Wednesday 6 April 2016

London Zoo in Victorian Times

"At the dawn of the Victorian era, London Zoo became one of the metropolis' premier attractions.  The crowds drawn to its bear pit included urban promenaders, gentlemen menagerists, Indian shipbuilders and Persian princes -- Charles Darwin himself."(

While zoos might be seen as a form of entertainment today, back in Victorian times they "participated in the making of scientific knowledge and its dissemination," according to Takashi Ito (  While today's zoos are open to any paying customers, the London Zoo of Victorian times was open only to the London Zoological Society members.  

The baiting of bears, bulls and badgers, once permitted at the London Zoo, was banned by the 1830's. The practice of naming the animals gave the creatures a sense of intelligence and emotion, says Ito. 

  By 1847, the zoo opened its doors to the public.  The first giraffes were brought to Europe in 1836. The London Zoo purchased four of this previously believed to be mythical creature.  The four attracted at least 4,000 spectators.  Attendance that year peaked at 260,000 a figure that wasn't exceeded until the World Exhibition of 1851.

A meeting of the Zoological Society courtesy

In 1859, editors and writers were granted free admission to the London Zoo in an attempt to publicize the place.  The zoo relied on sensationalist stories about its inmates to boost its attendance.  "Science and spectacle became inseparable in Regent's Park," explains Ito.  

The London Zoo started to focus on the breeding of animals.  By the end of the 19th century, as acclimatization started to lose its credibility with scientists, the zoo was no longer seen as a legitimate place to conduct scientific experiments.  Regent's Park became more of a source of entertainment for the public rather than a source of exploration for scientists.

It was at this time that Jumbo the elephant entered the gates of the London Zoo.  Attendance rates soared as Londoners old and young, rich and poor, gravitated towards the zoo.  Just as Charles Darwin visited the site decades before, so too did a young Winston Churchill (see Jumbo the Elephant at  

While the London Zoo lost Jumbo to the United States, and its scientists to a more legitimate testing ground, its doors remained open.  Today it entertains a new generation of Londoners.

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