A Brief History Of London Zoo

A Brief History Of London Zoo

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London Zoo history: the exterior of the former aquarium building, painted a sandy colour, decorated with murals of species including tigers, gorillas, macaws, lemurs and penguins.
The former aquarium building, close to the zoo's main entrance. Photo: kitmasterbloke via creative commons

London Zoo is one of London's busiest tourist attractions, and reaches its bicentenary later this decade. Through those near-200 years, elephants, bears, gorillas and pandas are among the thousands of species to have lived here, interspersed with royal visits, animal escapes and a tragic fire. Animal welfare regulations and ethics have massively evolved over this time (and rightly so) leading to habitats being rebuilt, and some species being removed from London altogether. Here's a brief history of London Zoo.

1826: The Zoological Society of London, or ZSL, is founded, to pursue the scientific study of animals. Stamford Raffles, who helped set up modern Singapore, was among the founding members, but died a few months later, before the zoo itself was completed. The year 1826 is shown above the door of the society's HQ in Regent's Park today.

London Zoo history: the exterior of ZSL's offices, a symmetrical brick building with a small clock tower on top.
ZSL's office on the Outer Circle in Regent's Park. 'Founded AD 1826' is written above the main doorway. Photo: Chris Sampson via creative commons

1828: ZSL London Zoo opens its doors in April as the world's first scientific zoo — but only to fellows of the Zoological Society of London, who could visit the animals for scientific research purposes. Charles Darwin was among regular visitors when he became a Fellow in 1837, taking particular interest in a chimp called Jenny. Members of the public could only enter by written order of a fellow, and by paying one shilling.

1829: King George IV grants ZSL London Zoo a Royal Charter, and it still holds a Royal Charter today. Queen Elizabeth II was Patron of ZSL from her coronation right up until her death in 2022.

1835: London Zoo and the Tower Menagerie at the Tower of London overlapped, albeit briefly. The process of closing the Tower Menagerie began in 1826, and over the next nine years, 150 animals were relocated to the new zoo, many of them making the journey on foot. They weren't the only animals to arrive this way over the coming years — as the zoo expanded, many animals arrived from abroad at London's docks and were walked through the streets of the capital to Regent's Park, including elephants photographed walking past King's Cross station in 1927.

London Zoo history: two giraffes facing opposite directions, standing outside the Decimus Burton giraffe house
Decimus Burton's giraffe house is still in use today. Photo: Richard Cook via Unsplash

1836: London Zoo's first giraffes arrive. They are thought to be the first giraffes ever on public display in England. Their height meant that a new home had to be purpose-built for them. Decimus Burton's giraffe house is one of the oldest zoo buildings in the world which still houses the same species for which it was built. Suppose there isn't much call for 21ft tall buildings elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

1840s: Five decades before the first Crufts took place (just down the road in Islington, FYI), London Zoo hosts what is thought to have been the world's first dog show, showcasing larger breeds from all over the world.

1847: Financial necessity means that the zoo opens to the public for the first time, without needing a written order from a Fellow. There was no admittance on Sundays

London Zoo history: a black and white printed ticket with an illustration of the layout of the zoo in the centre
A postcard from the London Zoo gift shop depicting an early admission ticket to the zoo.

1850: A young hippo — less than a year old — is sent to live at London Zoo, and is widely acknowledged as being the first living hippo in Britain since Roman times. His name was Obaysch and visitor numbers shot up as Londoners flocked to see him. In his 28 years at London Zoo he escaped once. Urban legend has it that a keeper was used as bait to lure him back home.

1853: The world's first public aquarium — initially known as an 'aquatic vivarium', and later 'The Fish House' — opens at London Zoo. In 1923, the zoo's new aquarium opened, and remained the zoo's working aquarium until it closed in 2019. In the early days, water for the saltwater tanks was taken from the sea and arrived at the zoo by barge along the nearby Regent's Canal.

1865: Jumbo the elephant arrives, introducing a whole new word to the English language. It's thought his name derived from Jambo, the Swhaili for 'hello', or the Bantu 'Njamba' meaning 'elephant', but it soon became a byword for anything rather large, and is now a permanent feature of our language. He stayed at London Zoo until 1878, when he trampled and killed a keeper, and was sold to Barnum's Circus. He died three years later in Canada, having been hit by a train.

1870s: The quagga, a South African subspecies of zebra, becomes extinct. The only photograph of a living quagga ever taken was at London Zoo.

