The Lion Tower Of London

Founded in April 1826, the Zoological Society of London brought to fruition the dream of Sir Stamford Raffles, Humphry Davy, and Joseph Banks, to create a zoological collection that would not only “interest and amuse the public” but also rival that of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. A plot of land was purchased from the Crown in Regent’s Park, animal houses were constructed, and on April 27, 1828, what is now ZLS London Zoo opened its doors to members of the society. It is the world’s oldest scientific zoo, but, curiously, members of the public were only allowed entry in 1847, their ticket money boosting the Society’s depleted funds.

For centuries keeping exotic animals was the preserve of royalty, often given as diplomatic gifts. In 1110 King Henry I built a seven-mile-long wall at the Royal Park of Woodstock in Oxfordshire to enclose a collection of lions, camels, and porcupines, in what was England’s first zoo. The animals were kept not to satisfy any scientific interest, but to add some spice to the king’s passion for hunting.

A gift of three lions from the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, in 1235 prompted Henry III to create his own menagerie, which included a polar bear, allowed to fish in the Thames, and, in 1255, an animal which the contemporary chronicler, Matthew Paris, described as “a rough-hided animal that eats and drinks with its trunk”. By the 1270s Edward I had built a tower, known as the Lion Tower, at the entrance to the Tower of London, known as the Lion Tower, to house the royal animals, their roars intimidating all who passed by.

Keeping elephants was especially problematic. They were thought to be carnivorous, while James I was advised to feed his on a diet of wine between the months of September and April. This woeful ignorance of their dietary requirements, together with cramped living conditions and the extremes of the English climate, meant that the animals often lived short, miserable lives.

The public was first admitted to see the collection during the reign of Elizabeth I, for free, if they brought a cat or dog, which were promptly fed to the carnivores. By the start of the 19th century, admission cost a shilling and visitors were advised “not to approach too near the dens, and avoid every attempt to play with them”, sensible advice that was not always heeded. On February 8, 1686, Mary Jenkinson was savaged to death while patting the paw of a lion.

By the time that Alfred Cops was appointed head keeper in 1822 all that was left of the collection was a handful of animals. He set about improving the animals’ living conditions, introducing a breeding programme, and extending the collection. There were around 300 animals, representing sixty species, by 1828, and some were even born in the Tower, prompting one commentator to note that “those whelped in the Tower are more fierce than such as are taken wild”.

Despite Cops’ success, accidents and escapes dogged the menagerie. Some wolves broke into a keeper’s apartment, causing his wife and children to flee for their lives, a secretary bird regretted its decision to poke its head into a hyena’s enclosure, and a battle royal between two tigers and a lion, accidentally let into the same cage, resulted in the lion dying from its injuries. With the new zoo at Regent’s Park offering alternative accommodation, the government, tiring of the problems associated with the menagerie, transferred many of the animals there.

Cops, though, was allowed to exhibit his own animals, but even then, misfortune dogged him. His menagerie was closed down on August 28, 1835, after an audacious attack by a monkey on a guardsman. The collection was sold to an American showman, Benjamin Franklin Brown, and the tower was demolished shortly afterwards.

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