Today (February 26) in London History – the London Zoo

Today, February 26th (1826) was the conception moment for the London Zoo. This Today in London History podcast tells the story of its founding – and of the amazing man who was the driving force behind it.


I suspect this is one of those ridiculous practices that is only indulged in by males who never grow up. Of which I’m a prime example – males who never grow up, I mean. 

I’m talking about working back nine months from one’s birthday to try to establish when one really got started.

The moment of conception in other words.

Years ago I ran the idea past my kids. I said, “it’s a bit of a stretch but it’s maybe a little bit akin to the Queen having two birthdays. Her real birthday, her biological birthday. And her official birthday – which usually takes place on the second Saturday in June. 

For the record, the tradition of the monarch having two birthdays goes back to 1748. King George II’s real birthday was November 10th. And the problem of course was the weather. It wasn’t dependable. Often wasn’t suitable for a large public celebration in honour of His Majesty’s Birthday. So they hit on the idea of holding the official birthday celebrations in June. Combined them with the Trooping the Colour Parade. Its origins – Trooping the Colour – can be traced back to the reign of Charles II. It’s entirely ceremonial today but it was originally of great military practicality. In those days the colours of a regiment were used as a rallying point in battle. As such they were trooped in front of the soldiers every day to make sure that every man could recognise the colours of his own regiment. 

In London the Foot Guards would do it as part of their daily guard mounting on Horse Guards. And sure enough, 350 years later the splendid Trooping the Colour parade and ceremony – the occasion for the Queen’s official birthday – is along similar lines. And, yes, it takes place at Horse Guards. So like everything else in this country that doesn’t seem to make much sense, if you drill down into the history – get right down to beginnings and origins – it makes perfect sense. 

Anyway, I mentioned same to my kids – “your dad was born in late July but I really think of late October the previous year as when the show got on the road. And it’s the same for you guys, just count back nine months from your birthday.”

Well, you can imagine the reaction. My daughter – eminently sensible – just said, “don’t be preposterous, dad.” My elder son fell about at the idea of his parents doing it. As for my younger son – the one who has the surest sense of self of any human being I’ve ever encountered – and who into the bargain labours under an imperfect grasp of biology – he just snorted and said, “bullshit, dad, I would have got here even if you and mum hadn’t got together.” 

Anyway, that bit of silliness is by way of saying you can track the London Zoo’s beginnings along similar lines.

The conception moment for the London Zoo was on this day, February 26th, 1826. The Zoo had quite a long gestation period. It didn’t come forth – didn’t open – until 1828. April 27, 1828, to be exact.

And for a third date – sort of the equivalent of the end of the first trimester if you’re conceptualising the thing in human pregnancy terms – though it’s two months not three months – the Zoological Society was founded on April 29th, 1826.

Now for just a couple of minutes I’m going to refrain from naming names – going to keep the key players under wraps.

Let’s get the show on the road with a visit to the Zoo in 1828. We’ll be among the 30,000 visitors the zoo attracted in the first seven months it was open. We’ll see monkeys, bears, emus, kangaroos, llamas, zebras and turtles.

We’ll be required to leave our whips at the gate. Which means my lot – males – don’t have the means to cause trouble. Women, on the other hand, are a problem. They’re allowed to keep their parasols. Well, you can probably guess. The ladies have to be restrained from poking them through the bars. 

That’s a first visit. Subsequent visits are even more exciting. Because over time the Zoo becomes even more of a Noah’s ark. In 1830 the Royal Menagerie arrives from Windsor. A couple of years later the animals that were kept at the Tower of London pitch up. They include an Indian elephant, an alligator, a boa, an anaconda and over 100 rattlesnakes. 

And then – big day – this was in 1835: Tommy arrives. Tommy the Chimpanzee. The zoo’s first chimp.

Tommy inspired a poem. Goes like this.

The folks in town are nearly wild

To go and see the monkey-child

In gardens of Zoology

Whose proper name is Chimpanzee.

