Why was there a gorilla living in a Cotswold village?

The real John Daniel with children Uley village

The real John Daniel with children Uley village - Credit: courtesy The Uley Society archives

The Cotswolds has long been associated with its own unique animals – Cotswold sheep, Gloucester cattle and Old Spot pigs. But the area has rather more exotic connections, too, each with its own memorial to visit.

Who: John Daniel, gorilla

Memorial: Stone sculpture by artist Sebastian Rasch, set on Uley village green

During Christmas 1918, a certain Major Rupert Penny made a rather unusual (and extravagant) purchase from the London department store, Derry & Toms. Languishing in its pets section was a baby lowland gorilla suffering from pneumonia; it was an orphan, its parents shot by French officers in Gabon. Despite the hefty price tag – the princely sum of £300 (some £25,000 in today’s money) - the Major couldn’t resist. As soon as the gorilla recovered, Rupert asked his young aunt, Miss Alyce Cunningham – then in her 30s – if she would take this young charge under her wing. A committed animal lover, Alyce didn’t need asking twice.

Major Rupert Penny with John Daniel, the gorilla he bought from a London department store for £300

Major Rupert Penny with John Daniel, the gorilla he bought from a London department store for £300 - Credit: courtesy The Uley Society archives

John Daniel was brought up by Alyce at her Sloane Street home in London. He had entered the top echelons of society, and proved more than worthy of the honour. Beautifully mannered, John Daniel enjoyed the most English of rituals: dinner parties with Alyce’s friends, tea at 5pm, and – of course – a post-prandial coffee.

Alyce also had a country home, on the village green at Uley, which John Daniel adored. Here, he knew true freedom. Potty trained, he had his own bedroom complete with radiator, made his own bed, helped with the washing up and played with the children from Uley School. Photographs from the Uley Society archives show him being wheeled in a barrow by his young friends, and relaxing with Alyce at their home on the Green. Unlike other village children, he also loved a tipple; partial to whiskey, he would sometimes add a nightcap of sherry or port to his daily intake. And, best of all, he’d regularly call in at the Old Crown, on the green opposite his home, to the delight of locals (who, it has to be said, were less delighted with his habit of eating roses from out of their gardens).

Esme, a young family member, enjoying a ride on John Daniel's back. He was reputed to be the gentlest of creatures

Esme, a young family member, enjoying a ride on John Daniel's back. He was reputed to be the gentlest of creatures - Credit: courtesy The Uley Society archives

‘He was very much accepted and loved in the village,’ Uley archivist Margaret Groom said. ‘He’d play with the children, and sit outside the pub on the village green with a pint of cider.’
Sadly, there’s no happy ending to this charming tale. When Alyce adopted John Daniel, he weighed just 32lb; three years later, he was a rather less unmanageable 13 stone. Alyce could no longer cope, but she secured what she thought was a comfortable new home for the gorilla. In 1921, she sold him to an American for 1,000 guineas, believing her dear friend would be resettled at a private house in Florida. 

It was a ruse: the deceitful purchaser was none other than Barnum & Bailey Circus, which shipped John Daniel to the States on RMS Celtic, before putting him on public display in a cage. Desperately homesick, missing Alyce and the freedom of Uley, he went quickly downhill.

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In fact, whether for emotional or pragmatic reasons, the new owners got in touch with Alyce straightaway. ‘John Daniel pining and grieving for you,’ they messaged. ‘Can you not come at once? Needless to say we will deem it a privilege to pay all your expense, Answer at once.’

Alyce, distraught, jumped on the first ship out of Liverpool and set sail for New York. But while she was mid-ocean, John Daniel died of pneumonia. His body was stuffed and is now on display in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Although none of John Daniel’s friends is alive today, a BBC film from 1982 interviewed people who could still remember him. For Margaret, it was another window into a delightful but sad village episode. ‘One of the chaps, whose father was a cobbler, recalled him sitting watching his dad repair shoes. He was quite bright – like a child, really.’

