Today (November 5) in London History – Remember, remember the Guy

The London Zoo took possession of its most famous inmate, Guy the Gorilla, on November 5th, 1947. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Remember, remember the 5th of November.

And no, I’m not going to remember that 5th of November. The Guy Fawkes 5th of November. It’s just too achingly obvious. Everybody and his country cousin is going there.

It’s the Oxford Street of this kind of thing. Let the hordes go there. We’re going to go “shopping” for our 5th of November find in a much more exclusive neighbourhood. How does the expression go, always drink upstream from the herd.

Oh just to give things a stir, I might just mention one very at odds Guy Fawkes 5th of November. Mention it precisely because it’s not all-march-one-way, not predictable, goes against the grain. It’s the one red tulip in amongst hundreds of yellow ones. We learn something from it. I’m talking about the one for 1685. It was John Evelyn’s diary entry. He wrote, “It being an extraordinary wett morning, and myself indisposed by a very great rheume, I did not go to church, to my very great sorrow, it being the first Gunpowder Conspiracy anniversary that had been kept now these 80 years under a Prince of the Roman religion. Bonfires were forbidden on this day; what does this portend!” Well, the Prince of the Roman religion was the new king, James II, who of course had Catholic leanings. And what it portended – though Evelyn had no way of knowing this in 1685 – it portended the 1688 Glorious Revolution, James II sent packing, fleeing for his life, and his son-in-law, the staunchly protestant William Duke of Orange and his wife, James’ daughter Mary, coming over from Holland and getting in the saddle, well, getting on the double throne. 

No, our much more exclusive neighbourhood – where we’re headed – is the northernmost reaches of Regent’s Park. And our bonfire is a bonfire of the imagination. A bonfire that takes us all the way to the jungles of the French Cameroons, as they were known then, in Africa.

The year is 1947. The occasion is London Zoo taking possession of its most famous – what’s the word, “guest” won’t do – yes, I’m afraid “prisoner” or “inmate” is the right word. London Zoo taking possession, on November 5th, 1947 of its most famous inmate. Guy the Gorilla.

And now you know why the little fellow – as he was then – was named Guy. The London Zoo got him on Guy Fawkes Day.

He was just a baby, about two and a half years old. He would live to be 31 or 32. Guy died in 1978 of a heart attack during an operation on his infected teeth. It’s too sad for words: Guy’s tooth decay had been caused by the fact that visitors were allowed to feed him sweets.

He was much loved. Though not loved enough not to keep him in confinement for the rest of his life.

Guy was a gentle soul. His fearsome appearance was misleading. When small birds flew into his cage, he would often lift them on his hands and examine them softly.

Guy’s immortalised in the life-size statue of him near the Zoo’s main entrance.

But also in the epochal Stanley Kubrick1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The actor Dan Richter  — who played the lead ape-man (“Moonwatcher”) in the film — studied Guy intently and modelled his acting and mime performance partly on Guy’s behaviour.

But let’s fling the bone and have it turn into a space station, let’s travel to November 5th 1947. Let’s be there to greet Guy when he arrives at the London Zoo. He’s a little fellow. Just a baby. He weighs 23 pounds. He’s holding a small tin hot-water bottle.

That little baby will grow to 520 pounds – some 240 kilograms.

Full grown he’ll be five feet four inches tall – 1.63 metres. He’ll have a nine foot – 2.7 metres – arm span. A 36-inch – 90 centimetres neck circumference. 23.5 inches (58 centimetres) biceps.

The Times sent its man along to meet Guy. The reporter described him as “a most intelligent little animal.” He was put in a cage alongside two female chimpanzees, Mona and Jane. The Times man said  Guy settled down immediately in his new home, was quite undisturbed by the noisy welcome given to him by the two female chimpanzees next door.

Perhaps best of all, though. Guy spoke French. Well, after a fashion.

He’d come from the Paris Zoo. He’d spent about six months in Paris before coming to London and, in the words of the Times reporter, “he responds more readily to the French language than to English.”

Au revoir, Guy.

And a Today in London recommendation. 

Yes, well, it’s obvious isn’t it – a visit to the London Zoo.

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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