling. Areas of London were continuously inhabited by rooks for many hundreds of years. The burial ground of St. Dunstan’s in the East and the college garden of the Ecclesiastical Court in Doctors’ Commons, the turrets of the Tower of London and the gardens of Grays Inn, were once such localities. There was a rookery in the Inner Temple dating from at least 1666, mentioned by Oliver Goldsmith in 1774. Rooks nested on Bow Church and on St. Olave’s. They were venerable London birds, preferring to cluster around ancient churches and ancient buildings as if they were their local guardians. Yet, in the words of the nineteenth-century song, “Now the old rooks have lost their places.” There was a grove in Kensington Gardens devoted to the rooks; it contained some seven hundred trees forming a piece of wild nature, a matter of delight and astonishment to those who walked among them and listened to the endless cawing that blotted out the city’s noise. But the trees were torn down in 1880. The rooks have never returned.

Yet other birds haunt the city. These are the caged birds, the canaries and the budgerigars, the larks and thrushes, who sing out of their confinement in a manner reminiscent of Londoners themselves. In Bleak House, Dickens’s novel which is so much a symbolic restatement of London vision, the caged birds belonging to Miss Flite are a central emblem of urban imprisonment. The occupants of Newgate were known as the “nightingales of Newgate” or “Newgate birds.” In Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) Orwell noted that the inhabitants of doss-houses or low lodging-houses kept caged birds, “tiny, faded things that had lived all their lives underground.” He recalled in particular one “old Irishman … whistling to a blind bullfinch in a tiny cage,” suggesting that there is a strange affinity between the luckless in London and the incarcerated birds. On the stone wall of the Beauchamp Tower, in the Tower of London, was inscribed with a nail “Epitaph on a Goldfinch”:

Where Raleigh pin’d within a prison’s gloom

I cheerful sung, nor murmur’d at my doom …

But death, more gentle than the law’s decree,

Hath paid my ransom from captivity.

Beneath it are engraved the words, “Buried, June 23, 1794, by a fellow-prisoner in the Tower of London.” The names of Miss Flite’s imprisoned birds were “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheapskin, Plunder.”

There was a trade in caged birds, of course, with street-markets in St. Giles and Spitalfields devoted to selling them. Most in demand was the goldfinch, with a regular supply of trapped and caught birds offered at sixpence to a shilling each; their attraction lay in their longevity, upwards of fifteen years, and in the possibility of cross-breeding. Chaffinches and greenfinches were also popular, although the latter bird was described by one street vendor to Henry Mayhew as “only a middling singer.” Freshly caught larks were sold at between sixpence and eightpence. Mayhew witnessed “the restless throwing up of the head of the caged lark, as if he were longing for a soar in the air”; yet he was trapped in a small and dirty cage in a nineteenth-century slum. The nightingale had also become a favourite of London’s bird dealers by the mid-nineteenth century but, again according to Mayhew, “shows symptoms of great uneasiness, dashing himself against the wires of his cage or aviary, and sometimes dying in a few days.”

Where there are birds, there are cats. They were ubiquitous throughout London, at least as early as the thirteenth century, and Cateaton Street was named in their honour. Now called Gresham Street, it was in the thirteenth century known variously as Cattestrate and Cattestrete and in the sixteenth as Catlen Strete or Catteten. Cats were considered to be the bearers of good luck, as the fourteenth-century legend of Richard Whittington and his cat attests, so there is every reason to believe that they were treated as welcome and perhaps even useful pets. But the London cat is also associated with strange superstitions. There is evidence of ritual cat sacrifice, where the unfortunate animal has been walled in an alcove and often preserved in mummified form. A significant example was discovered, in the autumn of 1946, behind a cornice in the tower of St. Michael Paternoster Royal, which is the church in which Richard Whittington was buried in 1423. Thus the continuance of a London legend was deemed worthy of a sacrifice in the rebuilt Wren church of 1694.

