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Pesky Primates Prowling Around the U.K.

The very idea that the green and pleasant British countryside may well be playing host to wild populations of wild baboons sounds manifest...

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The very idea that the green and pleasant British countryside may well be playing host to wild populations of wild baboons sounds manifestly bizarre and unlikely in the extreme, which, for the most part anyway, it surely is! And, yet, sightings of baboon-like animals certainly do surface from time to time, and from across much of the entire nation. That these same sightings, of what are actually African and Arabian Old World monkeys, span centuries and are comprised of encounters with both (A) flesh and blood entities and (B) beasts of a distinctly spectral and paranormal nature, and may have, very occasionally, been mistaken for definitive British wild men of small stature, only adds to the mystifying, monkey-based strangeness, as you will now come to firmly appreciate. Neil Arnold has noted several old tales of a wild man variety that may actually have had their origins in encounters with out of place baboons. Neil says that: “During the reign of Queen Anne [of England, Scotland, and Ireland, from 1702-1707], it was rumored that, at Charing Cross [London], a ‘wild man’ was on show. The beast was said to have danced on a tight-rope, remaining perfectly balanced to the beat of the music. The creature was also said to have smoked tobacco! During the eighteenth-century a ‘man-tiger’ from the East Indies was exhibited in London although many believed such a creature to be a baboon.”

A baboon provoked unbridled chaos in 1856; it was an affair that was noted by the Times of July 14 under the heading of Baboon Hunt on a Ships Rigging. This three and a half foot tall specimen, Neil Arnold learned, “…escaped onto the docks at Wapping on the Wednesday and was pursued by many. The animal, had, according to the paper, been acquired by a naturalist. When the man went to collect his animal it proceeded to dart up the rigging. Several men from varying vessels began the hunt, which amused many on-lookers. The agility of the animal was clear as it effortlessly sprang and leaped out of the outstretched arms of its pursuers. After a few hours, the baboon then simply decided it had had enough and descended to a cabin, but at once startled a steward who claimed that the Devil had in fact come aboard. A sack was eventually thrown over the creature and the naturalist reclaimed it.” The wild adventure was over!

Neil, digging deeply and diligently into the heart of old newspaper archives, adds the following, which reveals the details of yet another baboon-based affair in the British Isles: “In the New York Times of 19th December 1889 there was mentioned of “A Baboon at Large in London.'” The creature, Neil demonstrates “…was witnessed in the vicinity of Westminster Bridge road after escaping from Sanger’s Amphitheatre around 1:00 pm. The animal ran along Lambeth Palace road snapping at onlookers. It was said to have caused wounds to the face of six-year old George Jugger, a wound to the eyelid of twelve-year old William Buckley, and also knocked over a William Wyles.”Finally, and with much relief to the local populace, the animal was recaptured.

In 1913, Elliott O’Donnell – the author of more than fifty acclaimed titles on spooks, spectres, and supernatural mysteries – penned the classic title Animal Ghosts, which included in its pages the decades-old story of a phantom baboon seen in a large, old, imposing country house-style abode near the English town of Basingstoke, Hampshire. In O’Donnell’s own words: “A sister of a well-known author tells me there used to be a house called The Swallows, standing in two acres of land, close to a village near Basingstoke. In 1840 a Mr. Bishop of Tring bought the house, which had long stood empty, and we went to live there in 1841. After being there a fortnight two servants gave notice to leave, stating that the place was haunted by a large cat and a big baboon, which they constantly saw stealing down the staircases and passages.”

O’Donnell continued with his tale: “They also testified to hearing sounds as of somebody being strangled, proceeding from an empty attic near where they slept, and of the screams and groans of a number of of people being horribly tortured in the cellars just underneath the dairy. On going to see what was the cause of the disturbances, nothing was ever visible. By and by other members of the household began to be harassed by similar manifestations. The news spread through the village, and crowds of people came to the house with lights and sticks, to see if they could witness anything.

“One night, at about twelve o’clock, when several of the watchers were stationed on guard in the empty courtyard, they all saw the forms of a huge cat and a baboon rise from the closed grating of the large cellar under the old dairy, rush past them, and disappear in a dark angle of the walls. The same figures were repeatedly seen afterwards by many other persons. Early in December 1841, Mr. Bishop, hearing fearful screams, accompanied by deep and hoarse jabberings, apparently coming from the top of the house, rushed upstairs, whereupon all was instantly silent, and he could discover nothing.

“After that, Mr. Bishop set to work to get rid of the house, and was fortunate enough to find as a purchaser a retired colonel, who was soon, however, scared out of it. This was in 1842; it was soon after pulled down. The ground was used for the erection of cottages; but the hauntings being transferred to them, they were speedily vacated, and no one ever daring to inhabit them, they were eventually demolished, the site on which they stood being converted into allotments.