London zoo history: A black and white photograph of a zebra-like animal - its head and neck are stripey like a zebra, but the stripes fade further down its body
The only photograph of a living quagga ever taken. Photo: public domain

1914: A female black bear called Winnipeg arrives at London Zoo. She had been rescued by a regiment of the Canadian Army, who left her in the care of London Zoo for safety during the war. During her 20 years at London Zoo, her visitors included a certain author, AA Milne, and his young son, Christopher Robin, and she became the inspiration for the Winnie the Pooh books, first published in 1926. Today, two statues commemorate Winnipeg at the zoo.

1920: Evelyn Cheesman becomes London Zoo's first female curator, taking up the (tiny) reins as Curator of Insects, having been Assistant Curator since 1916. She was a passionate entomologist, and after several field trips abroad she left the zoo in 1926 to continue her research elsewhere. Female curators and keepers became more common during the second world war, when male employees were called up to serve.

1926: ZSL purchases the land for Whipsnade, its sister zoo near Dunstable in Bedfordshire. It opened in 1931 to allow the public and scientists to observe animals in a more natural environment, as opposed to the constrictions of an urban zoo. It now claims to be the largest zoo in the UK.

1934: The Lubetkin Penguin Pool, now one of London Zoo's listed buildings and structures, is completed, offering the swimming birds a purpose-built home, which later inspired the Penguin Books logo. The concrete surface gave them health problems, particularly with their joints, and they were moved in 2004. A new purpose-built enclosure, Penguin Beach, opened in 2011, and remains the UK's largest penguin enclosure. Chinese alligators were briefly housed in the Lubetkin (once the penguins had vacated), but it remains empty today.

London Zoo history: The Lubetkin Penguin Pool, a white-washed concrete structure, oval shaped with a shallow pool inside
The Lubetkin Penguin Pool - no longer in use, but a listed structure so cannot be modified. Image: kitmasterbloke via creative commons

1939: At the outbreak of the war, the zoo closes for just a few days in September. It was soon reopened in a bid to keep public morale up. The East Tunnel was used as shelter by local people throughout the war. Some of the most valuable animals were moved to Whipsnade to keep them safe, and sadly some of the more dangerous species were destroyed, to prevent them from escaping if their enclosures were bomb-damaged.

1942: An 'Off the Ration' exhibition is held at London Zoo by the Ministry Of Information, encouraging people to grow their own food during the second world war.

1947: Guy the Gorilla, one of London Zoo's most famous residents arrives on 5 November, hence the name. He lived alone until the 1960s when a female gorilla was brought in to join him, but they never reproduced.

1949: Another of London Zoo's famous residents, Brumas the polar bear, is born. It was initially incorrectly reported in the press that the cub was a male. Turns out she was female — and incredibly popular, increasing the zoo's annual visitors numbers by around 1 million, as people flocked to see her.

1958: Female giant panda Chi Chi arrives at the zoo, originally for just a three-week visit. She became very popular, but escaped and bit a woman when a door was left open, resulting in her being placed under 24-hour guard to stop further escapes. She was the inspiration for the original WWF logo when the wildlife charity was founded in 1961.

London Zoo history: a boat on Regent's Canal through the middle of the zoo, with the net structure of the Snowdon Aviary on one side.
The Snowdon Aviary (right) opened alongside Regent's Canal in the 1960s. Photo: Christopher Hilton via creative commons

1965: The Casson Elephant and Rhino House opens, designed by architect Hugh Casson as a series of enclosures around a central area, with the pick-hammered concrete interior resembling an elephant's skin. The Snowdon Aviary, Britain's first walkthrough aviary, designed by Antony Armstrong-Jones (the late 1st Earl of Snowdon, and Princess Margaret's husband at the time) also opened in the same year.

1965: A male Golden Eagle at London Zoo makes national headlines on escaping from his enclosure and spends 12 days living in the Regent's Park area, causing traffic jams as crowds gather the see him, attacking pet dogs and eating ducks. Urban legend has it that he wasn't actually called Goldie until a journalist asked a zookeeper the bird's name, and the keeper came up with 'Goldie' on the spot. He escaped again, this time for five days, in December of the same year.

London Zoo history: a bronze, almost lifesized sculpture of a gorilla on all fours
A statue of Guy the Gorilla sits at the entrance to Gorilla Kingdom today. Photo: Matt Brown

1978: Beloved zoo resident Guy the gorilla dies during a tooth operation, which he needed due to visitors feeding him sweets. He's now on display in the Natural History Museum, alongside Chi Chi the panda who had died six years earlier, and there's a statue of Guy at the entrance to Gorilla Kingdom in the zoo today (and another in Crystal Palace Park... Guy has more London statues than Charles Dickens).

