Think about modern London. What types of animals do you associate with it? Rats, mice, and pigeons most likely. Pet dogs and cats, as well as their stray and feral relatives. Some ducks, geese and swans in the parks. Perhaps a few horses for the police and the royal family’s ceremonial purposes. But what about pigs, sheep, and cows – in vast herds, driven through the streets each week? Or something more exotic – bears, for example, paraded through neighborhoods for the entertainment of any who cared to stop and watch their performances. And that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the lions in the Tower of London, the elephants in publicly exhibited menageries, or the host of other creatures that for centuries have at one time or another inhabited London in an astonishing range of capacities – from pets to products, beasts of burden to baited victims of blood sports. Indeed, not much more than a century ago, one could have seen many of these creatures still put to these uses. Now, the vast majority have been replaced by machines, removed to the countryside, or simply freed from the now rightfully outlawed cruel uses to which they were formerly put. Unfortunately, with their disappearance, so all-too-often has the memory of their ever having been there.
For most general historians, the history of such an ancient and internationally significant city as London is the history of leaders and legislation, of businesses and building; too often the details of the daily lives of even the common people themselves are ignored. Thus what hopes to be remembered have such creatures as the little dogs who ran inside wheels in kitchens all across the city in order to turn the roasting spits stretched across open cooking hearths? Precious few indeed – prior to Hannah Velten taking up her pen, that is.
Ms. Velten had one purpose in mind when she set out to write her book Beastly London; A History of Animals in the City and she states it with perfect clarity in the book’s introduction:
[I]t is rare to find more than a passing mention of the animal populations of London in general histories. It is as though the creatures did not make an important contribution to the life of the city. This book hopes to redress this omission and give the animals their “voice”, showing the role they played in shaping the economic, social and cultural history of London.
It’s an ambitious task, to say the least – and one that, upon completing a reading of the book, is all the more impressive than when first this statement of purpose is noted at its beginning. Yet of all the many books I’ve read over all my many years as a reviewer, I cannot recall another where an author has set herself such a high goal and then so brilliantly not only reached but vastly exceeded it.
From reaching back into Roman times to tracing lines of inquiry right up to the present day, Ms. Velten presents to the reader a London that they not only never knew but about which could scarcely have even imagined. This is a London of urban cattle drives and side-street slaughterhouses; a city where dogs could be seen carried in the arms of the very well-heeled while others of their species fought against tethered bulls and bears, as well as in backroom pits against one another or dozens of rats at a time. It was a city in which an elephant could become a well-known and much-beloved figure only to be shot down in his cage – located on the second story of a building – when he became too difficult to handle and then his bloody corpse exhibited to curious onlookers for several days afterwards. It was a city over which once soared Rooks, (wild) Ravens, and kites, and whose streets were once scavenged by free-roaming pigs but that are now nocturnally patrolled by thousands of foxes.
But it is not just a collection of commodification, neglect, maltreatment, and out-right cruelty; it is also a reflection of how the attitudes of London’s citizenry slowly changed in regard to the condition and treatment of many of these animals once housed in or brought to the city. From the public debates and legislative struggles surrounding the Smithfield Market to the evolution of privately-owned and publicly exhibited menageries into the London Zoo to the formation of the R.S.P.C.A. and its subsequent activities on behalf of a wide array of species, Beastly London is also the story of how the attitudes of Londoners toward animals has changed over the centuries and what effects these changes subsequently brought to the society itself.
With every chapter – indeed, with every turn of the page – Beastly London presents the reader with such a vivid and detailed portrait of the natural history of the city’s animal life, both wild and domestic, as well as the activities of the human population that made their livings with or from them in a truly remarkable variety of ways that ranged from the mundane to the astonishingly curious (“pure” collectors being decidedly among the latter), that it is extraordinarily difficult to put down. Truly, it is a superb book for anyone who enjoys books that enlarge understanding with what they in themselves present while simultaneously piquing curiosity in what might be someday discovered about other cities and their own respective natural histories. However as this book is so neatly organized into natural categories (“Livestock,” “Working Animals,” “Sporting Animals,” etc.) which are themselves so nicely subdivided by either species, activity, location, or institution, and all of its contents so thoroughly documented in its thirty double-columned pages of references, it will do yeoman’s service indeed as a reference volume and should thus be included in the permanent library of not only naturalists and natural historians but general historians as well. Indeed, anyone with an interest in urban development, sociology, and particularly English literature should consider their own libraries incomplete without a copy of Beastly London readily available on the shelves.
Pages: 288 pages, with 121 illustrations (34 in color)
Published: October 2013 (U.K.), November 2013 (U.S.)
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In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.