A monkey in Soho? Cows at Admiralty Arch? London's unexpected animals
Updated: May 4
London has not just been home to millions of people over its almost two thousand year history, it has also been home to a far greater number of animals. Some of these animals’ stories can be found in some rather surprising locations.
Let's start off with a killer monkey in Soho...
DUCK LANE W1 – A MONKEY
In the early nineteenth century Duck Lane stood at the centre of a tightly packed slum district and was the site of the Westminster Dog Pit, where bears and dogs were brought for baiting.
However in 1821, the biggest draw here was a fearsome gibbon called Jaco.
Jaco had originally been bought in Angola by a sailor but when Jaco bit three of the sailor’s fingers off he decided to sell him on to a silversmith.
However, the silversmith could not cope with Jaco’s aggression either so he took the monkey to some nearby fields to be finished off by some dogs but Jaco ending up killing all of the dogs.
So, it was the silversmith who brought Jaco to the Westminster Dog Pit, claiming that Jaco could fight any dog up to twice his size (so as big as a four year-old child). Jaco’s method of attack was to go for the dog’s windpipe before launching himself onto the dog’s back and wrestling it to the gound. He was reported to have finished off fourteen dogs in a row at the Westminster Dog Pit.
Animal fighting was a cruel and barbaric business, for the animals but also sometimes for the people. To make the fights more interesting, sometimes people were pitted against the animals, especially in rat-baiting which was another popular bloodsport. In the nineteenth century, one poor boy called Samuel Province killed a hundred rats at the Westminster Dog Put in under five minutes; he did it just like a terrier would – crouching on all fours and biting their rats’ heads off. The crowd cheered not just with blood lust but also in contempt at the boy’s humiliation, chewing rodents' heads off like a dog.
THE SAVOY HOTEL WC2 – CAT
If you ever have a dinner booking at the Savoy Hotel, you have to be pretty rich because it’s not cheap but if you ever have a dinner booking at the Savoy Hotel for thirteen people, then they will provide the fourteenth meal for free!
They will also provide a three foot high figurine of a black cat called Kaspar who is given his own place, with his own napkin and served the fourteenth meal!
It’s all because the first ever dinner booking their took their for thirteen people, the host shot himself afterwards. It’s to avoid any more bad luck.
EXETER STREET WC2 – ELEPHANT
In the early nineteenth century boring old Exeter Street (on the other side of the road from where the Savoy now stands) was the home of the menagerie of Edward Cross. It was one of the largest collections of animals in the country and attracted visitors throughout the year. Lions and tigers could be heard roaring over the current route of the No 1 bus!
The poet Lord Byron recorded going to the menagerie to see an elephant who had been taught a number of tricks; such as how to open a door or take a gentleman’s hat. He said that he wished the animal could be his butler.
The elephant may well have been Chunee.
The problem with elephants, as the menagerie's proprietor Edward Cross soon discovered, is that they are very big. And the added problem with some elephants is that they continue to put weight on throughout their whole entire lives. They. never. stop. growing. And Chunee grew very large indeed.
In fact he grew too large for the Emporium. Not just uncomfortably large but dangerously large. There was a real risk that he might cause serious structural damage to the building.
At the same time, he was also too large leave the building.
It was Catch 22 and as you can probably guess it did not end well for Chunee.
Edward Cross decided he had to be put down. To do this, soldiers were brought in to shoot him but again there was a problem; an elephant’s skin is very tough and two hundred years ago guns and bullets were not as effective as they are nowadays.
After more than one hundred and fifty bullets had been shot into Chunee, they gave up and stabbed him with a spear.
RATCLIFFE HIGHWAY E1 – TIGER
In the late nineteenth century Ratcliffe Highway was the home of another of London's private menageries, Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, which supplied zoos and private collection with exotic animals. It was essentially the biggest pet shop in the world.
In 1857, disaster was narrowly averted at the emporium thanks to the bravery of the German-born founder, Charles Jamrach. One of the menagerie's animals, a bengal tiger, escaped and wandered into the street where a small boy approached him and tried to stroke him, never having seen such a large cat before.
The tiger scooped the small boy up in his mouth and started to walk off with him.
