The South London Park Which Once Housed A Zoo And A Hospital

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 26 months ago
The South London Park Which Once Housed A Zoo And A Hospital

It's 1831. The Tower of London Menagerie is beginning to close, its various exotic residents being shipped off to the newly-opened Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park (now London Zoo). Meanwhile, south of the Thames, a glass conservatory houses lions and tigers, while rhinos, bears and baboons prowl nearby.

Today it's known as Pasley Park, but back then it was the Royal Surrey Gardens, a pleasure gardens which contained, at separate times, a zoo and a music hall, set in the grounds of Surrey Manor House (Manor Place, close to Pasley Park, is a nod to the old building).

The Surrey Zoological Gardens were opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, who had previously taken over the Exeter Exchange menagerie on Strand.

The zoo was extremely popular with the London public; in 1847 the Kentish Mercury declared "we never consider summer to be fairly at hand until the opening of these charming grounds". It also hosted flower shows and fete days as well as the attraction of the animals.

From the London Illustrated News, 10 June 1854. The zoo had acquired, "at considerable expense, two calf elephants, which in height reach up to the breast of a man of ordinary stature. They are the youngest elephants ever imported into England".  Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archives.

As well as the young elephants pictured above, the zoological gardens are also believed to have had the first giraffes on public show in Britain (King George IV had a giraffe prior to this, but it was kept in a private collection). Other animals reported to have lived there include lions, tigers, baboons, rhinos and bears.

Little is known of the living conditions of the animals who lived here but the Morning Advertiser of 6 April 1847 reported that:

The animals appear to have braved the severe winter extremely well, and if we may judge from the celerity with which they dispose of their rations of beef, their appetites give unequivocal signs of vigorous health.

From 1837, the gardens hosted historical re-enactments, including the Great Fire of London and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

However the zoo, failing to keep up with competition from the ever-growing London Zoo, closed and the animals were sold off in 1856, two years after Cross died.

Surrey Music Hall, the largest venue in London at the time with a capacity of 10-12,000, was built in its place. It was apparently a three-storey building with ornamental turrets.

It also didn't last long, and burned down in 1861. This spelled the end of the gardens, which closed to the public the following year.

St Thomas Hospital temporarily operated out of the site while its new buildings on Lambeth Walk were built. 200 beds were placed in what remained of the Music Hall, and the old elephant house became a dissecting room.

But the hospital soon vacated, and a housing estate was built on the site. Pasley Park — much smaller than the original Surrey Gardens — opened to the public in the 1980s.

Last Updated 11 August 2016