The World’s Cleverest Chimpanzee Escapes, 1937
Once upon a time, there was a zoo in Liverpool. In fact, there were quite a few. A short history on the subject would include Liverpool’s first zoo – the Zoological Gardens on West Derby Road, Tuebrook, open from the 1830s to 1860s (and near the site of where I lived during my student years). This zoo was owned by one Thomas Atkins, a showman who claimed to be the first person in England to breed the ‘liger’, a cross between a lion and a tiger.
Then there was William Cross’s Menagerie in the 1880s, housed on tiny Earle Street in the city centre. Such a small street I’m amazed he ever fitted a zoo on it. In this case the word “zoo” was fairly interchangeable with “pet shop”, as William Cross was primarily a dealer in animals, should you fancy your own wolf, baboon or lion. Sarah Bernhardt was a regular visitor, and did in indeed purchase a lion from Mr Cross. In 1898 a major fire on the premises sadly resulted in the deaths of a number of lions and tigers within. I know Earle Street as it was just round the corner from where I used to work for the doomed Littlewoods shopping channel “Shop!” – I was the buyer for DIY and Erotica (which is a story for another day).
Another one was Liverpool Zoological Gardens at Rice Lane, Walton, from the 1880s to around 1918. The old ticket booth still survives – it’s currently a pizza takeaway shop near to where I lived when I left university.
There was a small zoo at Otterspool Hall from around 1913 to 1931. And even in the early 1970s dolphins were, strangely, housed in the public swimming baths in Norris Green – on tour from a dolphinarium in Margate during the winter season. Norris Green is my adopted home turf so this is especially interesting to me. But it doesn’t seem right…surely swimming pool water isn’t exactly right for dolphins? Anyway.
My concern today is with Liverpool Zoological Park, based on Elmswood Road, in Mossley Hill, and which is also where I first lived as a student, in Carnatic Student Halls. In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from today’s blog research, it’s that in my time in Liverpool, I have unwittingly lived or worked right in the middle of defunct zoo-ville.
This zoo was a short-lived affair, only open from 1932-1938 – it was the old Otterspool Zoo moved to a new location. The star attraction was a chimpanzee called Mickey. Not just any old monkey, Mickey was billed as “The World’s Cleverest Chimpanzee”. His cleverness manifested itself in such ways as being able to light his own cigarettes, which he would also smoke. This is one of the most 1930s things of all time. Well, this and the fact that the zoo’s official leaflet said “All Living Specimens of Animals, Birds and Reptiles on Exhibition at the Liverpool Zoological Gardens Can be Purchased. Apply for Prices to the Office.” If anything shouts “I am from another age” it is precisely the fact that you can pay to walk home with your very own wild animal from the zoo. In fact, that’s a blog post of the future right there – I do have an Edwardian book on how to look after all manner of wild animals.
Here’s some adverts for it:
Now I was first alerted to the zoo’s existence by reading my 1937 copy of The Mirror newspaper. A small article about an escaped chimpanzee in Liverpool caught my eye, “Escaped ape attacks and bites two men,” says the headline. Mickey the chimp had escaped, enjoyed “three hours of liberty” and bit Arnold Bailey, travelling circus proprietor. This wasn’t “Barnum and Bailey” Bailey, though, but some other circus proprietor.
So, I wanted to find out more about this audacious chimp. And many stories there are too. There’s this one that I’m convinced is about Mickey before he landed in Liverpool Zoo. A monkey called Mickey escaped on arrival by train into London, and took up residence in the rafters of Liverpool St Station in 1929. If there’s one thing I know about Mickey, it’s that he liked escaping, and I think this is him making quite an entrance into the UK.
Then there’s this one, which I think is hilarious. Mickey first went to Rhyl Zoo, where he wasn’t a big hit with the other chimps. So much so, that when they were packing them all up ready to go to the Otterspool Zoo for the winter, Mickey helped the keepers to cage his monkey-enemies, trying to nail them into their cages. Mickey, as befits the World’s Cleverest Chimpanzee, was allowed to travel in the arms of his attendant rather than in a cage. I’m wondering if the fact he didn’t escape again at this point perhaps means he just didn’t like cages – and who can blame him?
Mickey ended up staying in Liverpool for good, becoming the star attraction in the new Mossley Hill zoo. Here’s his aforementioned smoking party trick, posted on the brilliant Facebook photo group “Liverpool Yesterday to Yesteryear”:
But it wasn’t long before Mickey was up to his old tricks. The newspaper article I read in The Mirror was just one of four occasions when Mickey escaped. One that occasion in 1937 he snapped his chain like some kind of King Kong, shook hands with some clowns, kissed a woman in the street, bit some men and then submitted to being taken back after three hours of mayhem. My copy of The Mirror is the overseas edition, and so it’s a week behind these other newspaper reports.
As the first article states, Mickey broke into some offices and threw papers around. That wasn’t quite all he did, as legendary jazz-man George Melly revealed in his rollicking memoir of his Liverpool childhood, Scouse Mouse. George lived just down the road from the Liverpool Zoo and recounted how the roars of the lions kept the residents of Mossley Hill awake at night. Those offices, in fact, were something to do with his grandfather, and Mickey not only messed the papers up, he also left a “dirty protest” on the desk and in the drawers. I just love the line “My grandfather was not lucky with monkeys.” George seems to have misremembered the ultimate fate of Mickey though, which is odd as it was rather dramatic. Mickey wasn’t “transferred to [another] prison”, his end was rather more of a sad spectacle.
There was another incident a month later:
And then in 1938, Mickey escaped for the fourth, and last, time. This time he escaped into a schoolyard, mauled some of the children and was eventually shot dead by a Major Bailey – a different Bailey to the bitten man of the year before.
One of the children eventually received damages for his injuries:
Poor Mickey was stuffed after he was shot, still on display even after death. He ended up exhibited in Lewis’s Department Store in Liverpool. That is, until the shop was badly bombed in the 1941 blitz and Mickey really was no more.