George Cruikshank's 1836 etching of visitors looking at giraffes.

A delightful promenade: The early topography of London Zoo 1826–1837

Oliver Flory traces the early development of London Zoo from the establishment of the Zoological Society of London’s Gardens through contemporary topographical images.

The establishment of the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London (later to become the London Zoo) was a landmark in the conception of a scientific zoo.[1] European collections of animals, prior to the construction of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in 1794, had generally fallen into three categories;  the built aristocratic or royal menagerie, modelled to a greater or lesser extent on the menagerie at Versailles (c.1664), which displayed the residents in open-air paddocks and enclosures, frequently set symmetrically about a central pavilion; aristocratic collections of deer, antelope and other exotic ungulates which were often turned loose into parks to act as living adornments to the landscape; and public spectacles ranging from diverse travelling shows to hawkers with a single bear or monkey.[2] In England, aside from the numerous itinerant showmen, the only major public collections of exotic animals before 1828 (when the Zoological Gardens opened for the first time) had been the Exeter Change menagerie, operating out of the squalid second floor of an arcade on the Strand, and the Crown’s gradually dwindling assortment of animals at the Tower. The absence of a scientific zoological collection in Britain, particularly one that would rival that in Paris, was one of the major motivating factors behind the foundation of the Zoological Society by Sir Stamford Raffles, assisted by Humphrey Davy, the president of the Royal Society. Whilst Raffles died tragically and prematurely of apoplexy in July 1826, his project continued, supported by an illustrious membership that included aristocrats, clergy and private gentlemen, as well as scientists. This essay will focus on the topography and the design of the early gardens that these members constructed to contain a growing collection of animals, up to the year 1837 and the construction of the giraffe house. 

Giraffes – Granny-Dears & other Novelties

George Cruikshank's 1836 etching of visitors looking at giraffes.

This satire by Cruikshank shows the giraffes at the Zoological Society's gardens. The giraffes remained one of the most popular attractions of the Society’s Gardens during the 19th century following their arrival in 1836.

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Regent’s Park was a logical site for the Society’s experiment. On the edge of the expanding district of Marylebone and remote from the busy centre of the city, the park itself was relatively new, surrounded with fine terraces and encompassing large villas such as The Holme. Though the Prince Regent’s plans for an enormous palace within the park never came to fruition (he settled for a controversial restoration of Buckingham Palace), the tenants of the elegant houses adjacent to or inside the grounds, were wealthy and fashionable. This represented something of a dichotomy for the nascent Zoological Society. Whilst the zoological gardens would be close to and easily accessible by polite society, the presence of hypothetically dangerous wild animals, their associated smells and noises and potentially unsightly cages and barns were unlikely to win them support. Indeed, reporting on the Society’s proposals, the Literary Gazette wondered ‘how the inhabitants of the Regent’s Park will like the lions, leopard and linxes [sic] so near their neighbourhood’.[3] In the event, the irate ‘inhabitants’ objected in extremely strident terms, obstructing and delaying the construction of new buildings for several years; John Maberley, MP for Abingdon and the resident of St John’s Lodge to the north of the Inner Circle, going so far as to sue the Society in 1828 for ‘the actual violation of the rights of Individuals’.

Gardens of the Zoological Society

A print showing the Gardens of the Zoological Society in Regents Park.

This wood-engraving shows a bird’s eye view of the Zoological Society’s Gardens as they appeared in 1828.

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The layout of the zoological gardens was therefore not only limited by the shape of the available land (all of it, in fact, leased from the Crown), but by the various strictures placed on the Society. Initially, the favoured site had been within the Inner Circle, but this had been refused by the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Woods and Forests, who were anxious to maintain the nursery gardens established therein. Eventually, a roughly triangular plot of five acres in the north section of Regent’s Park was let in 1826, though additional land was steadily added, both in the park itself and beyond the Outer Circle and canal.[4] However, construction was still legally restricted. The east border of the gardens was to be thickly planted to preserve the views from the grand houses of the Outer Circle. Additionally, buildings on the south-west border were restricted to a height of only eight feet.[5] Luckily, these limitations were relaxed on the additional land to the north, where houses for elephants and other large herbivores were erected, despite the unreliable and damp clay soil.[6] These restrictions occasionally had dramatic consequences. In 1828,  for example, ‘a Shed for Indian Cows, an Aviary and a Dove Cote’ were approved but not winter quarters for other animals, meaning that much of the collection was compelled to reside either in draughty sheds or in nearby stables, where, predictably, many swiftly died in the cold.[7]

Design for the Garden in the Regent’s Park

Design for the Zoological Society gardens by Decimus Burton.

