Today (May 15) in London History – the white elephant

On May 15th, 1926 a white elephant walked from Barking to Regent’s Park. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

An out-of-left-field one today.

Well, an out of Burma one by way of Tilbury Dock and Barking.

It’s May 15th, 1926. 

London’s seeing something it’s never seen before.

And of course this slots right into that London fascination with and craving for the novel, for spectacle, for the extraordinary.

What London is seeing is a white elephant with pink eyes walking from Barking to Regent’s Park. Walking to the Zoo. Where it’ll spend the summer.

I like to picture the scene at Tilbury Dock the previous day when the ship carrying Pawa – that was his name – arrived. Remember it was 1926. It was the general strike. All those striking dockworkers on their picket line. Imagine the shock they got.

The tide was so rough – the ship was heaving even though it was docked – that Pawa couldn’t walk down a gangplank. He had to be hoisted down, slung ashore from a crane. Imagine those hardened striking dockers – those tough East Enders – looking on and seeing a white elephant in a sling suspended off the side of a ship – it was the S.S. Kandhar – and being lowered by a hoist. Will have had them rubbing their eyes. And having a tale to tell round the kitchen table when they got home that night.

Now some particulars about the star of the show. 

Pawa had been captured in 1919. At the end of the Great War. He was a little fellow then. Not four feet tall he was a year a half old. 

He was of course an albino. And very rare.

He was accompanied to England – and then subsequently to the United States – by a very dark elephant. What the exhibitors were striving for was the effect brought about by the marked contrast between Pawa’s white hide and the dark grey of his fellow pachyderm.

But those two big fellas – trudging along from Barking deep in the East End of London to Regent’s Park in toniest Marylebone – imagine the London buzz that will have created.

New York City’s turn came six months later. Pawa summered in London. He was of course the star of the show at the Zoo that summer. And then he crossed the Atlantic. 

To New York. He put ashore at the foot of West Sixteenth Street and strolled along Eleventh Avenue to West 32nd Street, where he got a lift – in a boxcar to Bridgeport Connecticut.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey got him over there. Toured him around America. Somebody who saw him in Chicago, on the Lake Front, said “the chumps around me were wondering why they had one of the elephants “scrubbed up.”

Other particulars, Pawa’s captor was Dr Saw Durmay Po Min, who was the president of the local Karen tribe association in that part of Burma.

Dr Saw – and half a dozen assistants – accompanied Pawa and his mate on their travels.

For the Karens, Pawa had a lot more significance than just the rarity of his white packaging. There was a tradition that one day the white elephant would come back as a sign of peace and prosperity under their white brothers. That was the Karen equivalent of next year in Jerusalem. They never expected it to be fulfilled. But it was. Well, the first part of it was anyway, the white elephant came back. Peace and prosperity under their white brothers – well, let’s not go there.

Where I am going – albeit reluctantly – is that not long after he went home – got back to Burma – in 1928, Pawa died. He was ten years old. Asian elephants have a normal life span of about 48 years. His captor, his owner – the man who took him round the world – Dr Saw died the same year.

So much for Today in London history. Or is it? Shall I mention in passing what I passed over in favour of Pawa walking from Barking to Regent’s Park. Here are some of the hands I decided not to play. 

On May 15th, 1536 Anne Boleyn was convicted of adultery, incest and treason. On May 15th, 1718 the machine gun was patented by a London lawyer. On May 15th, 1800 there was an attempt on the King’s life. On May 15th 1858 the Royal Opera House opened. On May 15th 1865 the Charing Cross Hotel opened. On May 15th, 1875, Liberty’s, the great Regent Street Department store opened.

But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that white pachyderm out for a long walk in London.

And for a Today in London recommendation – well, it follows doesn’t it. Maybe a trip to the Zoo. Or at the very least a walk through Regent’s Park. It’ll be at it most beautiful these next three weeks or so.

And for a pinch of numerology. This is the fifteenth. Fifteen is the age of majority in Burma.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company invariably dialled up by those who know. Numbered among those who know, many many Londoners. We get more Londoners and their patriots than we get tourists. So there’s some sage, time-honoured advice for you, “when in London,  do as Londoners do.” 

It’s a perfect fit, savvy, discerning visitors, tack-sharp Londoners and elite guides. Guides who know what they’re doing – guides who are assured, well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London professionally qualified guides.

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

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