From the Ark to the Archive

Ann Hills looks at a little-known treasure trove: the archives of London Zoo.

A View of the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, London, 1835; showing figures by the camel house to the left and to the right a pen filled with sheep, goats and a zebra. From the Collection of the Museum of London.While London Zoo is trying to raise large sums in order to create a new public image to safeguard its future, the Zoological Society of London, which owns it, are sitting on a little-known treasure trove which (fortunately) cannot be sold: the Zoo's archive.

However, with the help of its new archivist, Paul Humphreys, and a new computer system, the historical value of the archive and library (which date back to the Society's founding in 1826) seem set to rise to the fore, as a wealth of hitherto uncatalogued material is made accessible for the first time.

Mr Humphreys is currently sifting through unrecorded papers lying loose in boxes and putting the details onto computer. 'I've just found wartime Winston Churchill correspondence. He wrote to thank the Zoo for looking after a sick black swan; and then he wanted a kangaroo for his orchard, I think just for the summer'. Professor Lord Zuckerman, who was Churchill's scientific adviser, played a major role in the Zoo for decades – and with such high profile links the correspondence is of national interest.

There are letters too, from Darwin, Alfred Wallace and T.H. Huxley to Philip Sclater, secretary of the Society for forty years. Some recent correspondence immediately attains historic significance. An old lady has written in to say that she was among children who fed honey to the bear which in the 1920s inspired A.A. Milne to write Winnie the Pooh . The real-life animal had been donated by a Canadian regiment.

In the future such correspondence will be accessed by using key words – names of writer, recipient and subject matter – to search the computerised lists.

To increase chances of survival of a species, its generic inheritance and geographical origins need to be recorded to maximise diversity in breeding programmes. The library was able to give Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University details of the first acquisition, in 1838, of the Reeves Mountjack, a small deer which is in danger of being inbred in captivity. In another case, a television journalist seeking information on Przewalski horses was provided with rare books donated by Count Przewalski himself, and photos of the horses which were captured in Mongolia.

Trading in animals continued legally at a high level until recent years. Among the unsorted boxes are letters to and from Boom Vanit, exporters and importers of Bangkok, Siam. The company reported that, for example, in 1949, 'hornbills are in plentiful supply after the breeding season'. Hornbills are now breeding in the Zoo.

Even information on favourite animals, such as pandas, has not been fully tapped, according to Mr Humphreys, who sees increasing opportunities for researchers as more records are indexed. In one drawer are cartoons and complete magazines about a large African elephant whose name, Jumbo, entered the English language when it outgrew its premises at the Zoo in the 1880s and was sold to Barnham and Bailey's Circus despite opposition – 'Why part with Jumbo, the Pet of the Zoo?', asked his supporters. The poor creature was separated from his mate Alice, went to America, and was finally run over by a train.

Another Zoo character, Obaysch the Hippo, was captured on the Nile in the 1850s and became the first hippopotamus to be seen in Europe since Roman times. A cutting file indicates that Hippomania spread throughout the land following Obaysch's arrival.

In addition to paper material, Paul Humphreys is keen to attract the deposit of film and video footage with the archive. Alvan Seth-Smith has donated footage from a film his father, David, made in the early 1930s when he was a curator at the Zoo. 'It is particularly important because it shows the extinct Tasmanian wolf, a marsupial which is a member of the kangaroo family but looks more like a dog' says Paul Humphreys. 'In those pre-conservation days, zoo keepers did not have responsibility for ensuring procreation. The wolf did not breed in captivity, and died out in the wild because it was a sheep killer and was therefore hunted.'

Among the photographic store are 20,000 glass plate negatives from the W.S. Bond collection which have been restored and sorted with a grant from the Pilgrim Trust. More such grants are needed to fund a plan to use a basement room as an overflow for the archive.

As custodian of the zoos in Regent's Park and Whipsnade, the Zoological Society continues to be one of the nation's prime scientific bodies. The first comprehensive history of the Society has just been completed by John Edwards as a labour of love, with a limited edition of 2,500 to be published shortly, at a price of £175. 'People are not aware of the enormous contribution of the Society, a private organisation', said Mr Edwards, who was the only member of the Council to vote against closure: a vote which became crucial in devising a viable future for the Zoo.

One of the archive's treasures is already helping the fund-raising process. Four of the 1,040 original rarely seen bird paintings by Major Henry Jones which are held by the Zoological Society are being reproduced full size by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with the Zoo as beneficiary. Painted during the 1890s after the major served with the British Army in India, the limited edition prints will be on sale later this month at £95 each.

The Jones volumes are in pristine condition, protected in the basement under the main library. Another of the delights is Edward Lear's hand-coloured book of parrots, dated 1852, four years after the Zoo opened in 1828. But so far, few beyond specialists have realised the scope of the Zoo's archive.

Two years hence, in 1995, a biography of the leading scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) will appear, written by Adrian Desmond, as a companion to his bestseller on Darwin. 'Huxley traced birds back to the dinosaur, anticipating what is thought today: he was ahead of his time', says Mr Desmond.

By the time the Huxley volumes enters the Zoo library, the contents of locked cabinets should be recorded and filed, making documents accessible and extending interest in the archives beyond the realms of the cognoscenti.

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