A small zoo in north London

EVERY VISIT TO GOLDERS Hill Park in northwest London gives me great pleasure. Now officially part of Hampstead Heath, it contains a lovely feature, its small zoo. This consists of a large paddock containing deer and sometimes a rhea. Close to this, is a series of cages, an aviary, containing exotic birdlife including a laughing kookaburra. These are located next to an enclosure that contains a small group of ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs’ neighbours are several wallabies and a couple of donkeys, named Sienna and Calypso. The wallabies and the donkeys have a long rectangular sloping field in which to wander.

I have written about the park and the zoo before, and published it elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/19/walking-past-wallabies/). When I wrote that piece, I did not explore the small zoo’s history. It was certainly present well over 60 years ago, when I was less than ten years old. As a small boy, I remember seeing wallabies and flamingos. More recently, the flamingos have disappeared and have been replaced by ibis and various other exotic fowl. Before my time, the flamingos used to reside in the duck pond next to the park’s walled garden (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR027).

The zoo’s history is difficult to ascertain. After searching the Google entries relating to the park and its history, I found only one reference that alludes to the presence of the zoo prior to WW2. This consists of a recording of an interview (https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0029XX-0001V0) with the scientist Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton (1927-2019), an oceanographer. Laughton was born in Golders Green, began his education in Hampstead at Heysham School, a ‘dame school’ (private elementary school) in Branch Hill, and moved to Gerrards Cross during WW2 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.2020.0021). As a young child, Laughton lived in one of the small roads that lead of North End Road and back on to Golders Hill Park. He and his brother were often taken to Golders Hill Park where he remembered that there was a small zoo with wallabies. This would have been before 1939, when he and his family moved out of London. So, we can conclude that the zoo was in existence before WW2.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green”, Golders Hill Park was popular with local Jewish families, who went:

“Golders Hill Park on Sundays to watch the peacocks strutting around the grounds of Golders Hill House.”

The House was destroyed in 1941. Laughton did not mention these in his interview and, sadly, there are none to be seen today.

To discover whether the little zoo existed before Laughton’s childhood, that is prior to 1927, I looked at a detailed map, surveyed in 1912. This was after the park was opened to the public by the London County Council in 1899, making it the first public park to have been opened in what was then the Borough of Hendon (now incorporated into the Borough of Barnet). I compared what was on that map with what is on modern maps and found that the park’s layout has not changed much since 1912. The bandstand that you can see today is where there was one back in 1912. Where there is the deer enclosure today, there was a similarly shaped and located fenced field in 1912. The same is the case for the long narrow field where you can see the wallabies and donkeys today. The 1912 map does not show any buildings where the aviary is located today, but apart from that the pattern of land enclosures in the part of the park where animals and birds are kept enclosed today is remarkably similar. The question is, and I cannot answer it, was what is now a deer enclosure, then a deer or other animal enclosure? Here is another as yet unanswerable question: did the long rectangular field where the wallabies live today enclose animals for viewing by the public as long ag as in 1912?

Prior to becoming a public park, Golders Hill Park was the gardens of the now long-since demolished Golders Hill House, built in the 1760s for the merchant Charles Dingley (1711-1769), who traded with Russia (www.leeandstort.co.uk/Stort%20History/Charles%20DINGLEY%20Biography.pdf). I have not found any references to any collections of birds and animals in Golders Hill Park prior to the childhood of Laughton, the oceanographer. It is possible that the merchant Charles Dingley or later owners of the property might have kept deer and even exotic creatures, but there is no evidence to confirm or deny this.

What is important, is that the little zoo, which I remember from the 1950s, is still thriving today and providing enjoyment for children of all ages. Whether the various creatures ‘enjoy’ being caged-up and gawped at is a question I cannot begin to answer.

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