A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the new menagerie that was set up during the French Revolution in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes which helped put science rather than entertainment centre stage. This led to pressure for London to have an equivalent [or better!] , and in 1822 the Linnaean Society resolved to form a “Zoological Club of the Linnaean Society of London” which in turn led to the establishment of London Zoo.
Up until then the only way most people could see any “exotic” animals was to visit a travelling menagerie or one of the large indoor menageries on London. The most famous of these was at Exeter Change on the Strand, which from 1814 was run by Edward Cross.
But the tide was turning on such cruel conditions. The public mood shifted towards seeing animals given a little more space and better treatment. Menageries slowly began to close and zoological gardens began to open around Britain: Dublin in 1831, Liverpool in 1832, Manchester in 1836, and Edinburgh in 1839. But the first amongst them was created with the animals from Edward Cross’s menagerie and became London’s other zoological garden, and as far as I’m aware the only one that had a parachuting monkey…
Given that many of us have a little more time on our hands than usual, rather than summarise the story I’ve included quite a few newspaper cuttings which I hope enhance it. Obviously feel free to skip over them. You might also like to know that there are several other posts about menageries in gardens which you can find by following these links: Eelphants and the Royal Menagerie; Coombe Abbey; Chiswick; Osterley; Knowsley.
There were rumours in the late 1820s that Cross was going to merge his menagerie with the new London Zoo in Regents Park, rumours that he denied by continuing to expand his collection. However in 1828 plans were announced to widen the Strand which involved the demolition of his premises at Exeter Change. This was owned by the government and he was given notice to quit. The merger plans were resurrected.
Cross can’t really have been in favour of such a plan and so tried to use the demolition as a marketing ploy to attract visitors to its closing days, while he sought alternative premises.
In fact it was the government who came up with the solution, and taking advantage of a “Royal Act of Condescension” Cross took a short lease on the King’s Mews at Charing Cross, another building for which they had longer term development plans.
You can see how Cross was adapting to the new mood. The animals would have more space, and air, and even some shrubs to look at! However the lease was for just 3 years because the Kings Mews was destined to make way for the new National Gallery. It seems that the government tried to cut this period even shorter so that work could proceed sooner but it was reported to laughter in Parliament that Cross had threatened to release his animals if he received any “further annoyance”. [Bell’s Messenger 11th July 1831]. But all along he had obviously been keeping his eyes and ears open for other potential venues or patrons.
In January 1831 a meeting was held to form the Surrey Literary, Scientific and Zoological Society. [Until the creation of London County Council in 1889 most of London south of the river was part of the county of Surrey] They planned to open a zoological garden along the same lines as Regents Park, but not in rivalry with it. Indeed, as you’ll see from the newspaper article on the left, The London Zoological Society seems to have promised the new venture “any duplicates they might have.” It was also noted that Mr Cross “was disposed to sell his collection of animals” which “formed a most favourable opportunity.”
At this point Walworth was still almost semi-rural. It had a manor house and next door what had formerly been Lorrimore Common, until it was enclosed for grazing in 1769. It was this small estate of about 6 hectares that the owner, Lord Holland, offered to the Society.
Having sold them his animals Cross now now took a very prominent role in running the new society and its gardens, working rapidly “in a prompt and spirited manner” to redesign the grounds and construct buildings in a matter of months, as reported at length by John Claudius Loudon in the December 1831 issue of Gardener’s Magazine, and also in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, in January 1832 with a follow-up in July 1832. They issued a prospectus offering season tickets for a guinea, with ordinary admission at the gates for a shilling. Then they had a coup, gaining royal patronage from Queen Adelaide and her niece, the future Queen Victoria.
The Manor House already had an established garden and a 3 acre lake but Cross commissioned Henry Phillips to remodel them and design at least one of the main buildings. Best known for his work in and around Brighton, Phillips was the author of eight now largely forgotten books on horticulture, but he was also busy on other major projects [which I’m planning to write about one day] and can’t have been involved for very long. Nevertheless the grounds were quickly planted with new flower-beds, avenues, walks, and “undulating lawns”, while an early guidebook to the gardens gives a list of its two hundred varieties of hardy trees. The overall effect meant according to The Mirror that “it is almost impossible to give …an idea of their beauty and variety.” There was even talk of a small botanical garden, partly because of the proximity of so many good commercial nurseries. Indeed Loudon says that these nurseries should donate plants to the new gardens to enhance both it and their own reputations.
