Back in September I was thrilled to discover that my short story, The Lions of London, had made the award long list for The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014. I don’t have much experience writing short stories and considered myself ‘bad’ at them – an opinion I will now have to revise! I’m very eager to share the story with you, but I’m not sure if I can yet. The terms and conditions of the competition said the long list may be published in an anthology, so I’m waiting a while. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about the historical finds that inspired the tale – a feminist, animal-loving dash through the Tower of London!
You may know that the Tower of London was practically London’s first zoo, home to all manner of beasts from the reign of James I. So popular was the Tower Menagerie that it became one of London’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Going sight-seeing in the capital was soon referred to as ‘seeing the Lions of London’ – hence the title of my story. While there were many animals on display, ranging from polar bears to ostriches, the lions remained the most popular – perhaps because of England’s old symbolic associations with the animal. They were appropriated their very own Lion Tower. Up to eleven lions could be kept here, with fresh running water to drink and a diet of nine pounds of beef every day. Young lions were separated from their mothers but allowed free range to play in the Tower grounds – something we can hardly imagine in an age of health and safety!
In the later Georgian era, another menagerie opened at the Exeter Exchange, but it does not quite capture the imagination in the same way as animals imprisoned in an ancient fortress. So I decided to do a bit of research and base a story around the Lion Tower in the early 1700s. There were a great deal of diary entries and letters written regarding the Tower Menagerie, but two in particular caught my attention. The first I actually located in Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century. It was a quote from Mrs Percival, who visited in the winter of 1713-1714:
There was only one Lyoness. The Keeper threw a Dog for her to devour she fawn’d on it, and of all the Meat that was brought her would give him part and got him between her Paws, and lick him: For all this tenderness the Dog was very uneasy.
What a wonderful image this conjures – the maternal lion and a wary dog, an unlikely pair of companions! But if you are a dog lover like me, you will also be questioning why the canine was thrown into the pen in the first place. A bit more research showed me this was far from unusual – I was distressed to find live dogs and cats were frequently thrown to the lions! In fact, if you brought one of your own from home, they would wave the entry fee to the Tower!
My second anecdote features a less docile lion. It is the tale of poor Mary Jenkinson, who was a maid to the keeper in 1686, a few decades before the Georgian period began. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to stroke a lion’s paw through the bars of the cage (not recommended!). Unsurprisingly, the lion grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone.’ The only course of medical action in those days was to amputate the limb. Surgeons performed the operation but sadly Mary died shortly after, probably from a combination of shock and blood loss.
These two real-life events provided the basis for my story. But to add atmosphere, I wanted to put a few more animals into the mix. I had my lion cage beside squawking birds and chattering monkeys that jumped about when the big cat roared. This, however, was not based on fact. While there were monkeys at the Tower, their real home was more fantastical than I could have imagined. They lived in a furnished drawing-room, much to the amusement of the visitors, and were taught to mimic human actions such as smoking pipes. You might think you’d be safer in the monkey room with these semi-civilized primates, but you’d be wrong. One monkey bit a soldier’s leg, while a baboon developed a penchant for throwing large objects – a hobby that ended in tragedy when he hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a young boy and killed him.
Should you visit the Tower of London in the modern day, you can see their exhibition on the royal beasts that once made the grey stone walls their home, along with wonderful sculptures. I particularly liked the elephant! I would highly recommend the trip to everyone – even without the bigs cats, the Tower truly remains one of the Lions of London.