Sep 042013

The Regency had places where one could go to see wild and exotic animals. One of the most famous was the Royal Menagerie at the Exeter Exchange. But this London amusement had very little in common with the scientifically-managed zoological parks of modern times. Today, Regency romance author, and Beau Monde past President, Regina Scott, provides us with some details of the Menagerie at the Exeter ‘Change. Do you think you would have enjoyed a visit to the Royal Menagerie?

*         *        *

All right, I admit it. I am not a zoo person. The sight of animals in cages, however well designed, always makes me feel sad. So I don’t think I would have found the Exeter ‘Change very amusing.

Engraving of the facade of the Royal Menagerie at the Exeter Exchange

However, thousands of Londoners disagreed. For a shilling, they gladly wandered through the Royal Menagerie at the Exeter Exchange on the Strand each year. The building, which sat where the Strand Palace Hotel is today near Covent Garden, was originally built in 1676 to house a number of shops, such as milliners, haberdashers, and perfumeries. You might say it was the early version of the malls we have today.

A handbill from the Royal Menagerie listing the animals on view, including a lion, an elephant and a nilghau.

Beginning in 1773 until the animals were moved to the London Zoo in 1828, the little rooms on the upper floor were enclosed by iron cages to provide winter quarters for traveling circus animals. By 1814, the owner included a doorman who was dressed like one of the Yeoman of the Guard, no doubt trying to compete with the other royal menagerie, at the Tower of London. The animals changed over time, but included leopards, lions, tigers, monkeys, hyenas, peccaries, nylghau (Indian antelope), camels, ostrich, emus, and "the skeleton of a Spermaceti whale, sixty feet long." (I have no clue on this one!)

One of the reasons you went to the Exchange was for the scare factor. These were dangerous beasties, just inches away from your tender flesh. Girls were delighted to cling to their escorts or swoon into their arms. Supposedly passersby on the street below could hear the lions roaring, and not a few horses also spooked at the sound. The most popular time to arrive was at feeding time. Rather blood-thirsty, eh?

But by far the star of the show for many years was an elephant named Chuny. Chuny was very clever: he took your shilling and gave it back, picked up gentlemen’s top hats from their heads, and opened doors with his trunk. However, as he grew older, Chuny became violent. His keepers liked to take him on a walk down the Strand every Sunday, and one sad day he ran amok and killed one of his keepers. Soldiers were brought in to destroy him. Legend has it that it took over 152 bullets. Ballads, pictures, articles, and at least one play were created in his memory, with his dramatic death the highlight. Some of the people who had paid a shilling to watch him perform paid another to watch him be butchered and later dissected by the Royal Academy of Surgeons.

Definitely not my taste in amusements. How about you?

© 2008 – 2013 Regina Scott
Originally posted at Nineteen Teen
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

  2 Responses to “Amusements in London:   Exeter ‘Change by Regina Scott”

  1. Regina, I’m with you about caged animals making me feel sad. I do wonder whether the lack of other entertainments and travel made this Royal Menagerie akin to the voyeurism and curiosity about the strange that seems to predominate some of our TV channels today.

  2. Very interesting post, Regina. Thanks.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>