“There were many theories as to the history of “The Swallows”; one being that a highwayman, known as Steeplechase Jock, the son of a Scottish chieftain, had once plied his trade there and murdered many people, whose bodies were supposed to be buried somewhere on or near the premises. He was said to have had a terrible though decidedly unorthodox ending – falling into a vat of boiling tar, a raving madman.’

In closing on this particular issue, O’ Donnell asked the important questions: “But what were the phantasms of the ape and cat? Were they the earth-bound spirits of the highwayman and his horse, or simply the spirits of two animals? Though either theory is possible, I am inclined to favor the former.” There ends the story. Interestingly, however – and directly connected to O’Donnell’s questions about earth-bound spirits returning to our plane of existence in animal form – there existed a deep belief in Staffordshire and Shropshire in the 18th and 19th Centuries that sightings of the notorious Man-Monkey of the Shropshire Union Canal were linked to the death of a man who had drowned in the waters of the canal shortly before the sightings began in January 1879. Are restless human spirits really returning from the depths of the grave and manifesting in the form of marauding, ghostly monkeys and apes? In a later chapter, we will return to the matter of ancient, and surprisingly widespread, beliefs in the British Isles that human spirits could return to our world in precisely those animal forms. But, for now: Back to the British baboons…

 During the summer of 1924 in Barnet, notes Neil Arnold, a baboon escaped “…from an animal dealer named Chapman and found itself right in the heart of Barnet Police Court. The baboon then proceeded to climb through a ventilation grate and make itself cosy in a cell before two keepers arrived at the location and caught it in a net.” Game over! For a while, anyway. It’s not every day that you see a headline in the Times newspaper that reads like this: An escaped baboon – antics at a Crystal Palace station. And, yet, that is precisely the title of a story that appeared in the pages of the Times on September 23, 1926, and which began as follows:

“An escaped baboon in the booking office of the Crystal Palace High Level (Southern Railway) Station yesterday for a time considerably enlivened the proceedings in the morning rush period. After the discreet withdrawal of the booking clerk, the monkey, a female, was for several minutes in complete possession of the office, and employed the time first in ransacking it, and then at the window attending to the wants of passengers in her own way. Before she was recaptured many passengers had missed their usual trains, and many others had traveled without tickets, intending to pay at their destinations.’

The newspaper continued that the beast, which was estimated to have been around two years of age, was quickly captured and hastily placed inside a wooden cage ‘by Messrs. De Von and Co., the naturalists, of Kings Cross road, to the private menagerie of Mr. H.G. Tyrwhitt Drake at the Crystal Palace.’

It was not all smooth sailing, however, as the Times made very clear: “The cage and monkey travelled by train from St. Paul’s Station early yesterday morning, and at the High Level Station the cage was put in the combined cloakroom and booking office ‘to be called for.’ Soon afterwards, according to the booking clerk, the baboon shook the bars of the cage so violently that it fell over on its side. The monkey then kicked the bottom out of it, and sprang up to the gas bracket, showing her fangs to the clerk, who went away to find help.” Yes, chaos had broken out at the old station. And it duly continued at a manic and comical rate, too. The Times’ reporter, clearly relishing the entertaining nature of the story he or she had unleashed upon the readers of the newspaper, revealed the next stage of the soap-opera-like saga:

“Watched by a porter through the ticket window, the baboon was seen to swing off the gas-bracket and make a tour of inspection of the office. She turned out the ticket pigeon-holes and threw the tickets about the floor, opened bags full of copper change money, biting some of the coins to find out if they were good to eat, and, finally, stationed herself at the window and busied herself with the ticket punching machine. The numerous faces now clustered on the safe side of the window perhaps annoyed her, for soon she began to gather tickets and money in handfuls and hurl them out.”

The final word on the matter from the Times: “The station master appeared, and announced that all who wished could travel without tickets and pay at the other end. Then he and a porter boarded up the office window, and a little later menagerie keepers came.” The curious creature caper was over, and the baboon was destined for a new home with the aforementioned “Mr. H.G. Tyrwhitt Drake of Crystal Palace.” Mr. H. G. Tyrwhitt Drake – actually, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake, to give him his correct title – was a most curious character, and one whose undeniable oddness was appropriately apt for such a manifestly strange saga. As well as holding the position of mayor of Maidstone on no less than twelve occasions, he established Maidstone Zoo, and was an undeniably and definitive English, upper-class eccentric. For example, he had a fascination – that bordered upon a full-blown obsession – for zebras. To the extent that, on one bizarre occasion, he ordered one of his staff to paint black and white stripes on an unfortunate donkey, purely for the purpose of his, Drake’s, own obscure and odd entertainment. One suspects the donkey was hardly enamored by the experience!

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