by Gillian Clegg, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 18, 2009
An additional attraction for visitors to Chiswick House during the tenure of the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1811-1858) was the opportunity to inspect the creatures in his menagerie. Menageries were the forerunners of zoos, but they had nothing to do with conservation, research or environmental education; they were just a way for royalty and the aristocracy to demonstrate their wealth. Menageries were known from medieval times; King John set one up at the Tower of London in the 12th century and George IV maintained a royal menagerie in Windsor Great Park. Animals from these two menageries were transferred to the newly opened London Zoo in the 1830s. There were also travelling menageries in the 18th and 19th centuries. These ‘Wild Beast Shows’ gave people in the provinces their first glimpse of exotic animals.
What the Duke’s menagerie contained
The accounts for Chiswick House, kept in the Chatsworth Archives, show regular payments from at least 1824 for food for an elephant, birds (these included a cockatoo and gold and silver pheasants), and a monkey. We know from other sources that the menagerie also contained a llama, elks, emus, kangaroos, ostriches, a Neapolitan pig, goats ‘of all colours and dimensions’, ‘an Indian bull and his spouse’, a coatimundi (a member of the racoon family) and ‘a dear little creature called an ichneumon who was apt to drop on the back of one’s neck during dinner and had a propensity for sucking human blood.’ According to articles written during the 19th century, the menagerie building was sited on a grassy mound just north of the Classic Bridge.
In October 1820 the Duke’s sister Harriet wrote to their sister Georgiana:
He [the 6th Duke] is improving Chiswick most amazingly, opening and airing it and a delightful walk is made around the paddock, open and dry, with a view of Kew Palace – and a few kangaroos (who if affronted rip up a body as soon as look at him), elks, emus and other pretty sportive death dealers playing around near it.
Evidently with some relief, she wrote to her sister the following month: ‘I own I think it a mercy that one of the kangaroos has just died in labour, vu [sic] that they might hug one to death.’
The spitting llama also failed to impress Prince Pückler-Muskau, who visited Chiswick House in 1826:
The llama, the size of a hind, has no other weapon than to spit very bad smelling saliva at people. It is very angry and when forced in any way will do its manoeuvre, which looks very ridiculous. Nonetheless one has to watch out because it spits with vehemence and hits the mark.
Sadi, the elephant
The star of the Duke’s menagerie was undoubtedly Sadi the large Indian elephant. The Library of Entertaining Knowledge (1831) suggests this is how the elephant was acquired: ‘The Duke of Devonshire, having been asked by a lady of rank what she should send him from India, and having laughingly answered, “Oh, nothing smaller than an elephant”, was surprised to find, at the expiration of some months, a very handsome female of the species consigned to his care’. If this anecdote is true the ‘lady of rank’ must have been the wife of the Marquis of Hastings who, according to The Morning Chronicle (1818), supplied the Duke with his elephant, although a reference to Walter Elliot, elephant keeper at Chiswick House in the Chatsworth archives for 1811 suggests the elephant was there by that date. References differ as to whether the elephant was male or female, most suggest the latter.
The elephant was noted by Pückler-Muskau in 1826, saying that ‘there is a menagerie attached to the garden, in which a tame elephant performs all sorts of feats and very quietly suffers anybody to ride him about a large lawn’. And it was mentioned again by Sir Walter Scott, in his diary entry for 17 May 1828, that ‘the scene was dignified by the presence of an immense elephant, who under the charge of a groom wandered up and down, giving an air of Asiatic pageantry to the entertainment. I was never before sensible of the dignity which largeness of size and freedom of movement give to this otherwise ugly animal’.
The Library of Entertaining Knowledge recorded that the elephant was kept in a house ‘of large dimensions, well-ventilated and arranged in every particular with a proper regard to the comfort of the animal. But she often had the range of a spacious paddock; and the exhibition of her sagacity was therefore doubly pleasing, for it was evidently not effected by rigid confinement.’
Sadi had a number of party tricks, as described in The London Saturday Journal in November 1839:
We remember seeing him some years ago perform a variety of manoeuvres at the word of command. When told to dress himself, he would take down a scarlet cloak from a peg and throw it with a jaunty air over his ample shoulders; and then kneel down for any of the spectators to mount for a ride; after which he would replace his cloak, take up a bucket and fetch it full of water from the river, and seizing a broom or a scrubbing-brush, would begin cleaning his house.
The elephant was also able to uncork a tightly-stoppered soda water bottle, tip the contents into its trunk, and then into its mouth without spilling a drop, according to The Library of Entertaining Knowledge.
Sadi died in November 1828 when s/he was about 21-years-old, apparently from pulmonary consumption. There is no record of where the elephant was buried but a hand-written note on a photograph of Burlington Lane in Chiswick Local Studies, dated 1926, says ‘inside the gates to Chiswick House is an obelisk always reputed to be set up over the grave of an elephant’. Since the obelisk was set up nearly a hundred years before the elephant died this cannot be correct, but it might provide a clue to the location of the elephant’s bones. That is if the Duke didn’t carry out the plan outlined in an article in John Bull, written a few days after the elephant’s demise: ‘the Duke is stated to have given the flesh, skin etc to the keeper but to have desired that the bones might be carefully preserved for the purpose of having a skeleton made of such remains’.