No doubt the dead beast was once one of that army of animals known collectively as “the city cats.” The night of the capital was their domain, where they sat upon old walls or slunk down dilapidated alleys. They were the guardians of London, patrolling streets and territories down which their distant ancestors once trod on quiet paws. There were other “cat streets” in the metropolis, most notably in the area of Clerkenwell Green and the Obelisk in St. George’s Fields as well as the lanes and alleys behind Drury Lane. Here, according to Charles Dickens, the cats took on all the characteristics of the people among whom they lived. “They leave their young families to stagger about the gutters, unassisted, while they frouzily quarrel and swear and scratch, and spit, at street-corners.” It is sometimes observed that pets come to resemble their owners, but it is also possible that a peculiarly London type of animal is produced by urban conditions.

By the close of the nineteenth century it was estimated that there were some three-quarters of a million cats in London, and they were of course variously treated. In late nineteenth-century Whitechapel an ancient prostitute—“a frowzy, debauched, drunken-looking creature,” as described by Charles Booth—distributed meat from a basket to every passing stray. Kindness of this nature seems to have emerged in the late nineteenth century. One old resident remarked to Booth: “The day was when no cat could appear in the streets of Bethnal Green without being hunted or maltreated; now such conduct is rare.” If there were ever to be written a history of moral emotions, it could do worse than study Londoners’ treatment of animals.

Dogs appear in almost every depiction of a London “street-scene,” prancing on the road and mingling joyfully with horses and pedestrians alike. There have been dogs at every stage of the city’s history, accompanying families in their walks along the fields, barking at passing processions, eager and fierce during riots, growling at and fighting each other in obscure disputes over London territory. In the twelfth century a royal edict declared that “if a greedy ravening dog shall bite” a “Royal beast,” then its owner forfeited his life. So we may imagine the inhabitants of early medieval London nervously taking out their dogs for sport, or pastime, or hunting, in any of the fields and meadows beyond the walls of the city. Yet the dogs which were taken to these areas had to be “expeditated”; their claws were cut down to the balls of their feet to stop them from running after deer.

A proclamation was made in 1387 “that dogs shall not wander in the City at large”; yet in the same order a distinction was made between wild or wandering dogs and household dogs. So the concept of the “pet” existed in medieval London. The most prized of London dogs was the mastiff. Many were sent as gifts to prominent persons abroad, and a German traveller of the sixteenth century noted that some of those dogs “are so large and heavy that if they have to be transported long distances, they are provided with shoes so that they do not wear out their feet.” They were also used as guard dogs and in the records of London Bridge there are payments made in compensation to those who had been bitten or hurt by the mastiff hounds. The major problem in the city, however, has always been that of strays. A notice at the newly built St. Katherine Docks, by the Tower of London, dated 23 September 1831, warned that “the Gate Keepers will prevent the admission of DOGS, unless the Owners shall have them fastened by a Cord or Handkerchief.” The principal complaint against the animals was that they wreaked “Considerable Injury” upon goods, but the age of commerce was also the age of philanthropy. In the mid-nineteenth century a Home for Lost and Starving Dogs was established in London; this is the first instance of canine welfare in the city. “When it first opened there was a disposition to laugh,” “Aleph” wrote in 1863, “but subscribers were found, and the asylum flourishes”; removed to Battersea in 1871 after complaints in the neighbourhood about the noise, it flourishes still, as the Battersea Dogs Home.

The flea is as ancient as the dog, but its part in the natural history of London is shrouded in obscurity. The bed bug was first noticed publicly in 1583, while the cockroach was reported by 1634. We may infer, however, that lice and fleas of every kind have infested London from the beginning of its recorded history, to such an extent that its condition has often been taken to resemble them. London, according to Verlaine, was “a flat, black bug.”