1991-2: After operating at a financial loss for more than a decade, London Zoo comes close to permanent closure. The announcement sparks a sudden increase in visitors and donations, which save it. The Emir of Kuwait donates a million pounds in support.

1994: The Ambika Paul Children's Zoo opens. It's named in memory of a young girl from India whose family brought her to London to receive treatment for leukaemia, but who sadly died. Her family made a sizeable donation to the zoo when it was facing possible closure in the early 1990s, so the new children's zoo was named after her, and a statue of her was unveiled on a fountain at the zoo.

An ornamental fountain topped with a sculpture of a young girl, hair in a ponytail, kneeling down with a bird on her right hand
The Ambika Paul statue at London Zoo. Photo: Matt Brown

2001: The snake scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone — fuel for many a millennial's nightmares — is filmed at the Reptile House. We don't think it's a massive spoiler to say that it's where Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter first realises he can speak parseltongue, as he comes face to face with a Burmese python.

2001: The last elephants in London leave the capital permanently. There had been elephants at London Zoo for most of the zoo's lifespan, but 36 years after the Casson Elephant House was purpose-built for them, it was decided that the central London location didn't offer them the room they needed, so they were sent to the far more spacious Whipsnade. The Casson Elephant House still stands today, home to bearded pigs.

London Zoo history: three elephants and a zookeeper walking in front of the Casson Elephant House
Elephants at London Zoo in around 1999 just before the zoo stopped keeping elephants. Photo: LondonHistoryatHome

2005: ZSL is given planning permission to open a brand new conservation-centric aquarium at Silvertown. Biota!, as it was due to be called, never came to fruition, and was cancelled in 2009.

2005: Over the August bank holiday weekend, eight volunteers feature in a 'human zoo' within London Zoo, going on display to the public on the former bear mountain above the aquarium with nothing but swimwear and fig leaves to cover their dignity.

2006: ZSL staff are involved in the attempted rescue and later postmortem of a northern bottlenose whale which found its way into the Thames in central London. Dehydration and muscle damage were found to have contributed to her death.

2006: 950 exotic fish and coral from Indonesia, seized at Heathrow Airport, are rehomed at London Zoo.

2015: London Zoo's lions are temporarily moved to Whipsnade Zoo ahead of the redevelopment of the lion enclosure, leaving London without lions for the first time since 1210.

2016: Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Philip, opens the new Land of the Lions exhibit, a replacement for the previous lion enclosure. Overnight lodges are built into the new development, so that members of the public can spend the night sleeping next to the big cats — as we did.

London Zoo history: The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh standing behind a podium at the opening of Land of the Lions
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh open Land of the Lions in 2016. Photo: Londonist

2016: Male silverback gorilla Kumbuka escapes from his enclosure into a staff corridor, and downs five litres of squash before being safely returned home.

2017: Scenes for biographical film Goodbye Christopher Robin are filmed at London Zoo, telling the story of Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne and his son Christopher Robin. About A Boy, Wimbledon, and An American Werewolf in London are among the other films that have been filmed on location in the zoo. Withnail recites Hamlet to the wolves at the conclusion of Withnail and I.

2017: In the early hours of 23 December, a fire breaks out in the Animal Adventure section of the zoo, home to a petting farm, species such as meerkats, aardvarks, coati and porcupines, and a cafe and shop. Sadly, an aardvark and several meerkats perish in the fire, and eight people are injured. The area was closed for a long period, and the shop, cafe and several animal enclosures had to be demolished, with the animals relocated elsewhere in the zoo. It reopened in 2019 with new cafe and play area.

2018: During the festive season, London Zoo holds its first ever light trail, Christmas at London Zoo, with a million lights dotted around the place after dark. Alas, it seems it was a one-hit wonder, as it's not been repeated since.

2022: Singer Harry Styles releases the video for his single As It Was, which was partly filmed in the Lubetkin Penguin Pool (above).

2022: For the first time since it was constructed in the 1960s, the Snowdon Aviary is no longer home to birds, reopening as Monkey Valley, a walkthrough colobus monkey enclosure. It's the large structure which can be seen at the bottom of Primrose Hill, alongside the canal.

The Snowdon Aviary, seen from nearby Primrose Hill. Photo: istock/JoeDunckley

Last Updated 17 October 2023

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