The Last Giraffe of Walworth

Opened in 1831 by Edward Cross, the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth hosted a huge number of grand events; from re-enactments of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and The Great Fire of London, to spectacular fireworks displays and hot air balloon flights. The gardens housed a large music hall as well as one of London’s first zoos.

The Zoological Gardens included a large circular domed conservatory at its centre which housed a pond of exotic fish and birds as well as cages of large carnivores, including lions and tigers. Feeding time was a big affair and keepers were known to tease the hungry carnivores to ‘put on a good show’ for the visitors. Other exotic animals such as pigmy elephants and monkeys were kept at the zoo which rivalled the equally new London Zoo at Regent’s Park.

In 1843 five young giraffes were purchased for the Zoological Gardens. Bred from captive giraffes in Africa, they were bought at just 6 weeks old and were hand-reared. Their journey to Walworth took them across Africa travelling for 35 days to Cairo. At such a young age it was too far for the young giraffes to walk so they were strapped to the side of camels for transportation. From Cairo they travelled along the Nile by boat. Passage to Britain was booked on a ship from Alexandria, however, the young giraffes were growing taller and a 15ft high space had to be cut into the ship in order to transport them safely. Once arrived in London the animals were walked through the streets, from the docks to the zoo, under cover of darkness so that the sight of ‘strange horses’ didn’t scare the local residents. The giraffes, the first on public display in Britain, caused quite a stir – their “Nubian attendants” even more so, becoming celebrities in their own right.

Giraffes and their attendants (P02185)

The Cuming family visited various events, fairs and fetes at the gardens and saved posters, tickets and souvenirs as part of their growing collections. The only surviving souvenir from Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens is a lovely plaster of Paris model of a one of the young giraffes, which stands around 38cm high. This was added to the collection by Henry Syer Cuming in the mid-1800s.

However, in 2013 a fire severely damaged the Walworth Town Hall which housed the Cuming Museum. The model giraffe was rescued but sadly had been broken into six pieces, all of which were dirty and discoloured from the smoke and fire, as well as being water damaged in the aftermath. Along with other damaged items the giraffe was sent to Plowden and Smith for restoration.

After numerous trials conservator Francis Toohey decided that the most suitable way to clean the fragile surface was with deionised water and white spirit, applied with a moist cotton bud and immediately dried. It was very slow and delicate work.

Once cleaned, work could begin on putting the giraffe back together piece by piece. PVA adhesive was used to bond the fragments together again and small holes or missing parts were made up with a soft acrylic filler and plaster of Paris tagged with Barium sulphate. As well as referring to photographs of the model before the fire conservators also researched giraffe anatomy, paying particular attention to the shape of the skull, to ensure the reconstruction would be accurate.

As different fragments of the giraffe suffered different fates during and after the fire – some badly scorched or soot damaged, others more seriously water damaged – it meant that although the structure was once again intact, the damage was still noticeable. It was decided that while any fills would be colour matched as closely as possible the patchwork colouring of the different fragments would remain, conserving the damage caused by the fire as part of the history of the object itself.

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You can now view a 3D model of the reconstructed giraffe on Sketchfab.

A Brief History of the Cuming Museum

The Walworth Road 1799

In the late 18th century Walworth Road was not the commercial street of shops that we think of today, but lined with grand terraces of Georgian houses, much more in keeping with the style we now associate with areas of London such as Bloomsbury.

Henry Syer TN03705

Miniature of Henry Syer Cuming

Richard Cuming, and his son Henry Syer Cuming, lived in a part of Walworth Road which now lies between Manor Place and Amelia Street, and they had a passion for collecting.

Between them, during the late 18th and the 19th century, they acquired all kinds of objects from around the world – from Japanese shoes and ancient Egyptian amulets to a brown bear, purchased from the Leverian Museum in 1806. In An Introduction to The Cuming Family and The Cuming Museum author Stephen Humphrey describes the more local additions to the collection:

And all the time, father and son accumulated the printed and pictorial ephemera of everyday life – advertisements, catalogues, tickets and programmes, letters and circulars, and even the paper bags in which they bought their rolls from the baker – which have become one of the most compelling sources for local 19th-century history.”

 

CollectionHenry died in 1902 and left funds in his will to create a public museum, which opened above the Newington public library on Walworth Road near Elephant and Castle in 1906.

Camberwell Beauty LDCUM1985.003_1

Camberwell Beauty

Many local history objects have been collected, from the early 19th century right up to today, expanding the Cuming Museum collection and reflecting Southwark’s rich and diverse history, and its unfolding story.

In 2006, the museum opened new public spaces adjacent to Newington Library, on the ground floor of the former Walworth Town Hall. This new space housed regular events and changing exhibitions alongside permanent displays showcasing key items from the collections.

A fire in 2013 damaged the Walworth Town Hall and since then the museum has been without permanent display galleries. However, successful projects and programmes have taken place in locations around the borough. These include the Cabinet of Curiosity, our programme in Southwark’s libraries; Cuming Explorers, our early years offer, in conjunction with Inspire and Victory School; Natural Selection, our collaboration with artist Janetka Platun and Peckham Platform; and our most recent project with the MA Animation students at London College of Communication.

Past Projects

The Cuming museum will return to the former Walworth Town Hall building when it reopens in a few years. In the meantime, look out for consultation opportunities concerning the redevelopment and follow us here and on Twitter to get regular updates about our work and events.