Visualise London animals today and you may only think of the Tower ravens, the horses of the Household Cavalry and urban foxes, but the animals of London past were conspicuous and affected the city’s economic, social and cultural landscape.
I’d like to introduce you to a selection of animals who carved out their own place in London history – many of whom were superstars of their time (thanks to their owners’ knack of promotion), but others I’ve included were recognised for quietly going about their business or being victims of London life, in one way or another.
Jack the Trace Horse
1912 and Our Dumb Friends’ League (now The Blue Cross) propose to fund a trace-horse in the autumn to help horses pull their heavy loads up Kingston Hill which was ‘steep, long, narrow, and has a very slippery surface, so that horses are often seen much distressed.’ By 1931, Jack the trace horse had won his fourth successive title of ‘London Van Horse (of the Year)’ and had pulled about 17,000 tired horses up Wimbledon Hill for over four and a half years. What a Trojan!
Obaysch the Hippo
The first ‘star’ attraction at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park arrived in 1850. Gifted by the Viceroy of Egypt to the British Consul, the hippo’s sea journey from Cairo to Southampton and then his subsequent train trip to London was documented in detail by the press. Obaysch became the Zoo’s dream PR opportunity with his ability to keep the public amused with his antics in the pool, Punch magazine christened him HRH (His Rolling Hulk), a dance called ‘The Hippopotamus Polka’ became popular and Cockney bus conductors would shout ‘Don’t let the ’orses see the ’ippo’ when a rotund man boarded.
Old Tom the Goose
The life of this goose is recorded for posterity on a plague on Lime Street Passage within Leadenhall Market. Old Tom lived at the market from 1823-1835, becoming ‘the patriarch and guardian of all the geese and goslings that came into the market, and he was never known to let one go astray. He was a favourite with all, and the pet of many.’ He was acting as a decoy (a tame goose which others would follow) in Ostend when he accidentally boarded the boat to London after becoming infatuated with one of the ganders in his charge. Life in London suited him fine, although he had several narrow escapes with the butchers due to mistaken identity!
Mr Nicholson’s Learned Pig
A rather lean, black boar was initially shown at 55, Charing Cross in 1785 and also at Sadler’s Wells theatre by showman Nicholson. Interest in the pig’s apparent ability to answer questions by picking up number and letter cards was immense: he could arrange letters to make words, answer mathematical questions and tell the time on a watch. This pig allegedly raised £2,000 while in London and was said to be more highly regarded by the public than Sir Isaac Newton. He was worked hard (four shows a day, every day) and when asked why the pig was slim, Nicholson replied that a, ‘plenitude in the belly would diminish his pupil’s adherence to discipline’. Many other entertaining pigs followed after this one’s death in 1788.
Pigs. Learned, apparently.
Flush the Dog
Travel through the ‘obscure streets’ of 1840s Shoreditch to meet the dog thief known as Taylor. He stole Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s golden cocker spaniel Flush three times – twice in the streets and once on the doorstep of Browning’s house in Wimpole Street, using the services of a decoy dog to attract Flush’s attention. Taylor, and other dog thieves, would reunite owners with their dogs upon the payment of a reward for ‘finding’ their lost pets: an age-old ruse still, unfortunately, practised today.
Willy the Whale
Now labelled as SW 2006/40 in the archives of the Natural History Museum, this 15-ft northern bottle-nosed whale calf kept global audiences aghast as it swam upriver past the Houses of Parliament in 2006. This calf (actually female) eventually died in the Thames estuary on a barge after its two-day rescue ordeal. It was actually thought that Willy suffered more from Londoner’s ‘humane’ treatment than other Thames’ mammals in history because at least they had been killed quickly. Rarities such as dolphins, whales and sharks were either killed for their novelty value as exhibition carcasses, for their meat and oil or just as good sport.
Londoners in 1821 looking for a bit of sport could do no better than see this Spanish monkey in action. Jacco was a gibbon-type monkey weighing about 10lbs and he would fight any dog up to 20lbs. It was rumoured that he could kill any dog within five minutes and in the Westminster Dog Pit, Duck Lane, he had killed 14 dogs in a row. But he met his match in Puss – a boxer dog owned by the famous boxer Tom Cribb. During an animal cruelty legislation debate in the House of Commons, 1822, it was reported that Jacco and Puss died after the bloody battle, but later accounts of the fight told a different story with both animals surviving. One eye witness account even told of Cribb nicking his dog’s jugular vein with a lancet before the fight, and Jacco being an ‘ill-looking monkey…nothing about him suggestive of an animal that had ever conquered’. Fight fixing to make the pit’s reputation?! Probably.
Monkey-baiting. Bear-baiting. Is there anything we wouldn’t bait!
Meet a multitude of other historical London animals in Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City (Reaktion Books) by Hannah Velten, out now.