It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when Henry Preston heard a loud commotion coming from the parrot house at London Zoo. The keeper rushed over to investigate and saw a man running away from one of the cages, which had been opened.
The bird it contained – a rare Bell Bird (native to Brazil) – was missing, and so Preston set off in pursuit of the mysterious intruder.
It took him a while to catch up with him, but eventually he had him and demanded to know where the missing bird was. The man was silent but the keeper noticed a feather on his coat. Another keeper arrived and questioned him and five more feathers were found.
Then Mr Jeffcoat, the keeper of the elephant house arrived and said he had seen a man leaving the gentleman’s lavatories, obviously in something of a hurry. Leaving the others to hold onto their prisoner Jeffcoat went to search the toilets for the missing bird.
Sadly he found it; quite dead, drowned in a w.c and wrapped in a handkerchief with the name ‘Goodfellow’ embroidered on it. The keepers took the suspected culprit to Mr Bartlett, the superintendent of the Zoological Gardens who accused him of stealing it. The man now tried to buy his way out of the risk and embarrassment of a court appearance, offering Bartlett £20 if would let him go. He would not and then man was handed over to the police.
The next day (Friday 27 July, 1888) he appeared before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court and gave his name as Walter Hamilton. There the magistrate was told the events of the night as the keepers had witnessed it and informed that the dead parrot was ‘the only specimen of the bell tribe in this country’. It belonged to Mr Slater (the secretary of Zoological Society) was valued at £10 and Mr Cook decided that Hamilton must stand trial for its theft (if not its murder).
The neotropical bellbird in question was probably the white bellbird or the bare-throated member of the species. Both live in Brazil. They both have a call that resembles the sound of a bell being rung.
Those of you of a certain age (and perhaps a certain musical background) will recall that the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band recorded a song called ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ on their 1969 album Keynsham. It is one of my favorites, with the line:
‘When Mr. Slater’s parrot says, “Hello!”
A geezer likes to get one on the go.
We hope to hear him swear.
We love to hear him squeak.
We like to see him biting fingers in his horny beak.’
Was it inspired by the attempted theft of a bell bird in 1888, or by the secretary of the Zoological Society? I doubt its more than a coincidence but it made me chuckle this morning.
[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1888]
Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here