A bear called Martin

I can never recall a time when we were not sharing our home with an animal. My father, and his father before him, held senior positions at London Zoo and from time to time he would, as they say, bring his work home. Until recently I assumed that London Zoo was the capital’s first menagerie, little realising that not long after the Tower of London was built, and it was to become London’s first house for animals.

[E]xotic creatures have long been considered an appropriate gift from one ruler to another, as early as the 12th century there is evidence that King John (1199-1216) received three boatloads of wild beasts from Normandy. Records show that in 1235 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gave Henry III three leopards on the occasion of his wedding to Eleanor of Provence, a lion followed and in 1252 a polar bear complete with its keeper both gifts from Haakon IV of Norway.

The only place to house these dangerous creatures was in England’s most secure citadel, the Tower of London, whose walls provided the perfect enclosure. At that time the creatures were locked away from public view, except the time when the shackled polar bear would be led onto the Thames foreshore to wash and fish for food.

When in 1255 Louis IX of France gave Henry an elephant the Sheriffs of London were asked to build and pay for a 40ft long wooden elephant house, later it was put to good use as one of the Tower’s many prison cells.

The menagerie grew and Edward I created the official position of The Master of the King’s Bears and Apes. By the 16th century the collection was opened to limited public view, and by James I’s reign within the Tower’s confines were recorded a flying squirrel, a tiger, a lioness, five camels and an elephant.

Christopher Wren was charged with designing a lion house in 1672. Built in the south-eastern corner it comprised two stories, an attic and cellars. I could never understand when in the modern London Zoo people would eat their lunch in the Lion House for a lion’s faeces have an odour all of their own. In Stow’s Survey of London published in 1720 he records: “The creatures have a rank smell, which hath so affected the air of the place (tho’ there is a garden adjoining) that it hath much injured the health of the man that attends them, so stuffed up his head, that it affects his speech.”

Animal husbandry was in its infancy: ostriches were believed to have the ability to digest iron – one died after being fed no fewer than 80 nails. An Indian elephant housed in St. James’s Palace was given a daily glass of wine from April to September as they believed it couldn’t drink water during those months.

By 1821 the collection had dwindled to four lions, a panther, leopard, a tiger and a grizzly bear called Martin.

A new keeper was appointed, Alfred Cops, who was devoted to his charges. For the first time in the menagerie’s history Cops went out and purchased animals for the collection. Soon the Tower contained over 280 animals and the public flocked to view them. In one unfortunate incident a boa constrictor wrapped itself around Cops’ neck as he was feeding it in a bid to entertain the tourists.

A victim of its own success most of the animals were transferred to the new Zoological Society of London, in Regents Park was the society had established London’s first zoo. That transfer started in 1832 and by 1835 the last of Alfred Cops’ collection had been rehomed ending 600 years of exotic animals at The Tower of London.

Now this whole forgotten chapter is to be celebrated with a special exhibition at the Tower, called Royal Beasts, which opens tomorrow. Watching over the visitors will be one of its most unusual tenants a polar bear which will sit outside the Bloody Tower, where there was once direct access to the Thames. But really to welcome visitors to the exhibition it should have been a bear called Martin.

2 thoughts on “A bear called Martin”

    1. When my father worked at London Zoo the head keeper of the lions liked as they say “a drink”, he would have his friends round after work to enjoy the ambience of the lion house. One day a little worst for wear he opened the door of the oldest inhabitant, this creature, who suffered with chronic arthritis and had few teeth, flopped out of the cage. The drunk pair were seen trying to manhandle this immobile lion back into her cage, the floor of which was at chest height.

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