The prominent architect Decimus Burton executed the first designs for the Zoological Society’s Garden in Regent’s Park, London in the 1820s.

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Despite these limitations, the Society’s Architect, Decimus Burton (1800–1881), approached the design of the gardens with alacrity. He had established himself as a prominent architect, working under the supposed auspices of John Nash (a vituperative opponent of the zoo, and later Burton himself), designing the majority of the buildings in Regent’s Park such as Chester Terrace.[8]  Perhaps influenced by the menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, the animal houses and enclosures followed a cottage orné style, in accordance with the prevailing fashionable trends of 1820s landscape-gardening.[9] Set at regular intervals amidst topographical features such as Three Island Pond along frequently intersecting paths, they created a series of attractive and varying prospects, succinctly described by Toovey as ‘follies set in an elegant garden for entertainment and curiosity’.[10] Contemporary prints, such as the 1831 series of lithographs by James Hakewill, show the buildings, and in fact the zoo itself, fully integrated into the rural environment of the park. The style of the buildings was generally unrelated zoo-geographically to the inhabitants. Thus the oval cattle sheds of 1830 (housing on occasion camels and zebra as well as buffaloes and bison) were in ‘Tuscan’ style (‘not worthy of particular description’) and the elephant house was a vaguely Oriental thatched building with arched doors and a pointed roof, ‘in a style of rustic architecture’ almost identical to that of the deer stables in the southern gardens.[11]

Views of the Zoological Society Gardens, London

Views from 'Partington's National History and Views of London' (1835).

Parthington’s National History and Views of London and its Environs, published in 1835, includes this series of views of the Zoological Society’s Gardens.

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The best known and the best loved building was the Gothic House for llamas of 1828 (though it was later appropriated for dromedaries), described as ‘one of the most beautiful objects in the gardens’.[12] One of the rare survivals from the early days of the zoo, it has been heavily modified over the ensuing centuries, not least after sustaining significant damage in bombing raids during the war (the distinguishing clock tower was added in 1831, though it was replaced by the present ogee-topped turret in 1844).[13] By the later 1830s, however, Burton seems to have been moving away from the fanciful designs that characterised his earlier zoo buildings in favour of a more practical aesthetic. The giraffe house, necessitated by the famous arrival of a small herd of the animals in 1836, eschews fashionable garden architecture in favour of a more austere and modest ‘Tuscan’ barn, complete with a central heating system. It retains much of its original character, despite the post-war rebuilding of the Cotton Terraces, as does the stuccoed neo-classical East Tunnel of 1829, which connects the main gardens to the additional land beyond the Outer Circle.

Llama House & Macaw Cage

A view of the Llama House at the Zoological Society Gardens.

This lithograph shows James Hakewell’s view of the Llama House, build in the grounds of the Zoological Society’s Gardens in 1828.

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The gardens themselves were both a major attraction for visitors and a source of considerable friction within the higher echelons of the Society. By the time a horticultural department was established in 1834, 2,447 ornamental plants had been introduced in order to beautify the gardens and expenditure on exotic plants had reached almost £900 a year.[14] Motions to limit this spending fell on deaf ears and were roundly defeated in a series of votes in the council. The debate over plants was, to some extent, symptomatic of a wider argument over the number of recreational facilities that the zoo should offer, seen by some Fellows as diluting the scientific purpose of the institution.  The opening of the Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1831, a rival and commercial institution situated at Vauxhall, founded by Edward Cross, the former proprietor of the Exeter Change Menagerie, posed certain existential challenges for the Zoological Society. In addition to frequently outbidding the Society to acquire animals, the Surrey Gardens had no underlying philosophy of scientific enquiry. It therefore supplemented its animal exhibits with concerts, balloon ascents, firework displays and other entertainments including, most spectacularly, an enormous panorama of Mount Vesuvius. As Ito recognises, it became apparent that some populist concessions were necessary to allow the zoo to compete with the rival establishment south of the river. As such, a confectioner was given permission (previously withheld) to open a stall in the gardens and seating areas were established. However, musical performances and their ilk were thought too commercial and vulgar for a scientific society to promote and were not introduced.

