London's Greatest Animal Escapes

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 13 months ago

Last Updated 14 April 2023

London's Greatest Animal Escapes
A red panda (not this one) broke free from London Zoo in 2009. Photo: Jar0d

Menageries, zoos and circuses have existed in London for 800 years. Most of the time, the animals remained exactly where they should have been. Inevitably, a handful made a successful bid for freedom.

Tower of London escapes (1830-1834)

The Tower of London menagerie was first recorded in 1210, housing exotic animals which had never been seen in London before, including elephants, lions, hippos, and most famously a polar bear which swam in the Thames.

Alfred Cops was given the job of Keeper of the Tower Menagerie in 1822. Under his watch in 1830, another keeper accidentally raised a door separating a lion and a tiger and tigress, allowing them to escape into each other's enclosures and come to blows. They were separated using hot rods, but the lion died a few days later from the injuries.

Here's the story in full:

From The Morning Post on 6 December 1830. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Four years later, the Leeds Times reported on a "large and furious wolf" which had managed to escape its enclosure at the menagerie and make its way towards the drawbridge, at which point it was seen and the gate was closed to stop its further escape. Forced back into the fortress, it grabbed hold of a terrier dog and shook it, before eventually letting it go.

Due to these escapes and a few other incidents which happened under the care of Alfred Cop, the Tower of London Menagerie finally closed in 1832 and the remaining animals were transferred to the newly built London Zoo in Regent's Park.

Jamrach’s tiger at Tobacco Dock (1857)

Statue of Jamrach's tiger at Tobacco Dock. Photo: Matt Brown

If you've ever been to Tobacco Dock in Wapping and seen the fantastical-looking statue (above), you might know that it commemorates a real event.

Charles Jamrach was a well-known exotic animal trader in Victorian east London. In 1857, en-route to Jamrach's premises, a tiger broke free from a van full of animals on Betts Street near Tobacco Dock. John Wade, a nine year old boy, was fascinated by the sight and, being a nine year old boy, tried to stroke the tiger.

Predictably, the tiger took exception to this and ran off with the boy. Jamrach himself stepped in at this point and "came running up and, thrusting his bare hands into the tiger's throat, forced the beast to let his captive go." The boy survived, and went on to sue Jamrach over the incident.

It appears that Jamrach was careless with his big cats on more than this one occasion. A report in the East London Observer of 14 July 1877 tells of the escape of one of his tigers from a train on the London and North-Western Railway, in the village of Weedon, near Northampton.

Closer to home, three lions once escaped from Jamrach's shop and made the way towards the adjacent parlour, where his wife Mary was minding her own business. Jamrach shouted a warning and she managed to close the door, before they turned on him and he ran upstairs, shutting himself in a bedroom. Eventually Jamrach managed to lock the lions in a second bedroom, where they stayed until their handler could come and collect them.

A raccoon is also known to escape from Jamrach during his animal-keeping career, and there are rumours of an escaping bear, although this one's tricky to verify.

Cholmondley the chimp (1948)

A chimpanzee named Cholmondley made a brief but bold escape from the Regent's Park zoo in 1948. According to J Barrington-Johnson's book The Zoo: A History Of London Zoo:

One one occasion, while temporarily in the Zoo hospital, he managed to escape: he got out of the Zoo, walked across the corner of Regent's Park, and hailed a bus in Albany Street. Having got on the bus, he sat down next to a lady and put his arm round her shoulders. He then — probably because the lady was having hysterics - bit her!

We won't lie; this one throws up more questions for us than it does answers. Did Cholmondley pay a fare? How far did he get? Why didn't the bus driver stop him?

Goldie the eagle (1965)

In February 1965, London Zoo’s male golden eagle escaped and spent nearly two weeks enthralling press photographers, birdwatchers and the general public as he glided around Regent's Park, eluding zookeepers’ attempts at recapturing him.

When he escaped from the Birds of Prey aviary, the bird had no name. A Zoo official, when put on the spot by a reporter, gave him the name Goldie (presumably due to being a golden eagle) and the name stuck for the remaining two decades of the bird's life.

Goldie was spotted as far afield as Camden Town, Euston and Tottenham Court Road during his escapade. He was also responsible for causing traffic jams in Regent's Park’s Outer Circle as people drove to the area to try to spot him, having heard about him in the extensive press coverage.

Equipment was borrowed from the Royal Navy in an attempt to capture him, and when that failed, a BBC presenter played an Ethiopian bird pipe in an attempt to lure him during a broadcast. Surprisingly, this also failed.  

Goldie's rumoured to have killed and eaten a duck in the American ambassador's garden, and the day before his recapture, he attacked an elderly lady's terrier. She retaliated by swinging her handbag at him, but presumably missed.

London Zoo’s Red Panda (2009)

Regent’s Park security staff got a shock when they came face to face with a red panda in a tree around 3am one night in 2009. Red pandas are notoriously cunning and several escapes from zoos around the world have been reported throughout the years.

Zoo staff spent several hours trying to lure the panda down but eventually had to resort to a tranquilizer dart to get the animal out of the tree and back into its enclosure.

The Camden peahen (2014)

In summer 2015, a peahen was recaptured in Belsize Park, a year after escaping from a London Zoo aviary when a visitor left a door open.

Throughout her freedom, the bird was spotted in several locations including Primrose Hill, Belsize Park and Finchley Road. Locals began playing spot the bird, which persistently gave police the slip. The bird spawned its own hashtag (and then its own Twitter account) which served as an outlet for the rage of peacock pedants who were at pains to point out that the fugitive was in fact a peahen.  

London Zoo's gorilla (2016)

In October 2016, London Zoo's male silverback gorilla Kumbuka made headlines when it was reported that he'd escaped. It seems a door was left open between his enclosure and a service area, allowing him to get into an area used by zookeepers — but he never made it out into the public realm.

And the ones that can never escape...

Guardian of Tower. Photo: Michael Garnett

The legend of the Tower of London ravens states that if they leave the Tower, all hell will break loose the Kingdom and the Tower will fall. Charles II first insisted that the ravens should be protected, and to this day, seven (six plus a spare) of the birds live at the tower.

Most recently a black mamba snake was rumoured to be slithering around Camden, although it's been suggested that the "missing" posters were a hoax.