Chasing the Menagerie (Through History)

Our historian began her walk at around 4:30 PM, on October the 25th, just outside of the Tower of London. At that point her focus of attention was not, however, fixed on the magnificent stone fortress before her. It was instead held captive by a strange diorama, depicted here:

The scene is referring to the London Menagerie, the animals that were property of the royal family from the twelve hundreds, until they were moved to the London Zoological Gardens in 1831 (Velten, 2013: pp. 160). In the six hundred years between their first arrival in London and the move to Reagents Park, the many animals of the Royal Menagerie functioned as entertainment and status markers for the royals. In the above picture on the left you may see a pair of stone pits. This is, our walker presumes, where part of the Menagerie was kept, just outside the entrance to the Tower. Our walker decided to undertake the four and a half mile stroll from this place near the Tower, to the London Zoological Gardens in Reagents Park.

Starting out from the Tower of London, she turned her steps for a time along Three Quays Walk, then Lower and Upper Thames Streets, heading towards her one excursion into Gough Square where sits the statue of Hodge, a cat belonging to one Dr. Samuel Johnson. While the existence of any animals–historical or modern–between the Tower and Ludgate Hill seems negligible (barring of course, the curious creature discussed later), the many animal statues more than made up for this lack:

Whether simply decorative, or forming a symbol or herald, these animals stared out from the fronts and sides of buildings lining the street, frozen in time. Beside the ancient, quiet creatures sat pigeons–at least, wherever there were no spikes designed to keep the birds away. As if that might be enough to keep bold creatures such as this one away:


As she passed along the road towards St. Pauls and Gough Square, she noted a number of colorful posts adorned with silver dragons, exactly like this one:


These, she discovered, are boundary markers for the City of London. While posts such as the one above are more common, at a number of different locations the border is guarded by a large silver dragon. More information about where the larger dragons are and what they look like can be found here.

Below lies yet another fascinating find, located just down the road from St. Pauls. Although the image is somewhat blurred, one can still make out the creatures of the zodiac within the blue circle. This astronomical clock was created by a friend of Winston Churchill, whose name remains emblazoned on the building below the clock. Bizarrely, the same prime minister’s face is immortalized at the very centre of the clock. One can only wonder how and why this particular representation came to pass….

img_8338(The website here has clearer photographs, and more information on the clock and it’s history–in both English and French!)

It was just off of St. Paul’s Churchyard across from the magnificent cathedral, that she happened to come across her first “London Animal”–a very unusual creature, shown here:


Although quite fearsome in size and form, the dragon appeared harmless, going so far as to let children perch upon his raised claw, as shown above. Although she could not find any further information on this enigmatic creature, she was quite pleased to meet him–and pleased as well that there should be some such mystery within her travels.

Leaving the dragon behind she continued onto Ludgate Hill, passing through the crowds and noise there to pass onto Fleet Street where there was, in 1748, a “Grand Collection of Living Wild Beasts… come to the White Horse Inn” (Velten, 2013: pp. 155). This was one of the many traveling or personal collections of exotic animals to be found in London around that time, despite the royal edict banning the ownership of such animals outside of the Tower Menagerie (Velten, 2013). In the 1700s larger collections were not very common. The rich would perhaps have one that “usually consisted of assorted parrots, finches, pheasants and wild foul, as well perhaps as deer, small monkeys, and later kangaroos” (Plumb, 2015). It seems that a surprising number of people, including the famed Samuel Pepys, owned exotic animals. “Samuel Pepys was given a lion cub by Samuel Martin, then the British console in 1674. It lived with Pepys at Derby House in Westminster and Pepys described his new friend: ‘as tame as you sent him and as good company’. What happened to the lion after it inevitably outgrew its welcome, we don’t know.” (Velten, 2013: pp. 148). Certain collections could be found around central London and seen for a fee. Others would travel for a wider audience. Unfortunately most of these creatures, Fleet Street Menagerie likely included, were not well kept and died quite young.

Turning off of Fleet Street into a burrow-like alley called Bolt Ct., it seemed to our walker that she had entered a different world entirely. As if passing through the wardrobe into C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, the city noises faded, and a calm, den-like silence reigned within the small alleyway. She followed this along to meet Hind Ct., and then emerged into Gough Square. At the center of this sat Hodge, frozen with his back to the alley entrance, casually pawing a clam.


Hodge belonged to the famed and much quoted author, Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was, according to the website dedicated to Dr. Johnson, made famous by the Doctor’s particular habit of purchasing and feeding him oysters. The plaque below his statue contains Dr. Johnson’s dates, and select quotes.


The little square truly seemed like some other world, far outside of London. She could well imagine the cat, though three hundred years dead, leaping from his pedestal and prowling round the bright edge of the square to where Dr. Johnson’s garden lay in the corner, behind a tall iron gate.

Passing from Gough Square and back into the bustle of the main streets via Pemberton Row, W Harding Street, Fetter Lane, and finally a series of winding alleys and passageways ending in Cursitor Street and emerging onto Chancery Lane, our walker found herself in want of animal references, save a large flock of seagulls circling over the left-hand buildings of the lane. While she sighted a number of modern symbols, such as the rhinoceros below, any historical animal locations were lacking until Chancery Lane became High Holborn.


According to the author of the book, Beastly London, not far off of High Holborn in 1739 “near Red Lion Square, Holborn, for half a crown,” one could see a rhinoceros, which, “according to the physician James Parsons… it was a two-year-old male whose temper made him particularly dangerous when he was struck or before he was given his morning rice and sugar (!).” (Velten, 2013: pp. 150).

Our walker moved on through Russel Square, encountering and having a conversation with a Red Cross Volunteer (animal-less, unfortunately), and, as at this time night began to fall, she picked up her pace. The old architecture faded as she left Russel Square and continued towards Camden town. In Camden she encountered a modern menagerie: a number of people out walking their dogs. There was a large akita dog, lunging at the end of his leash and looking rather proud, and a little scottie, behaving quite well. Night had truly fallen by this point and she increased her pace once more, determined to reach the Zoo before she should be forced to meet some of the more unsavory of London’s creatures: the rats and foxes of the back alleyways. She turned off of Camden High Street and onto Delancey Street, crossing the rail to come, finally, to Reagent’s Park. In the shrubbery bordering the Zoo stood signs proclaiming the residence in that place of London’s only population of Hedgehogs. (Field, 2016). Further investigation revealed that the Hedgehogs are currently at risk from a large number of lorries soon to gather in the car park near their strip of shrubbery. One can only hope that the creatures learn to stay away from the pavement.

She followed the hedgehog habitat, walking along the road that borders the park until she came to a canal. Over this canal stood a bridge and above, a sign proclaiming the location of the London Zoological Society–the final home of the last animals from the London Menagerie. It being quite dark by this time she walked but a little further and then made glad use of the bus, with full intention to return at another time for a proper exploration of the Zoo.

In a total of two hours and four and a half miles, our walker had been very glad to discover that London–although in some places a barren, urban jungle–is not so lacking in wild things after all….


Plumb, C. (2015). The Georgian Menagerie. London: IB Tauris & Co.

Velten, H. (2013). Beastly London. London: Reaktion Books, pp. 148-160.

Philo, C & Wilbert, C. eds. (2000). Animal Spaces, Beastly Places. London: Routledge Ltd.

Dr. Johnson’s House Trust LTD. Frequently Asked Questions and Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson’s House, 2012) (Field, 2016)


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