Today (December 22) in London History – Ming the Panda

A European first. London Zoo gets a panda! This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


And counting.

If only time stood still.

The poet but it best, though, “we cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold.”

It’s December 22nd, 1938. 

Ming is here and everybody’s fallen in love with her.

Ming’s a baby panda.

She and four adults have arrived at the London Zoo from China.

There’s so much excitement. All of London’s abuzz.

5 Giant Pandas for the Zoo 

Rarest animals in the world exclaimed the Telegraph’s double-barrelled headline. 

The Telegraph story goes on to say “the pandas are the first living specimens ever seen in Europe” and it provides its readers with a helpful primer: 

“A giant panda,” the Telegraph informs its readers, “has a plaintive expression, is mentally slothful and in captivity enjoys being petted.”

“A large cat-bear found on the borders of China and Tibet, it has long thick fur, white in colour, with large brown or sometimes black patches, a busy tail, and cat-like face with brown rings round the eyes. 

Full-grown, a giant panda is the size of a large pig. Well, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. Another journalist said he thought the pandas looked like “outsize raccoons.”

Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. But it is certainly striking, from a 21st-century perspective, that Fleet Street’s finest were all over the shop trying to picture a panda for their readers.

Which I suppose is to be expected. After all, in the words of one of those 1938 journos, “Until 10 years ago the giant panda was regarded as something of a fabulous animal, as no specimens were shot or captured, and its existence was merely suspected because of mysterious and unfamiliar skins smuggled over the border into china. But in 1928 an American expedition shot a specimen. After that other examples of the giant panda were shot but not until two years ago was a baby taken to America.” Well, how different sensibilities were 90 years ago. At least as regards pandas.

Anyway, it’s 1938 and London’s got its own baby panda.

Her name is Ming. She’s extremely playful. Cute as can be of course.

But it turns out that she was inclined to be lethargic. The solution – this must have been so cute: the zookeepers introduced a well-trained Alsation to induce Ming to take exercise. The two of them would have a little play every morning. The dog – I’d so like to know his name – would feint and then dash in with a pretence of biting. Ming would defend herself by hitting out with her paws and rolling from side to side. London children – and adults – must have enjoyed that as much as the participants did.

Another treat was Ming’s regular routine in her bath. She would test the temperature of the water with her paw and then lower herself into the tub and splash about like a child. Fun.

But remember the poet’s line, “we cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold.”

A year later the headline read, “The solitude of Ming.”

I almost wish I had left off on December 22nd, 1938. Hadn’t tracked Ming any further. Wish that question – “wonder what happened to Ming?” – hadn’t presented itself. 

A journalist who dropped in on Ming a year later had this rather sad tale to tell.

“It is not long since we were all talking of the panda. Panda dolls appeared in the shops. There were panda jokes, panda cartoons, panda films, panda serials. We did not go to the Zoo; we went to the panda, and when we arrived Ming would be holding her court, climbing into her bath, lolloping around her cage, proving to an admiring world that a vegetarian panda 

from the wild, hilly parts of Szechwan in South-west China (see catalogue; Ming is still on the cover) would make the fortune of any showman.

Suddenly the war challenged the panda’s fame. The light was dimmed. Panda dolls went the way of the Snow Whites and seven dwarfs. The London world deserted its idol.

And then we get this:

“A child looked at Ming without enthusiasm and passed on to the whimbrels and ruffs. A man hurried by to a seat near the waders’ aviary. The panda was alone. Ming, breathing heavily and dreaming of bamboo forests in Szechwan, did not move. Presently she turned on her back, shook her paws and settled to sleep again. Times are not what they were, even for giant pandas – and whenever this profound observation occurs to her, Ming seeks refuge in sleep. A year ago she was the planet of the Zoo. Today she is only one star in a constellation.”

You read that, you let it sink in, and suddenly you remember that “plaintive expression,” which was the first thing that first journalist who saw her, noted.

It’s a good tale. Happy and sad. And I think has more staying power for being so.

My taste for the saccharine is long gone. Thank goodness. 

Ok, a Today in London recommendation. 

Well, one for your 2023 diary – because this year’s is fully booked. It’s the BBC Singers giving their annual performance of contemporary Christmas Carols alongside some old favourites. At historic old Temple church. Good to know about. Worth waiting for.  

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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