Around London In 12 Elephants

By M@ Last edited 30 months ago

Last Updated 01 December 2021

Around London In 12 Elephants
A lifesize bronze elephant in a seated positions among modern glass shops
One of several bronze elephants that recently made an appearance in Spitalfields Market.

London, it hardly needs saying, is not indigenous territory for the elephant.

And yet the gentle giants have made their mark on our city on many occasions. Pack your trunk and follow us on an elephant parade around town.

1. The Tower Menagerie

An elephant looks out of a pointy arched stone window, trunk held aloft

The earliest elephant to see London (or the London area) probably came over with the Romans during the Claudian conquest, almost 2,000 years ago. But the first proper betrunked Londoner was not resident until the late middle ages. In 1255, Louis IX of France gifted an elephant to Henry III (who probably guessed what he was getting from the unusual shape of the giftwrap). The poor creature expired two years later after drinking too much wine (this is true). Still, while it was here, it became the star attraction at the Tower of London's menagerie — a kind of early zoo for privileged people. The elephant is today commemorated with one of Kendra Haste's magnificent wire sculptures, which nestle in unlikely corners of the Tower.

2. Hang on... we can go back further

A plaque detailing the discovery of mammoth remains in the 1850s

Elephants might not be indigenous to London now, but their kind did roam these lands thousands of years ago. Numerous mammoth skeletons have been excavated from the London clay, including one beneath what is now Trafalgar Square. The biggest haul of all came in Ilford (then in Essex) in the 1850s, as marked by a little-seen plaque on Ilford Lane. As it relates, you can see some of these local mammoth remains in the Natural History Museum.

3. The Waterloo elephant

A giant elephant head emerges from a wall in a station. It glows orange below

Today, London's most prominent elephant is perhaps the one standing at the top of the escalators in Waterloo Station (Waterloo Road entrance). It's another masterwork by wire sculptor Kendra Haste, just like the ones in the Tower. Here, we see the life-size forelegs and head of the beast. Pity the poor transport workers whose office is behind that mirrored wall. They get to stare at a massive elephant butt all day long. Why's it here? It's actually quite a long and fascinating story, which we've told previously.

4. The famous elephant of Elephant and Castle

A pink elephant with a castle on its back stands on a roof with the sign 'Castle Square' in front. A skyscraper rises behind

Elephant and Castle isn't how you remember it. The roundabouts have gone. The shopping centre has gone. Skyscrapers are everywhere. But in amongst it all can still be found the famous pink elephant. The roseate trunkster is now a permanent feature of Castle Square, a hub of food and entertainment on the edge of what was once the Heygate Estate.

There's an old legend that Elephant and Castle is a corruption of Infanta de Castilla — a Spanish princess who came over to marry one of the King Edwards. It's bunkum. Instead, the curious name is thought to derive from a pub, whose hanging sign bore the image of an elephant with a castle on its back. This was (and still is) the chief emblem of...

5. The Worshipful Company of Cutlers

A coat of arms with two elephants either side of a shield bearing three sets of crossed swords. It's mounted on some marble blocks

One of the ancient City livery companies, the Cutlers have their base on Warwick Lane near the Old Bailey. If you ever get the chance, their livery hall is a fascinating place to explore. Elephants are everywhere, including the wallpaper, bannisters and ceiling hammerbeams. The Company's crest is basically the pyramid of elephants scene in Dumbo. So what's the link between cutlers and elephants? Simply that ivory was traditionally used for the handles of posh swords and knives. The pub that gave Elephant and Castle its name was probably owned by the Cutlers, or a prominent cutler, and hence it took their sign.

An elephant also appears on the arms of the London Borough of Camden, within which you'll find the Elephant's Head pub and various other elephant-related buildings.

6. The Elephant pub today

A hexagonal mosaic showing the silhouette of an elephant and castle

The original hostelry is long gone, but the Elephant does still contain a pub called The Elephant. It's a good one, too, operated by the Antic pub group. You can spot the odd artistic trunk and visual tusk around the bar, but the most impressive faces out onto New Kent Road. As pub signs go, it's both original and eye-catching.

7. The Sultan's Elephant

A giant puppet elephant with its tusks partly obscured by a statue.
Image by nickestamp in the Londonist Flickr pool.

The list of elephant-based art projects is itself elephantine. In summer 2021, several London parks were populated with sculptural elephants as part of the Coexistence project. 2019 saw an Elmer the Elephant trail in Elephant Park. In 2010, the Elephant Parade planted dozens of painted pachyderms around the capital — one of the more successful iterations of that now common practice of putting temporary themed sculptures around a city.

However, the most impressive elephant project ever to hit London was 2006's Sultan's Elephant. This four-day spectacle saw an absolutely humongous robotic elephant tour the streets of the West End, spraying water from its trunk and causing much cacophony. Several trunk roads had to be closed. The floor was littered with dropped jaws. This was such a staggering event that those who witnessed it look back and wonder if it actually happened at all. It seems so unlikely now. Perhaps the greatest art event ever staged in London, and it was all about an elephant.

8. Baby Tembo at LSE

A baby elephant sculpture stands in a puddle

At the other end of the jumbo scale is little baby Tembo. This dainty sculpture of a baby elephant is one of several artworks dotted throughout LSE's campus. Tembo — the Swahili word for elephant — is the work of Canadian sculptor Derrick Stephan Hudson. The cute creature was donated to the university in 2005 by alumnus Louis Odette. That puddle, by the way, is coincidental. Baby Tembo is not a water feature.

9. Elephants as street art

Some highly stretched elephant sculptures on a wall

If you're one of those people who takes an interest in their surroundings, then you've probably seen several of these eccentric elephant sculptures across town. They're usually perched high up on walls or buildings, and they all come accompanied by a ceramic tile bearing the words 'Elephanti Sunt Personne' (elephants are people). The installations are the work of a Hackney-based street art collective, who want us to think of elephants as our equals, and deserving of the same rights and respect. As you can see from their website, dozens of ceramic elephants have now been appended to the city's walls. Keep your eyes open.

10. Andy Council's city elephant

A street art elephant made up from the shapes of buildings.

Elephants can be people, but they can also be cities as hypothesised by the great Andy Council. Andy specialises in street art pieced together from architectural elements — in this case buildings from the London area. Its mighty thighs are hewn from the Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie towers. Its cranium takes the form of the relatively obscure Moor House. Shard, Strata and Gherkin bear its weight, while the tusks and trunk resemble tube trains. This metropolitan mastodonic mashup was along the railway arches south of Tower Hamlets Cemetery a few years back.

11. More elephant street art

Street art elephants cling from a rooftop. They are pink and grey-green while the wall they're on is red

One last piece of elephantine street art (which could be an article in its own right... hello, Dumb Bo), which has graced the walls of Grimsby Street, Brick Lane since 2013. I have no idea what it's meant to represent, or why it's lasted so long when other street art in the area comes and goes, but I rather like it. The precariously dangling duo were painted by American artist Cernesto. You're unlikely to see a more charming pink, bespectacled, upside-down elephant anywhere in the East End.

12. St Katharine Docks

We end close to where we started, beside the Tower in St Katharine Docks. Here, two mighty African elephants stand guard over the gates to the docks. Their presence marks the proximity of Ivory House, the site's only original warehouse, whose former specialism is easily guessed. At its peak (or, rather, nadir) in the 1870s, Ivory House routinely contained the ivory of 4,000 dead elephants. It's a reminder that London's relationship with these majestic animals is both a long and troubled one.