District Railway Animals

Like many railways, the District had its inevitable association with animals of various kinds. This is hardly a surprise in its country outposts and it must be appreciated that while the District of today seems hemmed in by tedious inter-war suburban development this was not always the case. For many years parts of the District meandered through open fields and where you have fields you have animals. Animals are best kept away from railways, especially large ones.

The Victoria Cats

But animals can be wily creatures, few more so than cats. The ever-adaptable cat does not need the countryside and will make do with lots of places that will be undisturbed by humans, the warmer and dryer the better. One pleasantly warm and dry place, evidently, was Victoria, in steam days. I can do no better than recite what the magazine Nature had to say about this.

[From Vol 29 Issue 754 10 April 1884]  It may interest those of your readers fond of cats to know that a colony of cats live and breed under the wooden platform of the Victoria Station of the District Railway. They may be seen crossing the rails right in front of trains, and considering the enormous traffic, and the consequent noise and vibration, it certainly does seem remarkable that such naturally timid animals as cats should live amidst such unnatural surroundings. It may tend to show the plasticity of the animal creation generally in adapting itself to surrounding conditions. A female cat may have taken refuge there originally, and hence the railway domestication of the animals.

[From following issue No 755]  With reference to Mr. Vicars' letter last week (p. 551) about the cats at Victoria Station, I beg to state that there are cats all over the District Railway both in and out of the tunnels, and many of them—familiarly called “Stumpy” by the men on the line—can testify by the shortness of their tails to the hairbreadth escapes they have had from passing trains. Those I have seen are mostly full-grown cats, and only once have I seen a kitten walking on the rails, and that was at night after the traffic had ceased. At one signal-box which is built on a platform over the line, and the only access to which is by a steep iron ladder, down which no cat could climb, there are two full-grown tabbies—toms I believe—and I have often seen them asleep behind the signal bells or even on the handrail of the platform, utterly callous to the trains rushing by underneath. As a rule the men are very kind to them, and give them milk, &c.

The railway cat is, of course, not regarded generally as unusual but underground railway cats invite more interest perhaps. I knew of many cats when I was on the system. A semi-domesticated specimen at Tottenham Court Road became a friend, but there was a wild cat on the Northern Line at Euston (Charing X branch) which used to sit at the tunnel mouth looking for mice disturbed by the trains; the cat was quite content with its position looking into the tunnel with a moving train only inches away. We cannot know how it got down there or whether it even knew of a world at street level. I don't suppose noisy steam locomotives at Victoria were thought menacing.

It was Victoria on 8 July 2013 that a young black kitten was handed in as lost property, having been discovered in a box by a passenger. I believe this was the first cat actually submitted as an item of lost property, but (named Victoria by the staff) it was sent to a cat rescue organization rather than to a lost property.office.

In July 1903 two electric trains were damaged by a horse on the line between Park Royal and Alperton; one can only speculate about exactly what happened. In September 1919 a bullock was electrocuted near Sudbury Town causing a 27 minute delay to the service, which might be thought quite quick given the weight of the animal. There were probably other incidents where train met animal that are yet to be unearthed.

The District Railway Zoo

Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pasttimes [June 1911] carried an article about otters and mentioned in passing that: 'an unfortunate bitch wandered from the Thames or Brent to the District Railway Station at Acton Town, and [having got] into an electric manhole was found dead from exhaustion on April 4th'. I must explain that before the District carried power cables in brackets alongside the line they went in below-ground ducts with occasional inspection chambers. Are we to take without question the suggestion that the otter made its way from the distant Thames (1.1 miles) or Brent (over 2 miles)? Acton Town (previously Mill Hill Park station) had in fact been built adjacent to the Bollo Brook and either side of the Bollo Lane bridge were large fishponds. Though much of the brook had been covered over by 1911 odd sections remained open, and they were much closer than these large rivers.

For reasons not yet fully explained the otter was extracted from the manhole and stuffed, being thence placed in a glass case and put on display at Mansion House station. The case was installed on the eastbound platform next to an iron bridge near the west end (provided to make it easier for passengers on terminating trains in the centre bay road to continue their journey east). A collection box was installed on the front of the case and though I have not been able to read the instructions I imagine it was for one of the railway charities and that the otter was there to attract attention.

The otter was not alone for very long. An owl was recovered from the South Harrow line on 29 November 1912, having flown after dark directly at the electric headlight of an approaching train, with terminal results. This fine bird also visited the taxidermist and went on display in its own glass case, next to the otter. By increments, further animals that met an early demise were stuffed and went to Mansion House. This time photos suggest that a much larger showcase was obtained and that these subsequent animals were arranged therein in realistic positions, there being ample space for display without overcrowding. The owl and the otter stayed in their own cases. This exhibition became something of a novelty.


Above is shown the first pair of showcases, probably in 1912-3 shortly after they were installed. Below is the expanded set in 1925, by which time it was sometimes jokingly called The Zoo. I cannot say with certainty all the birds were owls (one might not be), but they do seem to have been relatively unlucky.

Zoo at Mansion House

Charing Cross station was the subject of frequent and periodic improvement, substantially complete by 1929 when for some reason the zoo was moved there from Mansion House. No works were in hand at platform level at Mansion House, so we do not know what might have encouraged eviction. Having said that, the animals would have been more visible at Charing Cross where they occupied a space not easy to employ for much else productive.

Charing Cross Zoo

The view above shows the cases relocated to Charing Cross station (now Embankment). It is located beneath the District tracks in the upper interchange subway. Behind the animals can be seen the escalator leading down to the Northbound Northern Line (as it became). It may be seen that the otter has lost its contribution box. In July 1936, the staff magazine Pennyfare reported that theescalators feeding the Morden-Edgware Line at Charing Cross [installed 1914] were being reconstructed and that the 'London Transport Zoo' had been moved to a 'safe place'.

What happened then? The short answer is that I have no idea. It has not been possible to establish whether they ever went back and would probably have been in the way for the further reconstruction for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Seems unlikely they were just thrown out though.

Perhaps a reader might know the fate of these animals. If so, I would love to hear.

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