The Chiswick menagerie was transferred to Chatsworth, probably in 1836 when the ‘Dogs and Waterfowl’ food accounts cease but a new set of payments to John Leggove for animal food at Chatsworth begin.
There are competing claims as to who owned the first giraffe to be seen in England. Most published sources say it was the giraffe sent as a diplomatic gift to George IV from the Pasha of Egypt in 1827. Other sources claim the giraffe was owned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and kept at Chiswick House, one book claiming that the Duke bought the giraffe to console himself after George Canning died at Chiswick House in 1827. This book cites the Duke’s letters and diaries as its reference. But the author has made a mistake – an understandable mistake since the Duke uses phrases such as ‘our own giraffe’, ‘on coming home we met the giraffe caravan’. Closer inspection of the letters and diaries shows that the Duke was talking about the King’s giraffe (that is, the English giraffe; another had been sent to Paris). At the time of the giraffe’s arrival in August 1827, the Duke was staying at Windsor, having been invited to attend the King’s birthday dinner.
The King’s giraffe arrived ‘in a great caravan, big enough to hold her and two cows’. She was kept in the Royal Menagerie in Windsor Great Park and was an object of great curiosity. However, some misguided person advised the King that the poor creature should be fed only milk. On this mean diet the giraffe became very weak and a sling was designed to keep her on her feet. Not surprisingly, she lived for only two years.
What is more certain about the Duke’s giraffes is that four of them were conspicuously present at the gorgeous garden fete the Duke threw for Tsar Nicholas of Russia and 700 other distinguished guests in June 1844. An illustrated article in The Illustrated London News for 15 June 1844 suggests the giraffes provided plenty of entertainment:
The company dispersed in groups about the grounds – some few, among whom was the King of Saxony and his attendants, crossing the lake in boats manned by the Duke’s watermen in their state liveries, for the purpose of inspecting the giraffes, which were on the opposite shore. Before the King’s arrival, however, one of these animals waded across the water and joined the company; an inci¬dent which amused the Royal party.
On his arrival, the Tsar had first enquired about the Duke’s elephant. His host replied that the elephant was dead but there were now four giraffes. ‘Seen out of the dining-room windows, these animals on the water’s side made a subject of talk for everybody’, the Duke wrote in an account of the fete.
But did these animals actually belong to the Duke? Carl Gustav Carus who chronicled the King of Saxony’s visit to the fete writes that he was told that the Duke had only hired the giraffes for a day from a man who had them for show. The Illustrated London News says that the giraffes came from the Surrey Zoological Gardens and were about to be shipped to St Petersburg. The Duke was one of the subscribers to the Surrey Zoo which had acquired five giraffes in 1843 but was only advertising one in 1845. We may never know whether they were owned or hired since the Duke had ceased to keep his diary by 1844 and the Chatsworth accounts contain no record of giraffe hire or purchase.
The Chiswick giraffe house
Warwick Draper in his book Chiswick, published in 1923, suggests that the Duke’s giraffes were kept in a giraffe house and paddock where Upham Park Road is today. And there is good evidence for the Chiswick giraffe house.
An 1845 map in the London Metropolitan Archives for the Great Western Brentford and Central Terminus Junction Railway (which was never built) shows a plot opposite the top of Chiswick Lane containing an elongated building. The schedule describes it as ‘piece of ground for building and giraffe house – reputed owner Francis Hersey – no lessee, ground unoccupied’. This plot and the same building are shown on the 1847 Tithe Map, and a portion of this building is still visible on the first Ordnance Survey map of 1865. The Rate Book for 1845 has an entry for a Mrs Hursey being owner and occupier of a ‘giraffe house and land’ with a rateable value of £16. This is a considerable increase from the £5 for which it was rated in 1844, suggesting that the giraffe house was erected sometime between these two rate assessments.
There is also this visual memory from Jessie McGregor writing in 1918 about her childhood in Gardens of Celebrities and Celebrated Gardens in and around London:
When I was walking with my mother or nurse, we often remarked with curiosity, a large and somewhat dilapidated wooden building, standing in a bit of waste ground, not a quarter of a mile from the place I now know Chiswick House to be . . . Painted on the wall in large letters more than half effaced by time and weather were scrawled the mysterious words ‘Four Giraffes’. When 1 first read of the giraffes at Chiswick House, it was impossible not to connect one circumstance with the other, and to wonder whether the wooden shed with the unexplained legend on the wall, could possibly have been that which, once upon a time, had sheltered the queer-looking animals, provided by the Duke of Devonshire for the Tsar’s entertainment.
Although the distance of a quarter of a mile might not be quite accurate, it would be odd if the giraffes kept in the Chiswick giraffe house were not the same as those displayed by the Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps they were kept on the Upham Park Road plot by ‘the man who had them for show’, mentioned by Carl Gustav Carus, or perhaps the giraffe house was just a temporary arrangement for the Duke’s party.
These include: the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth; Chiswick Local Studies Collection; articles in the Chiswick House Gardens Archive.
Gillian Clegg is the author of Chiswick Past, The Chiswick Book, the website chiswickhistory.org.uk (now incorporated as a separate section of this website) and is a co-compiler of the Chiswick House Gardens Archive.