The Cabinet garden Party took place at the Gonville & Caius Fellows Gardens on the 13th June. We had a wonderful talk from last year’s secretary, James Hall, “Blankets, eggs, and gin: three stories from the Reptile House.” See an abstract below.
Jim, Anne and Nick procured some wonderful venus flower baskets, a type of deep-sea glass-sponge (find out more here), artfully wrapped by Jim, to give as the secretary’s present.
An abstract from James’s talk:
“Blankets, eggs, and gin: three stories from the Reptile House.”
“My talk for the Cabinet of Natural History garden party took place in the lovely surroundings of Gonville and Caius’s Fellows’ Garden, and we were fortunate to have glorious weather for the occasion. The contents of the talk aimed to transport the audience to a venue with quite a different atmosphere: the first reptile house at the Zoological Gardens in London. Titled ‘Blankets, eggs, and gin: three stories from the reptile house’, the talk related several events which contributed to the notoriety and success of the institution. We began with Charles Darwin testing his strength of will by resting his head against the compartment housing the puff-adder, an act of personal, bodily experiment repeated by many other visitors to the reptile house over the years, before discussing the rationale and details behind its establishment in 1849.
The first snake-story concerned a boa constrictor which mistakenly swallowed its blanket instead of the rabbits provided for its dinner. The snake retained the blanket for thirty-six days before regurgitating. The incident was reported in Charles Dickens’s literary periodical Household words and subsequently in national and regional newspapers. Commentators speculated on whether or not snakes could have a sense of taste if they were prepared to swallow thick woollen blankets.
The second story was much more shocking and had repercussions extending far beyond Regent’s Park. Three years after the opening of the reptile house, a keeper, Edward Gurling, indulged in a night of gin-drinking with a friend. When he arrived for work the next morning in an ‘excited state’, he took out a cobra from its compartment and roughly played with it. He was bitten between the eyes, and despite being taken to University College Hospital where galvanism and artificial respiration were attempted, he died within an hour of arrival. The death of the keeper was the talk of society. Correspondents with experience of life in the colonies wrote to The Times offering up their own tried and tested remedies for snake-bite. The death of Gurling dramatically increased the notoriety of the reptile house and contributed to the establishment of the Zoological Gardens as a site of the urban Gothic in Victorian fiction.
The final story was about a female python from West Africa, one of the reptile house’s original residents, which laid about a hundred eggs in 1862. Over the next three months the reptile house received attention within and beyond the naturalist community and updates on the progress of the eggs appeared in the national and regional newspapers. The administrators latched on to the financial potential of the event, and a special thermometer was commissioned to investigate whether pythons incubate their eggs. The proceedings provided a rich source of satirical cartoons and poems for Punch. Ultimately, the eggs failed to hatch and had to be removed when they became rancid.
These anecdotes were simply amongst the most widely circulated from the reptile house, a venue which helped Victorian Britons feel reassured that they weren’t plagued by the pestilential fauna of the benighted regions of the world and to learn about the hazards lurking for their fellow countrymen and women abroad in the colonies. Ideas about finding a cure for snake-bite, or even waging a campaign of eradication on snakes in parts of British India, were born out of and contributed to the rhetoric of improvement used to justify imperialism. The reptile house was a particularly successful site of production for stories about snakes, a theatre of encounter where the emotions were exercised to their limits and moral lessons were on offer.”