‘Crowly, who is now grown a great lion and very tame’: The Tower Menagerie

It has long been traditional for foreign dignitaries to make gifts of the exotic creatures of their kingdoms to the countries they visit.  In this way Britain acquired a polar bear from Norway in 1252.  He was at first allowed to roam about the Tower of London, but when he became huge his keeper was given a muzzle and a chain and they were sent to spend their days outside, fishing and bathing in the Thames.  Many of these animals were a burden to the recipient, and often quietly hived off to parklands where they lived out shortened lives.  However, by the time England had begun to squabble over a fair proportion of the globe under Elizabeth Ist, the animals were arriving thick and fast.  Ever the public relations guru, Elizabeth improved the menagerie and had it opened to the populace on high days and holidays.

In 1603, James Ist overhauled the menagerie again, providing much larger cages for the animals, running water ‘for the Lyons to drinke and wasche themselves in,’ and a viewing gallery so that visitors could look down upon them in safety.  Lions were the obvious choice as a gift for England, being as fond of them as an emblem as we are. During the Georgian period the Tower contained up to eleven lions at any time, although sadly the cubs tended not to survive the shedding of their milk teeth for some reason.  As lions of similar origin (Bengal and Cape seem to be the two clearest labels) were housed together, the females were regularly pregnant, and therefore their temperaments were naturally changeable.  The male lions were regarded as the tamer of the two and Samuel Pepys records going to the Tower on the 11th of January 1660 to see ‘Crowly, who is now grown a very great lion and very tame’.  When young, all the lions were allowed out to play in the Tower grounds, much to the amusement of the visitors, who patted and played with them.  The Duke of Sussex was particularly fond of a brother and sister who had been fostered by a goat, and he visited often to see them.  In 1729 the cost of ‘seeing the lions’ was threepence, a figure that rose to ninepence by the end of the century.  Dead cats and dogs were used to supplement the feed of the big cats and free entry could be had for anyone bringing one of either.  In 1741, the guide to the Tower included an introduction to the lion Marco, his wife, Phillis and their son Nero.  The lions roared at dawn, and before their feed arrived, which consisted of eight to nine pounds of raw beef daily, excluding any bones and any dogs or cats.  Given the acoustics of the Tower, this must have been quite a racket, and audible for some distance.  On Sunday, the Tower was closed to visitors, and the keepers noted that the lions would often roar all day until someone came and paid them some attention.

Other big cats kept in the menagerie included tigers (Dicka was recorded as a cub in 1741), leopards (a single Willa in the same guide), ‘hunting-leopards’ as cheetahs were known, lynx and ocelot.  Visitors commonly agreed that the ocelot was the prettiest cat, but that the cheetah the most affectionate.  The cheetahs were led about the grounds on leashes in pairs for exercise and as a spectacle.  There appears to have been a great deal of respect for the natures of the animals, and ‘responds to kindness’ is regularly noted.  Animals that did not show any such response included the famous grizzly bear, Old Martin, who was an old man in 1823, but still regarded his keepers as ‘perfect strangers’ and would no doubt prove dangerous should he be allowed out.  Allegedly, Martin died in 1838, aged well over a hundred years old, but I imagine this was Martin mark two or three.  Other dangers included the hyena and the jackals.  I’d imagine they were pretty ripe in summer as well.  The disconsolate solitary mongoose was made happy by the addition of a friend, and the two slept together, interlacing ‘their limbs and tails in a singular fashion’ so that they can each see over the other’s back, ‘and like that fall comfortably asleep’.