The Brahmin Bull

A view of the Brahmin Bull at the Zoological Society Gardens.

In the 1830s artist James Hakewill created a series of views of the Zoological Gardens, here illustrating the housing of the ‘Brahmin bull’

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Some scholars have argued that the layout of the animal enclosures was intended to conduct the visitor on a taxonomic or zoo-geographic tour of the natural world.[15] However, as early maps, bird’s–eye views and guides make plain, there was little attempt to present any coherent semblance of such an order.[16] Occasionally, related species were housed in neighbouring enclosures, such as the eagles and vultures in the Round Aviary or the small collection of domestic dogs at the end of the Terrace. Nevertheless, more often than not, closely related species were separated topographically within the gardens. For example, the wolves were originally kept in the rough centre of the gardens whilst the cages for jackals and foxes were erected in the very south western corner of the zoo. It must be emphasized that guidebooks are not an infallible resource by any means, due to the extremely high turnover of stock due to death, illness and the movement of animals throughout the gardens as circumstance dictated. As the List of the Animals in the Gardens of the Zoological Society noted, ‘the Collection is liable to continual change, - from the transfer of specimens to more convenient quarters; from casualties, or other causes of removal from the gardens; and from accessions’.[17] This clearly prohibited a comprehensive scientific approach to the layout of the zoo.

Malayan tapir

A watercolour of the Malayan Tapir.

This watercolour of a Malayan tapir was created in 1824 for Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London.

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Despite this, the Society was committed to ‘the general advancement of Zoological Science’.[18] A Council Meeting of October 22nd, 1828, resolved ‘that labels be fixed up at the various places in the gardens with the names of the Quadrupeds and Birds inhabiting them’ (one such label is visible affixed to a tree in a lithograph of the elephant house by Augustus Jules Bouvier).[19] The official Guide to the Gardens of the Zoological Society by Nicholas Vigors, the Secretary of the Society, and William Broderip, a Fellow and keen amateur naturalist, directed the visitor on a recommended route around the gardens, giving details of the creatures that they could expect to see, including Latin and French names, range and habitat, the donor, and the individual characters of the animals.[20] The accompanying map corresponded to a numeric key, allowing the hypothetical visitor to orientate himself within the gardens and to consult the text for information. Numerous unofficial guides, such as The Picturesque Guide, generally follow this pattern, the result of greater or lesser degrees of plagiarism.[21] However, at least two books take the form of fictional outings to the zoo, namely The Zoological Keepsake and Henry and Emma’s visit to the Zoological Gardens, in which an overbearing male figure lectures his unfortunate addressees with ‘windy and inaccurate homilies’.[22] The guidebooks also heavily emphasized the origin of the inhabitants of the gardens, establishing the notion that the zoo was a manifest representation of British power in the minds of visitors. Ritvo, among others, has convincingly argued that the display of animals from the colonies (and, occasionally, their accompanying picturesque foreign attendants) highlighted the extent of British territories, assisted by colonial officials, who dedicated significant and surprising amounts of time, money, and resources to the capture and transport of exotic species.[23] The numerous creatures native to areas of the world outside of British control (perhaps roughly half of the early collection) served to remind visitors of British mercantile prowess and the extent of a British sphere of influence.

The 1.2 million annual visitors to London Zoo today, regardless of extensive modernisation and world-class exhibits, visit a zoological garden laid out within the original boundaries of 1831 amidst the harmonious surrounds of Regent’s Park. The footprint of Burton’s designs, despite the demolition of too many of his buildings, shaped the character of both London Zoo and zoological gardens throughout the world. Indeed, one of the most famous surviving buildings, the giraffe house completed in 1837, is still eminently suitable for its intended inhabitants, which is more than can be said for the brutalist Casson Pavilion elephant house of 1965, the Lubetkin penguin pool of 1934 or the Mappin Terraces for bears and goats of 1914.

With thanks to Ann Sylph and Emma Miles at the Library of the Zoological Society of London.


[1] The term ‘zoo’ famously derives from (or was popularised by) a music-hall song by Alfred Vance c.1871, which shortened the unwieldy and arrhythmic ‘zoological gardens’ to the modern abbreviation.  