Cross ensured that the animals were very well-housed by the standards of the day. The main building was the largest conservatory in England, a vast dome approximately 300ft in circumference with more than 6000 square feet of glass, designed by Phillips. Its supporting columns formed a colonnade hung with bird cages, where visitors could stroll and enjoy ‘the greatest number of distinct species of climbing plants ever seen together’.
In his description of the gardens Loudon does not name Phillips as the designer, one suspects because as he goes on to say “it is singular that the elevation of this building is almost a facsimile of the elevation which we made for of the hothouses of the Birmingham Horticultural Society’s garden.” [And which was turned down by Birmingham]
The conservatory was home to a streamful of exotic fish, aviaries of exotic birds as well as a large number of animals including the lions, tigers and leopards.
The main path through the grounds was lined with perches for birds such as macaws and cockatoos, while the lake became home to exotic water birds.
Elsewhere round the garden were other animal pavilions, including a large octagon building with enclosed paddocks “for the more domesticated animals, such as elephants, camels, zebras, lamas, Brahmin bulls, &c., many of the largest birds of prey; the ostrich, cassowary, pelican, &c.” These were all thought by Loudon to be “ more suitable and more imposing structures than are yet to be found in the gardens in the Regent’s Park”.
“A beautifully picturesque, and ruinous pile of rock, that long adorned the garden of that great anatomist the late J. Brooks, Esq., has been erected here for the eagle tribe (among which are some noble specimens); and, at the foot of this is a dam with chambers for beavers.” [Mogg’s New Picture of London]
If you’ve read the article on the Jardin des Plantes you might remember that the highlight of the menagerie was Her Highness the first giraffe to have been seen in France, but that the one sent to London soon died. In fact when it did in 1827 Cross bought its body for £30 to add to his exhibition.
He realised the attraction of the cameleopard as giraffes were then known, and in 1843 had a real coup buying 5 young captivity-reared giraffes from Egypt. They travelled from Alexandria to London on a specially adapted boat and were then walked from the docks to the gardens during the night so that they didn’t scare the living daylights out of people on the streets. Like Her Highness they became a major attraction, as did their “Nubian attendants”.
But, of course we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that Cross was running a business. New and unusual animals were continually in demand. The gardens were often given gifts of birds or other small creatures by returning sea-captains or diplomats but Cross bought rare specimens too. These included reindeer, elks and orang-utans. The Surrey gardens were, however, up against competition not just from the Regents Park Zoo but also a whole range of other commercial pleasure grounds, notably Cremorne and Vauxhall. So to make the gardens pay their way he not only needed to charge a shilling entrance fee he also had to provide attractions other than the animals.
He laid on plenty of firework displays, flower shows and concerts but also extraordinary grand panoramas and re-enactments which changed regularly. In 1843 it was a panorama and recreation of the vast Hindu temples at Ellora, and in 1845 the city of Edinburgh. Most spectacular of all must have been the 1841 recreation of the City of Rome which covered about 5 acres and had 250,000 sq feet of painted backdrop, which “burned down” every night.There were also extravagant re-enactments of events such as the eruption of Vesuvius. The backdrop for this was claimed to be the ‘largest picture ever painted’, and was installed behind the lake, which served as the Bay of Naples, complete with a miniature British frigate lying at anchor.
The painter of Vesuvius, and many of the later panoramas, was George Danson, the scene-painter at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre. whose work was so good that ‘the picture blends …with the surrounding realities of sky, water, trees and shrubs, that, at the distance of 300 yards, it is difficult to point out where art ends and nature begins’.
Later shows included Great Fire of London, the storming of Badajoz in the Peninsular War, the Siege of Sebastopol, and Napoleon crossing the Alps, [although the emperor actually skimmed across the lake on horseback!] which had huge sets up to 24m [80ft] high, and were accompanied by gunfire and more fireworks.
Other attractions included strongmen, tumblers, acrobats, Ramo Samee, the juggler and sword-swallower, and Blackmore the tight-rope walker who crossed the lake on a rope sixty feet above the surface.
