Recollections and requiem; a farewell visit to the London Zoo Reptile House
John and Margaret Cooper
Many readers will have visited the Reptile House at the London Zoo. Designed by Joan Beauchamp Procter and Sir Edward Guy Dawber, it was opened in 1928 and for decades provided both a home for, and an insight into, the lives of reptiles and amphibians from all over the world.
It had the air of a dark subterranean cavern, with well-lit glass-fronted cages/enclosures lining its walls.
Many young visitors found it very exciting and John (Cooper) was no exception. The Reptile House was the highlight of his trips to the London Zoo with his parents, Eric and Dorothy Cooper, in the 1950s.
Figure 1. An adapted “cage” in the old Reptile House, with maintenance area visible behind. This currently houses tadpoles of the Mallorcan midwife toad (Alytes muletensis).
In those years there was also an open-air snake pit just inside the main gate to London Zoo. On a warm day one could spot grass snakes and other British reptiles sunning themselves or sheltering under vegetation. Walking round and round the pit provided hours of fun for young visitors – and some respite for their parents!
London Zoo is the world’s oldest scientific zoo. It was opened to the public in 1847 and was (still is) managed by the Zoological Society of London that was itself established in 1826. London Zoo launched the world’s first reptile house in 1849; this was the forerunner to the building referred to above.
The Reptile House had close links with Maxwell Knight (1900-1968), the naturalist and war-time MI5 model for “M” in the James Bond series, after whom this website, “The Frightened Face of Nature”, is named. See paper (referenced later) by John E Cooper, Margaret E Cooper and Simon King published in 2018.
Maxwell Knight was for many years a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and for some time served as its Vice-President. He regularly visited the Reptile House and was a close friend of Jack Lester (1908-1956), its Curator from 1946 until his untimely death in 1956. A plaque in the entrance of the old Reptile House commemorates Jack Lester’s life and service to the ZSL. See photo below.
Figure 2. John Cooper in the entrance to the old Reptile House, pointing out the plaque commemorating Jack Lester.
Figure 3. The wording on the plaque.
Many other herpetological “giants” of the 1950s were associated with the Reptile House, including C J P Ionides (1901–1968), Constantine John Philip Ionides – Wikipedia , the British-born naturalist and herpetologist often referred to as the “Snake Man of British East Africa”, who for many years collected snakes for the ZSL. Ionides was another of John Cooper’s boyhood heroes.
More recently the Reptile House featured in the first Harry Potter film.
John was in London on Thursday 17th 2022 and visited the London Zoo as the guest of our friend Mr Dave Clarke FRES, a senior member of staff at the ZSL, Team Leader of Herpetology and a widely acclaimed expert on invertebrates.
Figure 4. Dave Clarke “behind the scenes” in the old Reptile House, demonstrating how access to a cage from the back service corridor permitted reptiles to be checked, fed and cleaned.
Figure 5. Dave Clarke and John Cooper in the recently-completed giant tortoise (Chelonoidis niger) house, the “Giants of the Galápagos” exhibit adjacent to the site for the new reptile house.
It was a chance for John to say farewell to the old Reptile House, which will be closed at the end of the year, and to view (from the outside only) the new reptile house that is under construction and likely to open in spring 2023. See photos below.
Figure 6. John Cooper, Dave Clarke and Sally Dowsett (friend of the Coopers and of Simon King, founder of the FFON website), at the entrance to the old Reptile House.
Figure 7. The new reptile house under construction
John’s journey on 22nd November took him past “Palmer’s Pet Shop” which is situated on Park Way, the road leading from Camden Town Underground Station to London Zoo. See photo below.
Figure 8. “Palmer’s Pet Shop” in Camden Town as it is today.
The shop no longer sells pets but is now a café. It is designated as a Grade II Listed Building and therefore retains its original façade, dating from around 1938, including some distinctive sign panels which read ‘Monkeys’, ‘Talking Parrots”, ‘Regent Pet Stores” and ‘Naturalists’. The last of these is more significant than it might seem. Maxwell Knight knew the owner of Palmer’s well. It served not only as a pet shop but as a meeting place for people who were interested in natural history and unusual animals, both in the wild and in captivity, and who enjoyed coming together to discuss these subjects. As John explained to Henry Hemming, biographer of Maxwell Knight, in 2015:
“He (Maxwell Knight) was in and out of there often. He knew the people there. He was also in demand, because he would go in and identify a parrot, or tell them that the temperature was wrong for that particular species of reptile.’
Maxwell Knight’s solace during the war years would have been his natural history and his own private collection of animals, housed in his flat. Some of the animals came from Palmer’s Pet Shop.
We (John and Margaret Cooper) also have a long association with Palmer’s Pet Shop, before we were married and while we were students at Bristol University. In 1964 John was attending an Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) conference at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), also situated in Camden Town. John bought (“rescued”, in his words) a tawny owl (Strix aluco) with badly-clipped wings from Palmer’s Pet Shop. He paid £5 for the bird and named him “Goodge” after the Northern Line Underground (tube) station. “Goodge” was then transported back to Bristol on an overnight bus and joined John at “Burwalls”, his Hall of Residence. The tawny owl became a firm favourite with students (see photo below), staff and visitors. He later featured as the Hall’s mascot in the Burwalls’ annual group photograph.
Figure 9. John Cooper, Margaret Vowles (now Cooper) and “Goodge” the owl in 1964.
In concluding the article about the London Zoo Reptile House, we want to pay tribute to its staff and volunteers who, for ten decades, established it as an important and much-appreciated hub for the study of reptiles and amphibians while, at the same time, providing pleasure and initiating enduring memories to generations of visitors. For many this led to a life-long interest or a scientific career.
We look forward to viewing the ZSL’s new Reptile House in 2023 and are confident that its opening to the public will herald a new era of herpetological exhibition, study and conservation.
Cooper, J. E., Cooper, M. E. and King, S. (2018). Maxwell Knight – ‘the spy who loved nature’. Veterinary Record 183(11), 357-357.
Hemming, H. (2017). M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster.
JEC/MEC 27th November 2022