Friday, October 24, 2008

Amusements in London: Exeter ‘Change

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.

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.

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?


Addie said...

That's definately gruesome. Why would they have wanted to watch the dissecting? They had very different ideas of entertainment back then.

Regina Scott said...

I guess it isn't all that different from the people who like horror movies today, particularly the slasher flicks. Definitely not me! Remember too, this is the generation that popularized some of our most enduring horror icons: Frankenstein and Dracula!