Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City

By Hannah Velten

Reaktion Books1900 bear

In 1900 there were an estimated 200,000-700,000 working horses in London. In 1947 the Ministry of Transport banned all horse-drawn vehicles from using major London routes in peak traffic hours. The world changed fast and we forgot. Until very recently, London was not just packed with humans… it was an urban jungle in the truest sense.

Beastly London is one of those rare books that force you to think about the past in a very different way; at once making it both uncomfortably foreign and enticingly tangible. Split into seven clear chapters (with plenty of sub-chapters), the book explores the various ways in which animals have experienced London over time. From livestock and working animals to sport, entertainment, pets and wildlife, Hannah Velten covers considerable ground in her masterful study of the capital.

Right from the outset, Velten expresses her desire to give animals their ‘voice’, but she does much more than that. Taken as a sideways view of our own past, Beastly London opens up a unique window into the morals and attitudes of Londoners throughout time. Whether it be animal baiting, circus entertainment, hunting or farming, Velten guides us through the rich history of each topic right up to, either its demise or, the present day. In doing so she draws out some astonishing anecdotes. Some are familiar (such as the disgust pointed at female dog owners for doting on their pets too much at the Great National Dog Show at Crystal Palace in 1874), while others fall way outside our contemporary moral compass (like the descriptions of barely alive horses packed next to dead and decomposing animals in a knacker’s yard in 1843).

Along the way we encounter some marvellous animal characters and unsettling stories. There is ‘Carlo’ the Newfoundland dog who became an overnight star after his 1803 turn in The Caravan – the climax of the Theatre Royal show saw Carlo jump from a rock into a large tank of water to save a drowning child. Then we have the last two fire-horses, Lucy and Nora, who used to pull the fire carriage and equipment and were phased out in 1921. We discover the story of the first elephant to arrive in London since classical times. Given to King Henry III in 1255 as gift by his son-in-law, the French king Louis IX, following his crusade in Palestine, the poor elephant only survived for two years after joining the Royal Menagerie. There is also the mongrel dog whose poor treatment at the hands of University College London’s surgeons (it was used repeatedly for live surgery over a two month period) sparked a huge controversy and inspired the creation of a bronze statue in its honour that still sits in Battersea Park’s Woodland Walk. And, the many beloved pet cats and dogs of the great and the good such as Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush.

Velten has a lovely way of writing and her sensitivity to the plight of animals is clear, but never obstructs from detail.  It is to be expected that there is more detail on offer regarding recent history, Velton admits this herself. With an impressive amount of research on show within the 288 pages, this is the definitive book on the history of animals in London. Velten weaves the words of Pepys, Defoe, Evelyn, Dickens and Hogarth and other witnesses from history into her narrative; all of which is accompanied by an fantastic assemblage of carefully chosen images.

In short, Velten does for London’s animal history what Ackroyd did for its human history. From the cattle herded through the streets surrounding Smithfield’s Market, and the work-weary cart, dray and coal horses, to the exotic but doomed animals holding residency at the Tower of London, and the pests, vermin and bedbugs in Londoners own homes – for most animals the capital was a living hell. Beastly London goes some way to repaying the great debt we owe them for not only shaping the city, but transforming everyday life.

You can purchase the book through Amazon: Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City

About Rebecca Rideal

Founder and editor of The History Vault, Rebecca is a historian of seventeenth-century England, a former specialist factual television producer, and the author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

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