View Washing The Lions
Type: April Fool’s Day Prank.
Summary: Victims were sent to see the washing of the lions at the Tower of London.
During the 18th and 19th centuries a popular prank in London involved inviting unsuspecting victims to come view the annual ceremony of washing the lions at the Tower of London. Early versions of the prank promised the curious that the lions were going to be washed in the moat. Later versions told the gullible to seek entrance to the Tower at the “White Gate” (there being no such gate). Whatever the details were, the hopeful sightseers would make the journey to the Tower in vain, because there was no annual lion-washing ceremony.
This prank is best known as an April Fool’s Day joke. In fact, a report of it being perpetrated in 1698 is the earliest recorded example of an April Fool’s Day prank. The April 2, 1698 edition of Dawks’s News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed” (Notes and Queries, 1913, 357).
In 1887, a correspondent to the journal Notes and Queries speculated that the prank “originated from a custom of the warders formerly deriving perquisites from the liberality of country gobemouches, who ‘tipped’ them to ‘see the white bears fed.’”
The washing-the-lions prank falls into the broad category of “sleeveless errand” pranks—more commonly referred to today as “wild-goose chases.” A sleeveless errand involves sending a victim on a fruitless quest in search of an item, or event, that does not exist.
The Prank in the 19th Century
An admission ticket to the “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” held on April 1st. (From the collection of the British Museum.) The most elaborate instances of the prank occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. For instance, the 1861 edition of Notes and Queries (2nd S. XI. 159) offers this account:
Gustave Louis Maurice Strauss, in his Reminiscences of an Old Bohemian, offers a more detailed account of a slightly earlier occurrence of the prank:
I think it was in the last days of March, 1848, that the proprietor of Chat, in conjunction with the editor and Pond, controved to perpetrate a vile hoax upon Her Majesty’s lieges. These wretched conspirators had a great number of order-cards printed, admitting “bearer and friends” to the White Tower, on the 1st day of April, to witness, if they so listed, the famous grand annual ceremony of washing the lions. I am sorry to say that I was over-easily prevailed upon to join in the distribution of these favours among friends and acquaintances.
We went to Tower Hill in the morning of the 1st of April—to watch the result. I must confess I, for one, was not prepared for the extraordinary credulity of the British Public. They flocked up in shoals to see the lions washed. The “warders” were almost at their wits’ end. They had the bits of pasteboard flourished in their faces, with angry gestures and angrier imprecations, by the indignant crowd of sight-seers and seekers. I verily believe there was a notion at one time of the day to send for reinforcements of the garrison, so threatening was the aspect of the B.P. raging at the gates of the old City fortress. In the midst of the turmoil some one spotted me to whom I had given an order of admission, and he would have set the whole mob upon me, but I most luckily succeeded in securing the friendly shelter of a cab, which I made drive off instanter from the field of action, knowing of old that discretion is, as a rule, the better part of valour. The final result to me was, that I had to skedaddle, and keep dark for a time, until the affair had blown over a little.
From 1865 onwards, almost all accounts of the prank refer to a memorable instance of it occurring on April 1, 1860. However, it has not been possible to locate a contemporary newspaper report of this event.
Animals at the Tower of London
Animals, including lions, actually were kept at the Tower of London for many centuries. The tradition of keeping animals there began in the 13th century, when Emperor Frederic II sent three leopards to King Henry III. In subsequent years, elephants, lions, and even a polar bear were added to the collection. The polar bear was trained to catch fish in the Thames.
By the time of Elizabeth I, a German visitor encountered, “all variety of creatures in the Tower including three lionesses, one lion of great size called Edward VI from his having been born in that reign; a tyger; a lynx; a wolf excessively old… there is besides a porcupine, and an eagle.”
By the eighteenth century, the Tower’s menagerie had become one of the most popular destinations for visitors to London. However, during the early nineteenth century the menagerie declined, until finally, in 1834, the few remaining animals were transferred to the Garden of the Zoological Society.
Zoos and April Fool’s Day
The closing of the menagerie at the Tower of London did not end the prank. The pranksters simply adapted to changing times and sent their victims to the zoo instead of the Tower of London.
In 1866 one of the first instances of the “sending someone to the zoo” prank was recorded in the London Times. The police column reported the case of one Mrs. Sarah Marks who, on April 1, had sold hundreds of tickets to the zoological society, at the bargain rate of one penny per ticket. The tickets bore the inscription: