Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Alfred the Gorilla

As a child, my father would love to tell us about Alfred The Gorilla, one of Bristol Zoo's star attractions.

My father was in the Home Guard as a young man and had the job of standing guard over Alfred during bombing raids etc. He always told us that it was his job to shoot Alfred if a bomb damaged the cage and he was released into the city. I have no idea if that was true, but it sounds feasible.

OK, I feel slightly icky looking back at these old photographs of Alfred in his cage, as it is such a cruel way to keep any animal, but it was accepted as normal at the time. Bristol Zoo was very popular and space was limited in the middle of a city.

The photo on the left was taken in 1946 when he was aged 18 and was 33 stone.

He became famous around the world, and this fame was increased during the war by GI's sending postcards of him to their homes in America. Over 20,000 images a year were bought and sent at the height of his popularity.

According to my father, Alfred was grumpy. He apparently disliked double decker buses, aeroplanes and men with beards. The zoo celebrated his birthday every year My father also said he was taken on walks around the zoo on a collar and chain and was often dressed up in clothes. He also liked to make snowballs and throw them at visitors.

Alfred the Gorilla was bought to the zoo in the 1930's from a Rotterdam Zoo, and he died in 1948.  He was also, apparently, suckled by a woman in the Congo before going to Rotterdam! He had a thyroid deficiency which was treated, but also had tuberculosis, and he collapsed and died after being frightened by a plane, and running into his sleeping quarters.

When he died, he was the oldest gorilla in captivity and was loved by many people who had never seen a gorilla before. He was stuffed by Rowland Ward, a famous taxidermist, and put on show in the museum.

As a child, and as a mother, we used to visit him regularly at the last visit being in September this year. See, a lifelong love!!

 Here's an amusing video of how Albert came to be stuffed.

In 1956 he was stolen from the museum and disappeared without trace. Here's a bit from the local paper, the Evening Post to explain what happened and how he turned up again.

It is a mystery that has puzzled Bristol families for generations but today the Evening Post can exclusively reveal who stole Alfred the Gorilla 54 years ago.

The much-loved gorilla, who died in 1948, stands in a glass case in Bristol City Museum, but for a short time in 1956, at the start of University Rag Week, he vanished without trace.

Now after the death of estate agent Ron Morgan, 79, a family secret has been revealed involving him and two university friends in a definite case of monkey business.

The truth was kept under wraps for so long because Mr Morgan, his friend Fred Hooper, 77, and his other accomplice, known only as DB, feared they would be prosecuted by the museum or the council.
Ron Morgan, right, took Alfred the Gorilla with pal Fred Hooper, centre, and a third man known as DB
The ape-napping caused public outcry during March 1956 after the stuffed gorilla, a celebrity figure in Bristol who was worth about £600 at the time, mysteriously disappeared.

Police scoured university processions searching for Alfred, who was thought to be taken as a prank, and even threatened to prosecute the organisers of rag week, but to no avail.

Several days later Donald Boulton, a caretaker at Bristol University's student health service, had the shock of his life when he entered the patient's waiting room and was faced with the stuffed gorilla, which had been left in the centre of the room.

Until now only three people and their families knew what had happened to Alfred during those 60 hours with the gorilla himself remaining tight-lipped. But as a tribute to Mr Morgan, who lived in Clevedon and ran Morgan and Sons estate agents in Eastville, his family and friends have revealed the secret they have had to keep for over 50 years along with a collection of photographs kept as a record.

Mr Hooper, who now lives in Cheltenham, said: "It was initially my idea."I was about 23 at the time and I thought it would be a great rag week jape."We took Alfred because he was such a big Bristol personality and he was close by. It took a bit of planning, we told the museum we were making a film and that's how we got in. We knew the porter and so we were able to get a key cut to the secondary door that linked the museum to the university."Then we hid in the belfry until about 1am when every- thing was closed. It wasn't such a good idea in hindsight as the bells were still ringing and incredibly loud.

"We got into the museum and then we used the side door to get him out onto Park Row. It was very early in the morning and we stuffed him into the boot of an old Vauxhall car, that cost me £35, folded back the seats and sped off to my bedsit, in West Park, off Whiteladies Road.

"That's where he stayed for the duration and we took pictures of him in different guises. There were all sorts of stories going around, people thought Cardiff students had kidnapped him and there was a rumour he was in a cave somewhere but we never told anyone we had him.

"It was always our intention to return him and so the easiest thing was to take him to a doctor's waiting room which was just across the road. It was midday on a Saturday and we just carried him over and left him there."
Mr Morgan's son Gerard, 45, said: "We know that initially the three tried to lift Alfred and couldn't understand why he was so heavy but it was actually because he was screwed to a plinth and they were trying to lift their own weight."

He said a family scrapbook, containing original stories from the Evening Post about the theft, had become something of a family heirloom.He said: "My father used to develop his own photographs which is why he was able to take these pictures without anyone else finding out."This scrapbook has been locked in a secret drawer in our home and travelled around the world with him." 

The City Museum has now sent a letter to Gerard assuring the family that no one will be prosecuted over the kidnap.Dr Jo Gipps, director, Bristol Zoo Gardens, said: "At his death in 1948, Alfred was the longest-living gorilla in captivity anywhere in the world. In spite of the events of 1956, he is now one of the star attractions on display at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery." Tim Corum, Deputy Head of Bristol's Museums, Galleries & Archives service, said: "We are intrigued and pleased to hear about the revelations concerning Alfred the Gorilla's 'escape' from the City Museum & Art Gallery in 1956.

"Museum staff have long known about this Rag Week stunt but not heard the inside story of those involved before. Although we would never condone any such illegal activity as reportedly happened, the council will not be taking any action against the reputed perpetrators either.

"Instead we will be adding the latest reports to the bulging file relating to one of Bristol's best loved figures."

Friday, 17 December 2010

How Ladies Learn to Cycle - 1894

I went to visit my mum this week and came home with a "box of bits" which she didn't have the energy to sort through. They're mostly old photos and family things, and in amongst them were a couple of old notebooks that my Great Grandmother started to write.

There are many amusing snippets including this one dated 1894.

How Ladies Learn To Cycle.

Teaching a lady to cycle is about the nicest thing I know, says one who has tried it. He recommends everyone who numbers nice girls in his circle of acquaintances to try it. About every five yards she will think she is going to fall over and throw her arms round your neck, your arms naturally closing round her waist. Sometimes, the machine will stop up; sometimes it won't; when it doesn't you lose bits of your shins, but what does that matter?

One time, as he stood with arms round her, holding up girl and machine, and her arms round him, he said, apologetically "I'm afraid you'll get tired of these lessons if you don't progress much quicker" "Oh, no," she murmured, "I love learning. Oh, hold me tighter; I'm falling!"

Of course he held her tighter. Who wouldn't? But it's all over now. When he got home he found the lady in the spectacles next door had seen the lesson progressing, and had at once called in to casually mention the matter. It is better, if possible, therefore, to avoid the vicinity of ladies in spectacles when the lessons are in progress.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hoare Frosts.

For those from warmer climes, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just another series of photographs of snow; the UK is suffering from an abundance of the stuff at the moment.....but it isn’t.

We don't have any snow in my town, yet the world is white.

It’s something called hoare frost. (sometimes spelt without an e on the end) It is truly spectacular.

When it’s cold and frosty at night in winter, and the skies are clear, crystals form on vegetation or anything that has been chilled below freezing point. It was -12 last night and was still -6 at lunchtime so the world for us is not covered with snow but with hoare frost.

The interlocking ice crystals become attached to the branches of trees, leaves, hedgerows, grass etc, and if you look closely you can see fine feathers or needles of ice crystals. They fall off just like snow, if caught in the breeze.

Heres a bit of technical stuff downloaded from a weather website.

The relative humidity in supersaturated air is greater then 100% and the formation of hoar frost is similar to the formation of dew with the difference that the temperature of the object on which the hoar frost forms is well below 0°C, whereas this is not the case with dew. Hoar frost crystals often form intitially on the tips of plants or other objects.

Hoar frost might form as liquid dew that has subsequently frozen with a drop in temperature, which is then known as silver frost or white frost. Usually the dew drops do not freeze immediately, even if the air temperature is slightly below zero. Rather they become supercooled dew droplets at first. 

Supercooled dew will eventually freeze if the temperature falls below about -3°C to -5°C. Hoar frost deposits might also derive by sublimation, when water vapour is forming ice directly on the surfaces concerned. In most cases hoar frost will have formed by a combination of the processes above.