If animals in London were not used for labour or for food, they were characteristically employed for the purposes of entertainment. Ever since the first lions were placed in the Tower of London in the thirteenth century (to be joined later by a polar bear and an elephant), animals have provided a spectacle for the restless and voracious crowd. The first performing elephant in the London streets was recorded by Robert Hooke in 1679. Londoners could “see the animals” at Exeter Change. A building of three floors at the corner of Wellington Street and the Strand, it was known in the 1780s as “Pidcock’s Exhibition of Wild Beasts.” The animals were kept on the upper floors “in a small den and cages in rooms of various size, the walls painted with exotic scenery, in order to favour the illusion.” The menagerie went through the hands of three separate owners, and an engraving of 1826 shows the old house jutting above the Strand with pictures of elephants, tigers and monkeys daubed upon its front between two grand pillars of Corinthian design. Its popularity was very great, largely because, apart from the Tower zoo, it was the only menagerie of exotic species in London. The less dangerous animals were, on occasions, led through the streets as a living advertisement. Wordsworth mentions a dromedary and monkeys; and J.T. Smith in his Book for a Rainy Day, writes of an elephant “being led by its keeper between ropes along the narrow part of the Strand.” On 6 February 1826 this elephant, named Chunee, could stand his restraint no longer and, in violent anger, was about to burst out of his cage. A firing squad of soldiers from neighbouring Somerset House could not dispatch him, and a cannon was deployed to no effect. Eventually his keeper killed him with a spear, and he expired with 152 bullets found inside his body. Then the commercial spirit of London pursued him after his death. His carcass was on display to the crowds for some days until it became noisome, at which point it was sold off as 11,000 pounds of meat. The skeleton was displayed thereafter, until it became part of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Chunee was finally obliterated by a bomb in the Second World War. From his promenade along the Strand in 1825 to his destruction by fire in 1941, his story has an authentic London flavour.

The spirit of the city may also explain the passion for performing animals and circuses. In the streets of the capital rats danced on ropes and cats played dulcimers. Performing bears were ubiquitous from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, while performing monkeys and horses were part of the standard repertoire in rings and arenas. In the 1770s, Daniel Wildman specialised in riding upon a horse with a swarm of bees covering his face like a mask. Half a century later the Zoological Society was given a few acres of land in Regent’s Park for the erection of various pits and cages in a “zoological garden,” which was opened to the public two years later in 1828 and soon became a principal attraction of London; there are many prints showing the citizens enjoying the antics of the imprisoned creatures. In fact serious scientific research was soon overtaken by the demands of entertainment. “It is the very place for quiet easy talk in the open air,” Blanchard Jerrold wrote in 1872, “with the animals to point the conversation … will pass all London in review in the course of the season.” A shop by the bear pit was opened “for the sale of cakes, fruits, nuts and other articles which the visitor may be disposed to give to the different animals,” and a long stick was provided for feeding buns to the bears themselves.

Many visitors had their favourites, some preferring the monkey to the lynx or the hippopotamus to the wombat, and would come back each week to mark their condition. But together with pleasurable sympathy, there was always some anxiety that these creatures might break out of their imprisonment and wreak havoc among their captors. That is why both Dickens and Thackeray, joined by interest in public hangings, were also fascinated by the snakes held in confinement. Curiously enough, both of them depicted the same scene at feeding time. This is part of Thackeray’s account: “an immense boa constrictor swallowing a live rabbit—swallowing a live rabbit, sir, and looking as if he would have swallowed one of my little children afterwards.” So the zoo takes on symbolic importance in the life of a violent and dangerous city; here is violence tamed and danger averted, in the green surroundings of the Park. Here sits the lion which, in the words of a poem by Stevie Smith, is “Weeping tears of ruby rage.”

It would be the merest commonplace to note that the citizens, all dressed alike and walking through the zoo with well proportioned steps, are themselves imprisoned in the city. It was a trite comment even in the nineteenth century, when Gustave Doré depicted the Londoners by the monkey cage or in the parrots’ walk as equivalent to the animals—animals which in turn seem to be observing them. Yet there is a resonance between the zoo and the city, in terms of noise and in terms of madness. The confused or shrill sound of the crowd was often compared with the sound of animals, while the deranged at Bedlam were in 1857 said by the Quarterly Review to resemble the “fiercer carnivores at the Zoological Gardens.” The comparison is obvious enough. The mad were kept in cages where they were visited by curious observers for the sake of entertainment. Said to sound like “ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears,” the deranged were as “ravenous and unsatiable as wolves” or as “drenched by compulsion as horses.” The deranged Londoner, in other words, is an animal; this definition spills over into descriptions of the crowd or mob as a “Beast.” The city itself becomes a vast zoo in which all of the cages have been unlocked.

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