Madame, vous fatiguez les singes

E.S. Turner

  • The Tower Menagerie: Being the Amazing True Story of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts by Daniel Hahn
    Simon and Schuster, 260 pp, £15.99, March 2003, ISBN 0 7432 2081 1

To kick-start a chronicle, a writer needs an attention grabber, usually a piquant item borrowed from mid-narrative. This history of the Tower Menagerie, founded 1235, begins on a winter day in 1764, when John Wesley, aged 61, arrived at the Tower with a flute-playing companion, to conduct what he called ‘an odd experiment’. The idea was to observe how the lions reacted to music, which might give some indication as to whether animals possessed souls. Descartes had ruled that they were mere machines, incapable of feeling. Hence some response identifiable as appreciation of music, ideally a standing ovation, would have been a timely rebuff to French philosophy. In the event only one lion bothered to come to the front of the den, where his powers of concentration were spoiled by a playful tiger; the other four lions ignored the proceedings; perhaps, like the Duke of Lauderdale, they preferred the mew of a cat to the best music in the world. Wesley’s test for signs of spirituality in the king of beasts is not to be mocked in an age when cognitive ethologists are trying to discover whether animals have a sense of humour or can experience romantic love, and are fearlessly addressing queries such as: ‘Is it permissible to play music to dolphins as long as they can move away?’

The author of The Tower Menagerie, Daniel Hahn, would not range himself with the busy band of cognitive ethologists. He tells his story in the spirit of an inquisitive explorer who finds that history is both intellectual stimulus and fun, and alive with chaseable hares. After the Wesley taster, his tale begins with the Plantagenets facing up to a problem that persists in the 21st century: what is royalty to do with embarrassing and unwanted gifts? Henry III, fourth of his line, had become the brother-in-law of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who in a friendly gesture sent him three magnificent wildcats, possibly leopards. These creatures of fearful symmetry were the very stuff of heraldry, but their running costs were high. The tight-fisted Henry decided that the sheriffs of London should meet the food bill. As menageries went, it could hardly compare with the human menagerie which made up the Plantagenet Court: manikins, minions, ganymedes, whipping-boys, hornblowers, versifiers, tasters, torturers, mummers and a jester to jump in the custard. Compared with all this, what were a handful of cats and a lone polar bear (a gift from Norway), reduced to finding his own food by pawing salmon from the Thames? Another royal in-law, Louis IX of France, sent Henry an elephant, the most demanding gift of all. Other potentates readily supported far bigger animal establishments. The Emperor Frederick had three private zoos, sometimes taking the more spectacular beasts on his travels; he also ran a training school for cheetahs. Even that, as Hahn tells us, was small stuff compared with the gigantic zoo with six hundred keepers maintained by Montezuma, the entire contents of which were eaten during a long Spanish siege.

The Tower Menagerie was primarily for the monarch’s own amusement, but a decree by Henry VI granted free admission to ‘anyone willing to offer their dog or cat (or presumably by extension horses, sheep etc) as a contribution towards the lions’ dinner. If you timed it right you might even be able to watch the feeding. The kids must have loved it.’ Watching live animals being consumed was a popular pastime, one which is now indulged by the nightly spectacle of animals rending, drowning and swallowing each other on television.

Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation speech is said to have been supported by loyal roars from the Tower lions. Were these, Hahn wonders, stage-managed? Like her subjects, the Queen was happy to see animals baited. On one of her progresses she watched a battle royal between 13 bears and a large pack of bandogs: a rousing spectacle, though not by the standards of the Romans, who slaughtered five thousand wild beasts on the opening day of the Colosseum. It was left to James I to popularise baiting as an attraction at the Tower, thus promoting the sport from the disreputable status it enjoyed in the urban bear gardens. For better viewing, James refashioned the Lion Tower, but there was little he could do about the vile stench of offal brought by the barge-load for his beasts’ consumption. His master of the bears was Edward Alleyn, more reputably known as the founder of Dulwich College. The King took a personal interest in the breeding of lions and ‘even designed a nipple for a bottle that one fading cub might suckle from’. Sometimes the lions had to be encouraged with torches to make them come out and greet their monarch. They let him down badly by rejecting a live lamb lowered on a rope. ‘The lamb rose up and went towards the lions, who very gently looked upon him and smelled him without any further hurt. Then the lamb was softly drawn up again.’ That happened in 1604, the year when visitors to the Tower ‘would doubtless have heard’, above the roaring and growling of the King’s beasts, the sounds of Guy Fawkes being stretched on the rack in the adjacent building.

Half a century on, and it was time for Cromwell to suppress the London bear gardens. As Macaulay said, ‘the Puritan hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bears but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.’ Hahn has it that Colonel Thomas Pride killed the bears of Southwark with his own hands, but other accounts say he had them tied by the noses and shot by militiamen. On his deathbed he is supposed to have said: ‘The first thing that is upon my spirits is the killing of the bears, for which the people hate me and call me all the names in the rainbow.’ Since there was now no princely sponsor, baiting at the Tower was in abeyance. After the Restoration Samuel Pepys often looked in. Any ferocities he may have witnessed would hardly have disturbed one who had turned out to see a live major-general hacked to pieces at Charing Cross.

Baiting, Hahn says, went on ‘for some time’ before being criminalised. In fact it was still flourishing when Queen Victoria came to the throne. The bullards of Stamford, in Lincolnshire, defied an Act of 1835 banning the practice, and it was stopped only by the intervention, in successive years, of the 14th Light Dragoons and the 5th Dragoon Guards. It had become a class issue. Bull-baiting was the poor man’s sport and was being put down by those who upheld fox-hunting. Its defenders claimed that it was character forming, producing robust subjects in the pattern of John Bull. (If present-day fox-hunters defy a ban on their sport, will New Labour cite this precedent and send in the Army?)

