20 February is Love Your Pet Day (no details on who or why decided that), so let’s honour some animals, famous and otherwise, and their London connections. For instance, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s favourite pet (and he had a huge menagerie, much to the annoyance of his Chelsea neighbours) was a wombat called Top.
London artist William Hogarth owned many pugs and painted a self-portrait that included his pet pug Trump. (Apparently Hogarth often commented on the resemblance between himself and the dog.)
Ivan the Terrible kept bears, which have been referred to as pets, but it is more likely that his only real affection for them was the damage they could do on the people that Ivan threw to them for his own amusement. There is a Bear Gardens in London, which commemorates one of the more revolting sports of earlier times: bear baiting. Bear Gardens marks the site of a 17th-century bear pit visited by the diarists Samuel Pepys, who described it as “a very rude and nasty pleasure; and John Evelyn (1620-1706), who noted that it was a “rude and dirty pastime”.
The expression ‘a bear garden’ is used to refer to something full of noise, confusion, and argument. For years the Bear Gardens housed a museum of Elizabethan theatre. It is now in the centre of the modern Bankside area, the location of the rebuilt Globe Theatre.
Monarchs James I and his grandson Charles II were fond of animals and had a number of pets: Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace is the site of an aviary started by James I and enlarged by Charles II (though some sources give Charles the credit for establishing it). James was fond of animals and in addition to the birds had a comprehensive menagerie, including crocodiles and an elephant.
Charles expanded the aviary considerably with a collection of exotic birds; he was also to be seen strolling through the park, feeding the ducks and playing with his dogs, “affable even with the meanest of his subjects”, according to the Welsh traveller and writer Thomas Pennant.
Birds of a different kind were also connected with the walk: it was once a royal cockpit; the ‘sport’ of cock fighting is said to be the world’s oldest spectator sport.
Continuing the theme of bloodshed, the walk was also the site of murder in 1848. Annette Meyers, an unemployed housemaid, killed her lover, Henry Ducker of the Coldstream Guards. Ducker was an unpleasant character whose affection for his various girlfriends was in direct proportion to the amount of money with which they could provide him.
The out-of-work Annette was desperately afraid she would lose Ducker to a rival who was lucratively employed in prostitution. She purchased a gun, shot Ducker, and meekly surrendered to the authorities, denying nothing. Initially sentenced to death, Annette was given a reprieve and was sent to Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania – in 1851.
Sympathy for Annette was strong, and there was a ballad written about her, referring to her as a “sad young woman doomed to die”, Jane Carlyle, wife of the essayist Thomas Carlyle, visited Annette in prison and reported in a letter that she was the “sauciest looking commonplace little creature that ever played the part of a Heroic Criminal”.
Unrelated to animal, but related to the Carlyle couple, one of Samuel Butler’s many witty comments was that “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”
London generally is not short of animal street names even if they are more from inn signs than from pets.