Charles Jamrach gave chase and prised the tiger’s jaws open with his bare hands, which allowed the boy to escape unharmed.
Thankfully the tiger's story ends a little more happily than poor old Chunee's. The tiger went unpunished, after all it wasn't really his fault; although he was sold to one of Jamrach’s rivals, George Wombwell, where he became one of the star attractions.
OLD COMPTON STREET W1D – BOA CONSTRICTOR
What do you need to become a success in business? Brains? Luck? Hard work? The right idea at the right time?
Or a snake?
George Wombwell was a cobbler on Soho’s Old Compton Street in the nineteenth century. Not a bad job, but he was never going to be the next Deborah Meaden.
One day though, he bought two boa constrictors off a sailor in the pub. The next day, he took them around the other pubs charging drunks a penny per view!
By 1828 he had built up the largest and most famous travelling menagerie in the country and was making £1700 profit a year (how much was that? Massive – you could fund an army for a week that much).
HARRODS SW1X– ALLIGATOR
“Omnia omnibus ubique”
That’s a bit of Latin for you! It’s also the motto of Harrods. It means “Everything for everybody everywhere” and that used to be true; until the 1916 you could just walk into Harrods and buy cocaine, they just sold it over the counter!
In 1951, actress Beatrice Lillie (who stared as Mrs Meers in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’) bought an alligator from Harrods as a Christmas present her friend the playwright Noël Coward.
ADMIRALTY ARCH SW1A– COWS
Work is underway to convert Admiralty Arch at the end of the Mall into another super-hotel.
But at the beginning of the twentieth century when plans were first mooted for its construction great consternation was caused by the threat this posed to the Cow Ladies of Spring Gardens.
Spring Gardens, down the northern side of Admiralty Arch, nowadays stands as a great example of a London street that sounds a lot better than it really is; you won’t a spring down there and you won’t find much of a garden either.
In the time of Queen Elizabeth I of course, both could be found there and quite an attraction they formed.
However by the late nineteenth century, all that remained of the once idyllic gardens was a stand where fresh milk was sold by two old ladies who walked their cows (housed in sheds off the Strand) every day.
The authorities attempts to remove them was resisted both by the ladies themselves, who claimed that their families had been doing so for generations, and in parliament where questions were asked on their behalf; the fresh milk being seen as one of the attractions of a visit to nearby St James’s Park.
As a compromise, the ladies were allowed to carry on their trade inside St James’s Park. Although the lady old lady died in 1920, the tradition lives on. The site in the park to which the old ladies moved themselves is now occupied by Inn in the Park which has been selling refreshments in the park ever since.
GREAT WINDMILL STREET W1D – ZEBRAS
In the eighteen century Scottish anatomist William Hunter opened an Anatomy School on Great Windmill Street. It was equipped with a museum, library, anatomical theatre and dissecting rooms and also a residence for himself and his family.
Hunter was not just interested in human anatomy but also animal anatomy. Any strange creature brought to London, or its corpse, was brought to Hunter to view.
At his country house, out in the wilds of darkest Earls Court, he kept zebras, Asiatic buffalo, leopards, ostriches and mountain goats grazing in the gardens His farmhands would use the zebras to transport produce from his country house to his home in London. So just think, pulling up on Great Windmill Street in the 1770s would have been carts of turnips or potatoes or whatever else they ate back then, pulled by pairs of zebras!
LEADENHALL MARKET EC3A – GANDER (it's a male goose!)
Leadenhall Market hasn’t always been a venue for boozy City-worker lunches. Once upon a time, as the name suggests, it was an actual market.
Established behind a lead-roofed mansion in the fourteenth century, the market specialised in fish, meat and poultry.
Nowadays, people think of Harry Potter because it was used to film Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films – but two hundred years ago no-one had heard of Harry Potter and the most famous name associated with the market was Old Tom.
Old Tom was a gander (it means ‘male goose’, I had to look it up) who had snuck along to the market with a flock of geese who were brought here for slaughter.
Luckily for Tom (although not for his lady friends), Tom’s life was spared by the market workers who adopted them as their mascot; feeding him and looking after him. He became a regular in the local pubs where he was titbits, living a grand old life and living to the ripe old age of 38. He is buried somewhere in the market!