Down the centuries the Tower Menagerie suffered periods of neglect and near extinction. Some animals, like monkeys and kangaroos, came late on the scene. When monkeys were featured, in 1790, the notion that they were closer to man than other creatures led to an ill-advised experiment in interactive viewing. The public were allowed into the Monkey Room, which was less like a cell than a domestic interior, complete with fireplace. Here the occupants climbed over their visitors, pinched and nipped them, pulled their hair and generally behaved in a way familiar to any Army officer who has held the post of OC Apes, Gibraltar. One half-expects to find a footnote with the story about the voluptuous actress visiting a French zoo, where the keeper implores her to move on: ‘Madame, vous fatiguez les singes.’

The Tower Menagerie was not proof against the myths about animals which persisted down the centuries. Shakespeare helped to perpetuate one of these in II Henry VI, where Jack Cade says ‘I’ll make thee eat cast iron like an ostrich and swallow my sword like a great pin, ere thou and I part.’ A French bestiary encouraged the idea that ostriches could digest iron and an English psalter showed them being fed horseshoes. The Tower guidebooks of the 1750s blamed this nonsense on the Dutch, yet when George III received an ostrich in 1791 the Tower staff jumped at the chance to try out an iron diet on it. A post-mortem found more than eighty undigested nails in its body. Is this misapprehension now extinct? Not in the works of P.G. Wodehouse: ‘He gazed at the girl like an ostrich goggling at a brass doorknob.’

When the 19th century dawned, the Tower Menagerie had to compete with multiple attractions, for which Hahn finds the appropriate quotation in Wordsworth:

albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs,
The horse of knowledge, and the learned pig,
The stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, ventriloquists, the invisible girl,
The bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes

There was also a powerful counter-attraction at Edward Cross’s Exeter Exchange, off the Strand, in the shape of Chuneelah, or Chunee, the country’s favourite elephant, one of those animal heroes who receive long flattering obituaries when merchant-philanthropists are ignored. In 1826 Chunee’s rages, while in a state of must, proved too much for his keepers and it was decided to put him down. The condemned beast rejected a meal of hay laced with ‘corrosive sublimate’. Execution by firing squad took an hour and a half and 152 bullets, followed by sword thrusts (a cannon had been held in reserve). A national outcry followed; there had already been fierce indignation, the previous year, over a lion bait staged by George Wombwell at Warwick Castle. Some of the anger was aroused by the cramped conditions in which Chunee had been kept. Were the quarters of the Tower elephants any better? If nothing else, Chunee’s fate is a tale of hideous incompetence. How, the reader may wonder, did Hannibal dispose of unwanted elephants? How did cavemen ever contrive to dispatch a mammoth?

Under a former trainer of Chunee, Alfred Cops (who once had a nasty encounter with a boa constrictor), the Tower Menagerie was being belatedly smartened up when, suddenly, the curtain fell. The new Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington, wanted the fortress to be run as a proper military garrison, in which a stinking menagerie and a gawping public had no place. Fortunately, the newly founded Zoological Society’s gardens in Regent’s Park were there to receive most of the beasts. The Zoo authorities stressed the scientific aspects of their enterprise and po-facedly maintained that animals were not kept for ‘vulgar admiration’. William IV signed the Menagerie’s death warrant in 1831. Over six centuries, what had it done to justify its existence? Not really enough, must be the answer. It had taught some to marvel, which is not to be confused with vulgar admiration, but what had it added to the sum of human knowledge? It had given John Hunter a steady supply of exotic corpses to dissect for his collection. It had enabled the serious-minded to study animal physiology and ponder the new systems of taxonomy. It had, in some degree, improved the methods of rearing animals in captivity. It had finally convinced people that there were no unicorns. It had provided models for artists such as Stubbs and Landseer, whose Trafalgar Square lions are in a sense the Menagerie’s memorial. It had (probably) inspired Blake’s well loved, if unsettling, poem about a tiger; some may have questioned whether that robin redbreast in a cage that put all Heaven in a rage should not have been a noble tiger. If conditions at the Tower ever sparked off a savage anger in the breasts of poets, philosophers, Methodists and scattered humanitarians in the age of sensibility, the evidence is hard to find. It was not the frustrations of giraffes and hyenas that led, in 1824, to the foundation of the RSPCA, but rather the gross everyday abuse of horses on the streets. At the lowest level, the menagerie established a landmark in the annals of practical joking. Every April the pranksters issued invitations to view the annual ceremony of ‘Washing the Lions’ (a jest which has since declined into leaving the boss a note with the Zoo’s telephone number and a request to ring Mr C. Lyon).

It is possible that the young Queen Victoria would have been happy to keep up the Tower Menagerie. In the second year of her reign she paid six visits to Drury Lane, where Isaac Van Amburgh from Kentucky nightly demonstrated man’s dominion over the beasts, as laid down in Genesis. The ‘moral education’ he bestowed on lions and tigers – that is, teaching them their rightful place in the chain of being – was effected by brutal blows to the head with a crowbar. That he was a fearless man was not denied, but his ways were not universally admired, nor were his proposals to send up animals in balloons or submerge them in diving bells. The Prince Consort’s interest in wildlife lay in conducting battues of massed hares or deer, as witheringly mocked by Thackeray in Punch. In due course the Queen fell back on a more traditional royal enthusiasm, a devotion to manikins, and ‘Gener-al’ Tom Thumb was feted under the royal roof.