In 1676 a grand shopping precinct called Exeter Exchange opened in Covent Garden. Sadly for the developers, the expected influx of grand shops and customers never came. The building languished until 1773, when a menagerie was set up in the upper floors by a circus owner as winter quarters for his performing animals.
This was London’s first proper zoo to compete with the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London (where ‘the Lions … are publicly washed every 1st of April’). It cost a shilling to see such then-exotic animals as a tiger or a hippopotamus – all kept in small iron cages. You could see: ‘Nero the largest Lion ever seen in the whole world, the Boa-constrictor and the laughing Hyena, Ourang Otang, Birds of Paradise, Ostriches and every living animal from the Jungles in the far East.’
But the star attraction was Chunee, an Indian elephant who had arrived in London in 1809 to star in the Theatre Royal and was then bought for £1,000 to promote the Exchange.
The poet Lord Byron wrote about visiting the Exchange in his diary for November 1813: ‘The elephant took and gave me my money again, took off my hat, opened a door, trunked a whip, and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.’
For 17 years Chunee was a familiar sight walking along the Strand every Sunday. However, suffering from a septic tusk, Chunee ran amok one Sunday in February 1826, killing a keeper. It was decided to put him down but two soldiers fired 152 musket balls into him with no effect. It took a sabre attached to an iron pole to finish him off mercifully. The noise of the guns and Chunee’s agonised trumpeting brought crowds who closed The Strand.
Hundreds paid to see his carcass, while his meat was sold off with a recipe for elephant stew. The skeleton was also sold at auction for £100 and went on display in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Chunee’s barbaric end and his living conditions were the subject of many letters of protest to The Times and helped lead to the founding of The Zoological Society of London in April 1826.
After Chunee’s death, Exeter Exchange fell out of fashion and was demolished in 1829. The Strand Palace Hotel now stands on the site. The animals were sent to a new home at the new London Zoo in Regent’s Park and to Surrey Zoological Gardens in Kennington.
In 1941, during the Blitz of World War II, the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Collection suffered a direct hit from a German bomb, destroying two-thirds, including Chunee’s remains.