Notes from the Uley Archives by Margaret Groom, with a section on John Daniel, is priced £5 (plus p&p) from mikegroom127@gmail.com. Profits to the Uley Society.

John Daniel memorial, Uley village green

John Daniel memorial, Uley village green - Credit: Katie Jarvis


Who: Hannah Twynnoy, the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger (as far as we know)

Memorial: a tombstone in Malmesbury Abbey churchyard

It’s an odd distinction – being the first known person in the country to be mauled to death by a tiger – but it belongs to an 18th-century barmaid, who worked at the White Lion, a former pub in the centre of Malmesbury.

In October 1703, a travelling exhibition of wild animals stopped by the market town, causing a frenzy of excitement. Hannah Twynnoy was far from immune. As the animals were unloaded into the yard at the back of the pub where she worked, she couldn’t leave them alone – particularly a magnificent tiger. 

The gruesome consequence was recorded in a plaque (now lost) that once hung in St Mary Magdalene Church, Hullavington:

To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.

bengal tiger isolated on white background

Posed by a model: NOT the actual tiger that mauled the unfortunate Hannah Twynnoy... - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Malmesbury’s volunteer-run Athelstan Museum in the Town Hall uses the tiger theme for a children’s trail and donation point. But they do have an interesting slant on the story. ‘It’s actually thought that it probably wasn’t a tiger because, at that time, there is no known record of there ever having been a tiger in the UK. It could well have been a lion – but nobody really knows.’

READ MORE: History's Wonder Woman Dr Janina Ramirez and her links with Gloucester History Festival.

Even Hannah’s gravestone is believed to be a later addition – or, at least, much renovated. Dated October 24, 1703, it records her death at the age of 33, with a poem that begins, In bloom of life/She’s snatched from hence/She had not room to make defence;/For Tyger fierce/Took life away…

But her manner of death means she will never be forgotten. In 2003, on the 300th anniversary of her demise, a special commemoration was held, with all girls in the town named Hannah, aged 10 and under, laying a single flower on her grave.

There’s even a Twynnoy Close in Malmesbury - though, as yet, no Tiger Terrace.

Hannah Twynnoy's gravestone in Malmesbury

Hannah Twynnoy's gravestone in Malmesbury - Credit: Greenshed

Who: the Cheltenham elephant invasion

Memorial: Five mosaics in a passage between Grosvenor Place South and the High Street, by artists Nick Robertson and Tim Turton

If you’d been walking down Albion Street, Cheltenham, at lunchtime on March 26, 1934, you wouldn’t have been the only one feeling peckish. Three elephants from visiting Chapman’s London Zoo Circus were also out for a stroll, accompanied by two keepers. Unfortunately, the town’s temptations proved too much; as the trio passed seed merchants Bloodworth and Sons, the elephants decided on an impromptu snack. The Gloucestershire Echo of the day reported, ‘A small stampede occurred, and one elephant finally entered the shop and another got half inside.’

African Elephant isolated on white; Loxodonta Africana; Etosha

On March 26, 1934, three elephants from visiting Chapman's London Zoo Circus went on the rampage in Cheltenham - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

No one was more surprised than manager Mr WT Goodhall, out at the back enjoying a quiet half-hour with his account books. Instead, he had to deal with a four-ton elephant much taken by the dog biscuits.

The keepers, keen to intervene, were only stopped from assisting by the rather large elephant stuck in the Bloodworth’s doorway, who wasn’t overly keen on allowing them access.

Fortunately, little damage was done, Mr Goodhall proved to have a sense of humour, and the dog biscuits were a great success.

Some cynics claimed the whole thing was a publicity stunt – though whether for the circus or for Bloodworth’s biscuits is unclear. Certainly, it worked – nearly 60 years later, that is. The 90,000-piece mosaics were commissioned in 1993.

Cheltenham's elephant mosaics

Cheltenham's elephant mosaics - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

READ MORE: Is this the most perfect village in the Cotswolds?

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