Polar Bears in the Thames

London Photo Walks. Walking tours around the great city of London

On our South Bank walking tour you come to City Hall and look across the river Thames to gaze upon the 11th century fortress that is the White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London.

Thoughts of Crown Jewels, Beefeaters and Ravens come to mind. But did you know the Tower of London was once home to an entire menagerie of exotic animals, including lions, a leopard, monkeys and even a polar bear? 

Polar Bear on the Thames

For over 600 years the Tower housed an array of exotic animals. During the reign of King John (1199-1216) three boatloads of wild beasts were shipped from Normandy and started the Royal collection. In 1235 Frederick II sent Henry III three leopards to mark his wedding to Eleanor of Provence, the emperor’s sister. A lion came next and in 1252 a polar bear and its keeper – gifts from Haakon IV of Norway.

The fortress by the Thames provided the perfect enclosure. 13th Century Londoners were amazed at the site of a shackled polar bear being led to the Thames riverbank to wash itself and fish for food. In 1255 the first elephant arrived in the country, a gift from Louis IX of France. A 40 foot long elephant house was built which later became one of the Tower’s many prison cells.

Edward I created the position of Master of the King’s Bears and Apes – later renamed the Keeper of the Lions and Leopards. By the 16th century, when the collection was opened to the public, it included several lionesses, a lion, a tiger, a lynx, a wolf, a porcupine, an eagle, camels and a flying squirrel.

The collection continued to grow and in 1672 Sir Christopher Wren supervised the construction of a two storey Lion House.

Tower of London Menagerie 1816
Tower of London Menagerie 1816

In the 18th century two ostriches were given to the collection. It was widely believed that the birds could digest iron – one of which came to a sticky end when it was fed 80 nails by visitors. One of James I’s elephants (housed in St James’s Park) was given wine daily between April and September as it was thought it couldn’t drink water during that time of the year.

With such poor welfare the collection dwindled, but in 1822 a new keeper, Alfred Cops, was appointed. He took great care of the animals and for the first time went out and purchased new creatures. It was a huge success with the public and the collection boasted more than 280 animals including zebras, alligators, a griffin, baboons, kangaroos and bears.

But its success was also its downfall. It became obvious that the Tower was not a suitable place to house the collection and in 1830 a decision was made to give the entire collection to the Zoological Society of London to be housed in its zoo in Regents Park. In 1835 the last of Alfred Cops’ collection had been rehomed, and the Tower menagerie was no more.

Oh, and the photo? In 2009 the natural history TV channel, Eden, commissioned a 16 foot high sculpture of a female polar bear and cub floating down the Thames to promote awareness of their endangered habitat.

Cartoon of the Tower of London Menagerie Thomas Rowlandson 1799
Cartoon of the Tower menagerie by Thomas Rowlandson 1799
Capture your own unique view of the Tower of London

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londonphotowalks.uk offers walks combining historic facts with expert photographic tuition to capture stunning images of iconic London landmarks. Led by Mike Silve, a born and bred Londoner and full-time photographer, our walks are ideal for those who want to learn more about this historic capital, get the best from their camera and seek out the best views of the city, its buildings and people.

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