Monkeys In London: Everything You Need To Know

Monkeys In London: Everything You Need To Know
Might Mo by Alex Ellison via the Londonist flickrpool

Delve into London's history of monkey business, and finding out about London's present primates.   

Where did London's first recorded monkeys live?

London's first monkeys lived in the Tower of London's remarkable menagerie, which existed from as early as 1210. Monkeys themselves are first mentioned in the records with the opening of a Monkey School in the 1780s. But they were probably living at the Tower a long time before this — indeed, there's plenty of evidence that fashionable ladies and gents had been keeping monkeys as pets for years, such as the oblique mention of a pet monkey in Pepys's diary of January 1661.    

In the late 1800s, the Tower monkeys lived in a furnished room, with shelves and a fireplace where visitors were apparently completely charmed by their antics and humanlike behaviour. As has become the fashion with monkeys in London zoos, the animals and visitors were allowed to roam freely together, with the monkeys pinching, climbing on and biting guests.

However, the monkeys' freedom of movement wasn't to last. A guidebook from 1810 tells us that 'formerly several monkies were kept, but one of them having torn a boy’s leg in a dangerous manner... they were removed'. This isn't the last we'll hear of monkey trouble between visitors and animals.

Today, in the corner of the Tower's walls outside the Jewel House, sits a troop of mischievous baboons: artist Kendra Haste's 2011 artwork commemorates the beasts who once called the Tower their home.

Royal Beasts at the Tower of London. Photo by knesje via the Londonist flickrpool
Royal Beasts at the Tower of London. Photo by knesje via the Londonist flickrpool
Photo by surreyblonde via the Londonist flickrpool
Photo by surreyblonde via the Londonist flickrpool
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Photo by Sarah A under the creative commons licence.
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Photo by Simon Gibson under creative commons licence.

The London monkey hunt of 1926

Looking for local monkey stories in the archives, we came across this treasure from 1926.

13 monkeys, all members of a jazz band (stay with us), escaped from a circus in Notting Hill, causing all kinds of simian silliness.

We particularly like the story of the ‘band leader' Franco, boarding a train before ‘being whisked off’, and 'last seen at Paddington'; and his fellow escapee being caught in a ‘confectioner’s shop, where he had lived a paradisaical half-hour gorging mintballs and chocolates.

Check out the full story below:

Nottingham Evening Post 22 November 1926 Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

Remember the monkey-rich summer of 2006?

2006 was a bumper year for London-based monkey business.

In July, missing squirrel monkey Spongebob was found playing with a group of children in Clapham. The Brixton police were alerted, and two year old SpongeBob was safely returned to Chessington Zoo. The Detective Constable responsible for the case, David Burton, said he had ‘no idea’ how SpongeBob travelled the 12 miles from the zoo to Clapham. 23 year old Marlon Brown was later found guilty of stealing the monkey.

Squirrel monkey SpongeBob enjoying some mealworms at Battersea Park Zoo

Unfortunately, SpongeBob's safe return to Chessington isn't the end of this story. The poor young male struggled to reintegrate when he got back home, as the nine female monkeys in his group turned against him. (We like to think of them clutching their pearls and whispering 'Consorting with criminals!' whenever he swung past...) SpongeBob was then transferred to Battersea Park Zoo, where he was much more settled: in fact, this is where the plucky adventurer still lives today.

Then, just a week after SpongBob's discovery in Clapham: more London monkey news.

According to news reports, five squirrel monkeys made a bid for freedom from London Zoo in July 2006, when a branch from a nearby tree was left growing down into their enclosure.

From the Londonist Flickr pool: Mac Spud captures a jumping monkey. We reckon this is probably a bit like what the 2006 escape looked like.

Betty, a 10 year old Bolivian squirrel monkey played out for the longest time — most of her fellow escapees returned to the zoo before the 1.30 the same day. We can’t help wondering if lunchtime hunger pangs were what drove them back to the enclosure.  

Where can I see monkeys in London today?

According to the 2015 animal inventory, London Zoo has 20 Bolivian Squirrel monkeys; around 20 tamarins of different species; 13 Kikuyu black-and-white colobus; eight Sulawesi crested macaques; seven white-naped mangabeys; two coppery titi monkeys (no sniggering at the back, please); a pair of Goeldi's monkeys; a pair of Diana monkeys; and a pair of white-fronted marmosets.

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Squirrel monkey and baby by Mac Spud via the Londonist flickrpool
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Emperor tamarin by Kris Wood via the Londonist flickrpool
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Cotton headed tamarin. Photo by Gábor Hernádi via the Londonist flickrpool
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Colobus monkey and baby by Mac Spud via the Londonist flickrpool
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'Rebel Yell' by Olly Denton via the Londonist flickrpool
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Red Titi Monkey by Kris Wood via the Londonist flickrpool
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A white-naped mangabey by Willard via the Londonist flickrpool
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Photo by Ben Allen under Creative Commons
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Silvery marmosets. Photo by Karra Rothery under the Creative Commons licence.

Probably the best way to enjoy the monkeys at London Zoo is in the Meet The Monkeys enclosure, where you can hang out with a group of black-capped squirrel monkeys.  Designed to recreate the Bolivian rainforests, the walk-through has no boundaries between visitors and the animals, just as the guests and beasts mingled in the Tower menagerie back in the 1800s.

Opened in 2005 (by the Mighty Boosh, no less!), it was this access-all-areas enclosure that hit the headlines in 2013, when a health and safety inspection, released under the Freedom of Information Act, showed 15 people reported having been bitten by the monkeys in a 12-month period. Ouch!

At the smaller Battersea Park Zoo, monkey lovers have a smaller, but still-as-cute simian selection to enjoy.

There are two small groups of squirrel monkeys: SpongeBob (who we've already met), and other males called Quince and Fudge and his son Tiffin. The female pair are called Caramel and Toffee (Tiffin's mum).

Then there are three brown capuchin brothers: Diablo the oldest (the grumpy one), Carlos the middle brother (the sensitive one) and lastly Medellin, the intelligent one — often found sliding on his tummy along the fire hoses in their enclosure.

Finally, tamarin fans should look out for two cotton-top tamarins, Clyde and Stitch; and Pablo and Murphy, the two male Emperor tamarins, so called because their whiskers look like the moustache of German Emperor Wilhelm II.

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An Emperor tamarin at Battersea Park Zoo
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One of the three brown capuchin brothers at Battersea Park Zoo
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Squirrel monkey at Battersea Park Zoo. Photo by Gary Etchell via the Londonist flickrpool

Have you spotted any other monkeys in London? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 13 October 2017