To keep this baby free from hurt

He’s dressed in a cap and Guernsey Shirt;

They’ve got him a nurse and he sits on her knee

And she calls him her Tommy Chimpanzee.

Hard act to follow. But the next year four giraffes arrived. They caused a sensation. A sensation that extended into

London fashion. For a time ladies’ dresses were patterned

like the skins of giraffes. The female giraffe just got on with it. Well, I guess the male did as well. Over the next 11 years she gave birth to six calves. The zoo got an orangutan in 1837. And then a lion and lioness in 1840. They didn’t

live happily ever after. The lioness died after tripping on a fence. And, alas, losing her did for her partner. Poor chap. He pined away for a few weeks and then died himself. 

Well, we’re in the 1840s and the story’s got another 180 years to run to get to today. Like a lot of people these days I have mixed feelings about locking wild animals up. So I’ll wind up the catalogue here with the biter bitten tale of the reptile house mishap. The reptile house opened in 1843. It wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings. The reptile keeper tried to charm a cobra and for his troubles he was bitten between the eyes and died within hours.

Ok, let’s go back to the conception moment. February 26, 1826. Our man is Stamford Raffles. What a great name. Well, his full name is Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles. He chairs a meeting of what will become the Zoological Society. They decide to start a Zoo. And the rest is, as the saying goes, history.

But not so fast, we can’t in good conscience take our leave of Stamford Raffles just yet. What a man. He’s one of those Englishmen you’re in awe of. He only lived to be 45. He was the son of a naval captain. Was born on a ship off Jamaica. Started his working life as a clerk at East India House. Was sent out to Penang in 1805. He was 24 years old. On the voyage out he taught himself Malay and when he got there he embarked on a lifetime study of the history, flora, and fauna of the region.

And now I’m going to telescope. Stamford Raffles was the colonial administrator par excellence. What a lot he accomplished in his short career, his short life. He checked the spread of Dutch power and influence in the region. Checkmating the Dutch opened the doors for the Brits. Stamford Raffles spread British power and influence all over the region. He established British posts here, there and everywhere. He signed treaties. He prohibited slave trading. He banned the carrying of arms. He banned gambling. He banned cock-fighting. He introduced deterrent taxation to check other vices, especially alcohol and opium.

He started a world-class educational institution – the Raffles Institution, it’s the premier school in the region’s most important city. He revived old old cultures and spread European enlightenment through economic progress, liberal education, and the rule of law. He was a collector on a par with Sir Hans Sloane. Had a huge collection of plants, fish, animals, and birds; you can add to that between 2000 and 3000 unique natural history drawings and paintings; and then top that up with original Malay manuscripts and Raffles’s notes about the history of Borneo and Sumatra. Now here’s the bad news, that priceless collection burned up when the Fame, the ship carrying it back to England caught fire. 

Stamford Raffles wrote books and papers. He was the first president of the Zoological Society. Is it any wonder there’s a statue of him in Westminster Abbey and his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. And another in the council room at the London Zoo. He has a couple of flowers named after him. He had a hand in discovering them. One of them is the largest flower in the world.

He’s buried in Hendon. There’s a powerful story there as well. His grave was unmarked. It was accidentally discovered in 1914. Why was it unmarked? Because of family arguments with the vicar, who held investments in the West Indies and objected to Raffles’s campaign against slavery.

Some life, eh. You’d think founding the London Zoo would be enough in the way of making a mark. But that was just Stamford Raffles’ swan song. 

And here’s the kicker. I’ve held something back.

Stamford Raffles founded Singapore. 

That great city – not the London Zoo – is his most enduring monument. In the words of his biographer, 

Singapore secured British supremacy in the eastern seas for more than a century. And represented a triumph for the principles of free trade and laissez-faire.

You go, Stamford Raffles.

Singapore, the London Zoo and all the rest of it, that’s the punch this day in London history packs.

Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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