Today (May 25) in London History – he was the first in 1600 years

Obaysch the Hippopotamus arrived at the London Zoological Gardens on May 25, 1850. The first hippo seen in Europe since Roman times. 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.


“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

That’s how Michaelangelo put it.

Novelists regularly say the same thing. A story – or a character in a story – will take over and drive the thing forward. It takes on a life of its own, ends up leading its creator, the novelist, almost giving shape to itself.

What I’m finding is that something similar is happening with this Today in London History podcast project. 

There are things coming out of it – let’s call them prominences – that I didn’t know were there but having produced 150 of these things they’re now certainly discernible. Perhaps think of it as the formation of a mountain range. Some of the peaks stand out – they’re just higher than the others.

One of those peaks – I’ve commented on this before – is London’s and Londoners’ unending obsession – an obsession across the ages – with novelty and spectacle.

The latest episode is taking place even as I’m preparing these remarks. The new Elizabeth Line – Crossrail – opened just a few hours ago and sure enough, a huge crowd of Londoners have turned out to be its first passengers, to scope it out, to ride it. To see something new, experience something different. 

And then there’s that old saw about travel broadening the mind. You go to a foreign country you don’t just learn about the place you’re visiting, you simultaneously learn a whole lot about your native land. Travelling puts into perspective how things are done at home. That’s travelling in the here and now. But the same thing is true of travelling back in time. You can better get the measure of how we feel about things – of what we make of them – of what our values are – by comparing the response of our forebears to the same phenomenon. Time travelling – like travelling – provides perspective. 

And that brings us to May 25th, 1850. To the Zoological Gardens as they called it. The Zoo we’d say. Brings us face to face with Obaysch.

Obaysch is a very young hippopotamus. Obaysch has done some travelling. He’s come all the way to London from an island on the White Nile. He’s novel. He’s a spectacle. The Londoners who are seeing him today – May 25th, 1850 – and they’re turning out by the thousands, just as their latter-day fellow Londoners are turning out today, May 25th, 2022 to ride the new Elizabeth Line – the Londoners who are seeing Obaysch the Hippopotamus are seeing something that hasn’t been seen in Europe for over 16 centuries. Since Roman times in other words.


Ok, now the back story. And look, some of this makes for uncomfortable listening. It’s what I was just talking about a minute – our sensibility isn’t exactly congruent with the sensibility of people who lived 170 years. Some of what you’re going to hear now brings that out very clearly. It provides perspective.

Obaysch is about nine months old. He was captured in August 1849 on the island of Fobaysch, in the White Nile, about 2,000 miles above Cairo. (Needless to say, he’s named for the island where he was captured.) Ok, now brace yourself. He was captured on a hunting expedition. Great white hunters had mortally wounded his mother. She’d staggered back toward her baby – he wasn’t a whole lot bigger than a newborn calf, though much stouter and lower. He was hidden in thick bushes on the river bank. His mortally wounded mother – trying to get back to her infant – led the hunters to him.  

When the baby hippo was discovered he made a rush to the river. Nearly escaped. In the words of someone who was there, he almost got away thanks to the slipperiness of his naked lubricious skin. Now brace yourself again. The hunters got him – secured him – by sinking a boat-hook in his flank. The scar in his side would for the rest of his life testify to how he was captured. Step forward the British Consul in Egypt – Sir Charles Murray. He would come to be known as Hippotamus Murray. Sir Charles Murray talked the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt into a swap. Obaysch and some other exotic animals for some greyhounds and deerhounds.

Then came the long journey – it took months – to London, to the Zoo. Down the White Nile to the Mediterranean. Then by P & O steamer to Southampton. Then by rail to London. And the last leg – through the streets of London in a caged wagon.

Let’s go back to a contemporary account. Again, you’ll register the sensibility difference immediately. Things get said that wouldn’t be said today. These are Professor Richard Owen’s observations. Remembered today for coining the word “dinosaur”, Professor Owen was Britain’s foremost biologist and palaeontologist.

Here’s the professor:

“The young animal is now 7 feet long and six and a half feet in girth…The strong attachment of the animal to its keeper removed every difficulty in its various transfers from ship to train and from wagon to its actual abode. On arriving at the gardens the Arab who has had the charge of it walked first out of the transport van, with a bag of dates over his shoulder, and the beast trotted after him, now and then lifting up its huge grotesque muzzle and sniffing at its favourite dainties, with which it was duly rewarded on entering its apartment. When I saw the hippopotamus the next morning it was lying on its side in the straw with its head resting against the chair on which its swarthy attendant sat. [Yes, ouch] It now and then uttered a soft complacent grunt…

Well, bears repeating – Londoners and novelty – OBaysch was an instant hit. As many as 10,000 people a day were turning out to see “the great lion of the day”, as a newspaper called him. Everyone was thrilled. Everyone except Obaysch. Surprise, surprise, he didn’t like his confinement. He hated his zookeepers. He broke a tooth trying to bite through his cage. Poor fellow. Things got a little better for him when they fetched him a wife in 1854. The pair finally produced offspring in 1871. But the calf died within a year. As did a second newborn the next year. But third time lucky – on Guy Fawkes day in 1872 the couple produced a female baby that survived. She was of course named Guy Fawkes. The family had six years together. Obaysch died in 1878. He was 28 or 29. Hippos normally live 40 to 50 years. 

No question but there are notes that are very much in minor key in this tale. Quite a bit of London melancholy stirred into that dominant London note of the place’s insatiable appetite for spectacle and novelty.

But let’s take our leave of Obaysch – like Hansel and Gretel maybe there are white pebbles – or dates even – dainties – Obaysch’s favourites – that we can follow, make our way through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways back to today in London. 

And as the Obaysch note fades, recedes, a Today in London recommendation. No, not a trip to the Zoo. A ride on the Elizabeth Line. Should go some way toward scouring off the stain in our minds of that scar on Obaysch’s side.

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 London Walks banner bears the rare device: It all comes down to the guiding. 

Now look at that honour guard marching beneath that rare device. That honour guard is London Walks guides. They march under that banner because, uniquely, they are accomplished professionals:

Guides who are barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, museum curators, Museum of London archaeologists, and the creme de la creme – the MVPs of the professional guiding fraternity – Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London guides who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award.

Guides who 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. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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