[2] There are notable exceptions to this very general outline, such as the subterranean menagerie buildings of the 2nd Duke of Richmond at Goodwood. See also Srehlow, H, ‘Zoological Gardens of Western Europe’, Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient animal collections to zoological gardens, [Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2001] pp.75–83

[3] The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, 6th May 1826 (London: Henry Colburn) 

[4] In fact, even today, the zoo has a legal right to expand further into the park, though, for reasons of public sensitivity, this is unlikely ever to happen.

[5] These height restrictions were cleverly circumvented by Burton’s raised promenade walk terminating in the bear-pit. The original design for an extension of this walk into an elevated terrace with dens beneath never came to fruition, though the Carnivore Terrace of 1843 perhaps owes something to the initial plans.

[6] Ito, T, London Zoo and the Victorians ([London]: The Royal Historical Society, 2014) p. 26–31

[7] Åkerberg, S, Knowledge and Pleasure at Regent’s Park: The Gardens of the Zoological Society of London during the Nineteenth Century (Umeå, Department of Historical Studies, Umeå University, 2001) p.75

[8] In fact, his divergence from Nash’s vision for the Regent’s Park terraces was, inter alia, the main cause of the quarrel between the two men, to the extent that Nash attempted (unsuccessfully) to have Chester Terrace demolished and rebuilt, according to his original plans.

[9] Couper, R, ‘Animal Showcase: An architectural history of early zoological gardens’ ( 12/4/17) p. 22

[10] Toovey, JW, ‘150 years of building at London Zoo’, Zoological Society of London Symposium: 1826–1976 and Beyond, ed. Lord S. Zuckerman (London, Zoological Society of London, 1976) p.180

[11] Partington, C.F., National History and Views of London and its Environs (…), vol. II, (London: Black and Armstrong, 1835.) p.98

[12] Allen, T, A guide to the Zoological Gardens and Museum; with a brief account of the rise and progress of the Zoological Society (London: 1829) p. 11

[13] Guillery, P, The Buildings of London Zoo, (London: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England), p.27

[14] Ito, T, ibid. p. 43

[15] Couper, R, ‘The Architectural Nature of the London Zoological Society at Regent’s Park’, ( 12/04/17)  p.5

[16] A Picturesque Guide to The Regent’s Park; with accurate descriptions of the Colosseum, the Diorama, and the Zoological Gardens (London: John Limbard, 1829) p.45; Allen, T, A guide to the Zoological Gardens and Museum; with a brief account of the rise and progress of the Zoological Society (London: 1829), The Zoological Keepsake; Or zoology and the Garden and Museum of the Zoological Society, for the year 1830, (London: Marsh & Miller, 1830 & Edinburgh: Constable & Co., 1830). This was, to some extent, mitigated from the late 1850s onwards, when Anthony Salvin’s tenure as the Society’s architect resulted in buildings such as the Antelope House (1861), the Monkey House (1864), the Elephant and Rhino House (1869) and the Lion House (1877).

[17] List of the Animals in the Gardens of the Zoological Society, with notices respecting them; and a plan of the Gardens, showing the buildings and enclosures in which the animals are kept, 11th ed. (London: Richard Taylor, 1833) p. 1

[18] Raffles, TS & Davy, H., Prospectus of the Zoological Society (1825)

[19] Minutes of the Council of the Zoological Society, 22/10/1820, quoted in Åkerberg, S, Knowledge and Pleasure at Regent’s Park: The Gardens of the Zoological Society of London during the Nineteenth Century (Umeå, Department of Historical Studies, Umeå University, 2001) p.150

[20] Vigors, N & Broderip, W, Guide to the Gardens of the Zoological Society, (London: Richard Taylor, 1829)

[21] A Picturesque Guide to The Regent’s Park; with accurate descriptions of the Colosseum, the Diorama, and the Zoological Gardens (London: John Limbard, 1829)

[22] The Zoological Keepsake; Or zoology and the Garden and Museum of the Zoological Society, for the year 1830, (London: Marsh & Miller, 1830 & Edinburgh: Constable & Co., 1830) ; Bishop, J, Henry and Emma’s visit to the Zoological Garden, with an account of what they saw there: interspersed with a description of the peculiar manners and habits of the various animals contained therein  (London: Dean and Munday, Threadneedle Street, 1829) ; Blunt, W, The Ark in the Park (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1976) p. 45

[23] Ritvo, H., The Animal Estate – The English and other Creatures in the Victorian Age, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987) p. 230

  • Oliver Flory
  • Oliver Flory is cataloguer of the King's Topographical Collection at the British Library.

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