The area I would happily avoid would be the monkey enclosure, or ‘The School of Monkeys’ as it was known in the 18thC, which lay in an outer yard near the Lion Tower.  Chimps occasionally cannibalize the young of their most vulnerable mothers for fun, baboons are vicious and the smaller the monkey, the more it looks at you as if it wants to kill you as soon as you turn your back.  A marmoset in a drummer jacket would not have been my pet of choice; I’d have spent all my time hiding from it.  The visitors to the Tower didn’t always like the monkeys either, particularly the baboon, who ‘becomes disgusting in habits as he advances in age.’ In 1753, the guidebook issued a warning about one of the baboons had become expert in throwing missiles and would ‘heave anything that happens to be within his reach with such Force as to split Stools, Bowls and other Wooden Utensils in a Hundred Pieces’.  Not only were the baboons disgusting in their habits, they ‘were gay, playful and docile; but as he grows older he becomes intractable, malicious and ferocious’.  As far as I can discern, there were no apes in the Tower Menagerie.  The monkeys were removed in 1810 for ‘one of them having torn a boy’s leg in a dangerous manner’.

There was usually an elephant in the menagerie, and it was almost always an Indian one.  The English understanding of the temperament and requirements of the elephant seems to be very limited from the documents I have seen.  They were largely judged to be inferior to a dog or a horse in understanding, yet they were observed to play by spraying things with water from their trunks, and Mr Cops, one of the better, and later keepers at the Tower was convinced of their ‘wisdom’.  Quite how they found out that elephants are ‘fond of wine, spirits and other intoxicating articles’ is probably best consigned to the past, but the elephant rations contained a gallon of wine daily until the closure of the menagerie.

The bird house must have been unspeakably noisy, with macaws, cockatoos, eagles, owls and all manner of ornamental and song birds and sadly, some seabirds, who must have suffered due to their large size and the confinement.  It was noted that few developed their full plumage in captivity.

Kangaroos and emus wandered about in the grounds, sometimes confined and sometimes not.  The Royal Park at Windsor had quite a stock of freely roaming kangaroos, and they were breeding successfully at the Tower sometime before 1820.  An aside in an account of the Tower Menagerie of this period notes that there were various parklands around England where kangaroos were present in some quantity, so they were not quite as much of a novelty as I would have imagined.

By far my favourite account of an animal in the Tower is from the 1820s, when a zebra was recorded in the menagerie.  Zebra are stubborn, and remain wild under all but the most confined circumstances (such as being bred in circuses), and the Tower zebra had retained her character, suffering the indignities of her confined state with a tolerably good nature, provided she got her reward:

The subject of the present article, which has now been about two years in the Menagerie, will suffer a boy to ride her aboiut the yard, and is frequently allowed to run loose through the Tower, with a man by her side, whom she does not attempt to quit except to run to the Canteen, where she is occasionally indulged with a draught of ale, of which she is particularly fond.

The Menagerie was much improved by Mr Cops, and during his tenure, it became clear that it was no longer acceptable to house animals in such conditions as the Tower afforded.  The menagerie, housed 280 animals by 1832, mainly in the Lion and Tower was finally closed in 1835, when the animals left to form the basis of the collection for London Zoo.

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6 thoughts on “‘Crowly, who is now grown a great lion and very tame’: The Tower Menagerie

  1. quackwriter

    Lovely post. I too find apes and monkeys rather creepy. I agree there were probably no apes in the Tower. Even in the better conditions at Regent’s Park, it was difficult to keep them alive for many years, and annoyingly there were none at all in Britain in 1857 – the date I wanted to include one in my new book!

  2. Claire Thirlwall

    Sounds like mayhem! It reminds me that in Henley on Thames there is a grave by the road for with the inscription:”Jimmy – A tiny marmoset – August 16th 1937 – There isn’t enough darkness in the world to quench the light of one small candle.”So someone loved at least one!

  3. curlywurlyfi

    Loved this post. I too hate + fear a monkey (little scrabbly hands, giant simian fangs – brrr). Love the idea that the cheetahs are affectionate!

  4. cultureandstuff

    Great piece – loved the detail and the sense you gave of the helter-skelter nature of the place. It reminded me of the story of a lion from the Versailles menagerie, who ended up on display in revolutionary Paris.I’ve written a sort of response to your piece on my blog at http://cultureandstuff.com/?p=116Please do check it out!

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