Probably none was more spectacular though than Charles Green, the leading balloonist in Britain at the time, who took off from a raft on the lake in May 1835 in the Grand Coronation Balloon. To make it even more exciting Green was “accompanied by the Celebrated Monkey Jacopo who will Descend in a Parachute !!!” The monkey “attired in a scarlet coat and feathers…[and] labelled with ‘two pounds reward,’ landed outside the garden and was promptly returned to Mr. Cross.” One newspaper later dubbed him “His Highness” Sadly there appears to be no image of this brave simian aeronaut, but he didn’t show up for a repeat performance the following year nor was there any “apology for his absence.”
However Jacopo did make several more appearances this time with Margaret Graham, a pioneering female balloonist, in 1837 when he was suspended from the balloon’s basket in a cage attached to a parachute.
Not every balloon ascent was quite as successful, and on 24th May 1838 the gardens saw a bit of a disaster.
The ‘Montgolfier’ was “a monstrous balloon” said to be ‘of the height of the York Column, with a circumference nearly half that of the dome of St. Paul’s.’ It was laid out on the island and was to ascend at 7 in the evening by which time there were at least 5000 spectators. Unfortunately instead of using gas it was designed to be inflated by burning chopped straw. Unfortunately the design wasn’t very good, the balloon caught fire twice and the flight was abandoned.
This did not go down well with the crowd who threw ‘a well-directed volley of stones’ which “soon left the monster prostrate on the lake.”
A riot broke out and they “sought out the proprietor, hoping to duck him in one of his own ponds. And when this failed, they attacked the glass panes of the lion’s conservatory.” It took a detachment of police and the eruption of Vesuvius ” in all its fury” before they dispersed!
Cross retired in 1844 and the new manager William Tyler gave the whole site an overhaul. He built a large open-fronted building [seen in the middle of the image above] for 300 musicians for regular large scale concerts. He improved the planting, , installed a new fountain, built a gothic bridge and even a 70ft high pagoda. There were “boat rides out of the fancy ponds, .. hermit’s cells to visit, and Venetian serenades” He added new animals such as pigmy elephants to the collection and even lit up the glass conservatory so that the ‘matchless collection of carnivora could be viewed by gaslight.’
“Nothing is seen but joy and animation,… The performances conclude each night between twelve and one, with a grand display of fireworks.” Unfortunately, despite everything Tyler tried, the gardens slowly went into decline. The rival attraction of the Great Exhibition and then the Crystal Palace finally proved too strong and in 1856 the animals were sold off and the site became simply Royal Surrey Gardens.
The site was taken over by the Surrey Music-Hall Company, who demolished virtually all buildings, replacing Phillips’ circular conservatory with the largest concert hall in London at a cost of £18,200. It had room for an orchestra and chorus of 1000 and an audience of 12,000.
Designed by Horace Jones, the Illustrated London News described its style as “degenerate Italian relieved in the French taste”. The grounds were once again “improved” this time by a Mr Forrest [probably Richard Forrest who had designed the grounds at both Manchester and Bristol zoos] and a huge panoramic backdrop of Constantinople was installed around the lake with some small Turkish style pavilions.
It too was soon in financial difficulties and in April 1859 the gardens—now described as of ten acres—were advertised for sale. Even the concert hall did not last long, burning down in 1861.
This coincided with St Thomas’s Hospital looking for a temporary home while it found a more permanent site. They took over the gardens and the old manor house, rebuilding the burned music venue for use by patients while the pavilion was used as a laboratory and the elephant house became the dissecting room. When the new hospital opposite Parliament was completed in 1871 and they moved out several more attempts were made to reopen the gardens as a commercial venture, but all failed miserably, bankrupting the various owners in turn. Short accounts of these can be found in the history of the gardens by Bishop Montgomery  and Warwick Wroth .
By then the end was clear. As you can see from the map above Walworth had been swallowed up by ever-expanding London and the gardens were sold to developers and soon disappeared under the small terraced houses of what was known as the Surrey Gardens Estate. In the 1980s a small area was converted into Pasley Park which luckily has a lively Friends Group who are keeping its story alive!