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.

Amazing Aeronauts

By Judy Aitken, Curator of the Cuming Museum

Throughout our history we humans have been fascinated by the idea of flying and have admired and venerated the creatures which can do this with ease.

Great Montgolfier Balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1838.

Hot air balloons were our first successful flight technology capable of carrying humans.

Although tethered and unmanned attempts were made for centuries beforehand, people only managed to sustain a proper balloon ‘free flight’ in the late 18th century when in 1783 the Montgolfier brothers managed to get their balloon, manned by fellow Frenchmen Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlande, to fly untethered at around 1000 metres, for 10 minutes.

It seems this act had as big an impact on the popular imagination of the time as the moon landing did in 1969. Balloon images were everywhere, in clothing, jewellery and endless prints of the feat.

But while NASA took some time to send the first women into space, the first lady balloonists started appearing only a year after the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon first flew.

In 1784 Elisabeth Thible made a voyage in a hot air balloon that was to spark a forty year popular obsession with women “aeronauts”.  Women like Jeanne-Genevieve Labrosse, Elisa Garnarin, Sophie Blanchard, Lizzie Ilhling Wise, Wilhelmine Reichard, Carlotta (Mary) Myers, Leila Adair, the fabulously named Leona Dare and Mrs (Margaret) Graham all took to the skies, many in solo flights.  These women became famous and celebrated although very few are spoken of today. Most were doing it for thrills, many became world-wide sensations, some were doing it as stunts with their male partners and some, like Wilhelmina Reichard, were also undertaking scientific experiments.

Sophie Blanchard was the most famous of these and her tiny, timid and bird like character apparently completely changed once off the ground.  She toured alone and was highly successful until a fatal crash in 1819 ended not only her life but also some of the audience’s taste for ballooning – although it surged again in later years.

Female balloonists were famous across France, Germany and America, while Britain’s own sensation, Mrs Margaret Graham, was making a splash nearer to home.

I first came across references to this lady in posters in our collections for events taking place in Walworth at the Royal Surrey Zoological Gardens.  Mrs Graham claimed to be the only English female aeronaut, which might have been true, but her posters also claimed she was the “only female aeronaut in Europe” which, given the number of other ‘balloonistas’ at the time, was probably poetic licence.

Mrs Graham's balloon ascent. Surrey Zoological Gardens. 1837.

As a skilled self-promoter she knew a good story when she saw one and wrote thrilling accounts of her exploits, including the time when, just as she was touching down, a man with a lit taper came up behind the balloon and accidentally set fire to it.

Margaret Graham at first worked with her husband in their joint balloon ascents but by the 1840s he had all but stopped.  Mrs Graham carried on alone, occasionally accompanied by one or more of her seven children, especially her daughter Alice.

Balloonists risked life and limb, particularly as they were fond of setting off fireworks from the balloon cars once in the air, which, although spectacular, seems unwise.  Balloons were filled by attaching to gas valves and Mrs Graham recounts “filling up” at Lambeth gas works before a flight – which sounds a hair-raisingly risky operation.

Mrs Graham had her share of accidents, including one which caused her to miscarry, but she often turned these to her advantage as she used the danger to promote the next flight after her recovery.

Unlike many of the intrepid balloonists she lived a long life and died peacefully in bed well into her seventies.

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