A not so tall tale

One of the things I love about working in libraries is the weird and wonderful questions you are asked and how, on occasions, information you find for one enquirer can be useful in answering another – sometimes years later.Giraffes at Belfast Zoo copyright Kenneth Allen from Georgraph

This has happened to me recently with King George IVs giraffe!  In 2010 I found an article in The Veterinarian about this animal for someone who was going to give a talk on the subject  – they also wrote  about it on the Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums collections blog.

The giraffe had been given to George, in 1827, by the Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali (who also gave a giraffe to Charles X of France at the same time) and was kept in the King’s menagerie at Sandpit Gate, Windsor Great Park. Unfortunately the giraffe did not survive that long, dying in 1829, a fact that was satirised in a number of prints that can be seen on the Royal Pavilion and Museums blog.

All of this came back to me when I was doing some research on the RCVS Museum Collection and saw an entry in the museum catalogue of 1891 which read “the trachea of the first giraffe ever brought to England”.  I wondered could this be from the famous giraffe that belonged to the King?

Well the answer is yes it was.  The link is the donor of the specimen William J. Goodwin who was an RCVS Council member from 1844-1861, Veterinary Surgeon to Kings George IV and William IV, and Queen Victoria – and the author of the article in The Veterinarian

The article contains information on the health of George’s giraffe in particular as well as more general information on an animal that most readers of The Veterinarian at that time would not have encountered.

Speaking of the giraffe kept at Sandpit gate Goodwin writes:

 Extract from The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

Unfortunately it’s health did not improve

Extract from The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

And it remained small in stature

Extract from The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

Sir Everard Home  had also spent time with George’s animal and wrote about  the tongue of a giraffe in  volume 5 of his Lectures on comparative anatomy (p244-250) which was published in 1828.

In spite of all the pain the giraffe must have suffered Goodwin is able to write of its gentle nature

Extract fron The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

Perhaps a more fitting way to remember this creature than the one portrayed in the satirical illustrations?

GOODWIN, W.J. (1830), ‘An account of the giraffe: which lately died at Sandpit Gate.’ The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

Image of giraffes in Belfast Zoo © Copyright Kenneth Allen from the Geograph website and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Extracts from The Veterinarian Vol. 3 No. 26 pp. 216-219

Rabbits: from prey to pet

Domestic rabbits in 'A Practical Treatise...' by Moubray, 1834

Domestic rabbits in ‘A Practical Treatise…’ by Moubray, 1834

Even though the domestication of the rabbit occurred 2000 years ago, rabbit care before the 19th century was not in the local vet or farmer’s repertoire.  This explains the lack of lagomorph related content in our historical collection.

Contrary to what you may think, rabbits don’t belong to the rodent order but sit in a separate group called lagomorpha.  Lagomorphs have four incisors in the upper jaw and are entirely herbivorous – unlike their similar-looking cousins, the rodents.

We can thank central European monks for the full domestication of the wild European rabbit.  Within the monastery walls rabbits would freely roam and eventually became tame.  In 600 AD, Pope Gregory the Great declared that unborn or new born rabbits were no longer considered meat.  Strangely enough they were to be thought of as aquatic creatures.  Conveniently, this meant they could be eaten during Lent and so the practice of rabbit keeping steadily increased in monasteries.

One of the few books in our historical collection about rabbit keeping has the rather wordy title A practical treatise on breeding, rearing and fattening all kinds of domestic poultry, pigeons and rabbits; also the management of swine, milch cows and bee; with instructions for the private brewery on cider, perry and British wine making by Bonington Moubray (1834).  In this book, the subject of rabbit rearing is lumped together with all the activities that could take place on a small holding, so that a countryman could have one volume for all his needs.  The book contains tips on cooking rabbits (“they make a good dish, cooked like a hare”), extols the quality of the skin and fur (the author is “in the habit of drying the skins, for the linings of nightgowns”) and mentions the four types of rabbits (warreners, parkers, hedgehogs and sweethearts, in case you were wondering).

By 1840, the Metropolitan Rabbit Fancy Club was established in England, were members showed only one breed, the ‘lop eared’.  As animal fancying swept Europe in the late 19th century, rabbits were still killed for their meat but were increasingly kept as parlour pets and exhibited at shows.

Rabbit care has changed a lot over the centuries but one thing still rings true “the teeth of rabbits are very effectual implements of destruction to anything not hard enough to resist them” (Moubray, 1834).  Those lagomorphs can bite!

Parrots with the power of speech

Parakeets are often on my mind because the squawking of the Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri), which is now naturalised in the UK,  accompanies my journey to work most mornings when walking down the road to the station or passing through St James Park.

Alexandrine parakeet

Illustration of Alexandrine parakeet

This beautiful illustration is of  the Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria), a close relative of the Ring-necked parakeet, which is native to India and South East Asia.   The image comes from Dr Karl Russ’s book The Speaking parrots a scientific manual published in 1884.  The author states in the preface that the book is intended to be a source of advice on the purchase, care and training of parrots for all lovers of the species.  In the first chapter he explains why the book concentrates on parrots and in particular those with the power of speech.

 “There are many advantages which the parrot enjoys over all other creatures…its fellows in the animal kingdom are behind it…especially in the power of imitating human words…it must decidedly belong to higher ranks of creation…[which gives mankind]…a lively and widespread love…for creatures which can speak, that is to say for birds, gifted with the power of speech”

Our copy of this book is one of a number of beautifully illustrated ornithological books that were donated to the library by relatives of Henry Gray (1865-1939). Henry Gray was a prominent London practitioner whose obituary in the Veterinary Record states “The study of birds was his first and enduring delight; in later years nothing gave him greater satisfaction than a fireside talk about birds …In this country he was the veterinary pioneer of the scientific study of birds in health and disease”. (1)

If you would like to look at more of these beautiful illustrations why not pay us a visit?


1 Veterinary Record  25th February 1939 pp260-261

117 Earls Court Road

Most of the photographs in our collections are portraits of RCVS Council, or other prominent, members of the profession. We do have a few photographs of vets going about their daily work but as far as I am aware the only photograph of the exterior of a veterinary practice is this one of Henry Gray’s surgery on the Earls Court Road.

Henry Gray's practice at 117 Earls Court Road

Henry Gray’s surgery at 117 Earls Court Road

Henry Gray (1865-1939) qualified from the London Veterinary College in 1885.   After a few years as an assistant in the East Midlands he moved to London and set up his own practice in Kensington. Here he rapidly built up a flourishing mixed practice, building up the small animal side as equine work declined. His particular interests were diseases of the eye and the study of birds.

Henry Gray

Henry Gray

On coming to London  Gray developed a friendship with William Hunting who encouraged him in his writing and he was soon in demand as an author. He became a regular contributor to Veterinary Record and Veterinary Journal, for a time edited Veterinary News, revised George Fleming’s Practical horse keeper and wrote chapters for a number of other books.  His interest in birds meant his writing was also sought by non veterinary publications such as Fur and feather

Gray amassed a large library which was given to us following his death and which now forms part of our Historical Collection.  The books are  mainly in English, though there are several in French and German, and most are about birds.  As shown in a previous post many of the books on birds are lavishly illustrated.

In 1955 we were also given a collection of  Gray’s  personal correspondence and research notes  which cover the whole of his working life. The papers give glimpses into the cases Gray saw in his practice and reveal his research interests.  These papers, together with Gray’s library of 123 books, would be of interest to anyone studying the development of ornithological research at the start of the 20th Century.

A note on the back of the photograph identifies the gentleman in the doorway as Dick Green, brother of Robert Green MRCVS.  Henry Gray was assistant to their father after qualifying.