Decimus Burton design

Our clock tower is the oldest ‘original’ building at London Zoo – even if it didn’t always look quite the same as it does now!

The present Clock Tower was part of the original Zoo layout designed by architect Decimus Burton, and built between 1827 and 1828. The earliest building on the spot was a Llama House – or as the early records describe it, a “Gothic house for llamas”. This was reported to be “in progress”, along with a bear pit and a boundary wall, in March 1828. We opened to our first visitors (who were all members of ZSL or their invited guests) the following month. 

By September 1828, the Mirror reported that two llamas were living in the house, one of which had been donated by the Duke of Bedford, although in later years the building would be occupied by camels. The newspaper also praised the Llama House as “one of the most picturesque objects in the grounds”.

Sure enough, an early lithograph of the building by James Hakewill shows a rather rustic-looking building with a timber front porch, surrounded by greenery and strolling visitors. The bell on the side of the original Llama House was rung to mark closing time at the Zoo.

The new Clock Tower

By 1829, Burton was drawing up plans to add a clock tower to the roof of the building, and this was completed in 1831. That wasn’t the end of the renovations, however. The current timbered-framed clock tower with copper cupola was added in a subsequent rebuild in 1844, and the building was reconstructed in an “improved form” yet again in 1897. 

Like other parts of the Zoo, including the rodent house, civet house and zebra house, the Clock Tower was damaged during World War II air raids in the 1940s. Fortunately, most of the Zoo’s resident animals avoided harm. The camels were found sitting placidly chewing the cud after one bomb strike, although a zebra is said to have escaped from the Zoo and been rounded later up in Camden.

The Clock Tower was rebuilt again in 1946-47. It was subsequently used as a chair store in the 1950s, and as a shop in the 1980s.

Clock Tower at London Zoo, formerly Llama House
Clock tower at London Zoo

The Clock Tower now…

While you’ll still find llamas and camels at the Zoo, they’re no longer living at the Clock Tower, and recently the building has been put to more practical use as a first aid post. As you’ll see, it’s also a popular spot with nesting sparrows! 

After so many alterations, the current Clock Tower building may not bear much resemblance to the original Llama House – but it remains a continuous link with the early Zoo. You’ll still spot an old closing-time bell on the outside of the building.

Journey through our history

  • Guy the silverback gorilla at London Zoo
    Guy the gorilla, Jumbo the elephant and quaggas

    Famous Animals of London Zoo

    The iconic animals in our history which brought people closer to nature and inspired generations of conservationists.

  • The London Zoo aquarium photographed in July 1981
    World's first public aquarium

    The Aquarium

    We were home to the world’s first public aquarium. We popularised the name “Aquarium” and pioneered the first environments to provide the correct living conditions for salt-water animals.

  • Black and white photo of giraffes at Decimus Burton's Giraffe House
    England's first giraffes

    Giraffe house history

    When giraffes arrived at London Zoo in 1836, they caused a public sensation. Our giraffes were the first to be seen by the public in England, and made Londoners instantly form a connection with the natural world.

  • Jumbo at riding steps, probably March 1882. Jumbo was London Zoo's first African elephant.
    Uncovering Jumbo's life

    Jumbo the elephant

    The remarkable life story of Jumbo the elephant - the animal superstar who is said to have inspired the movie Dumbo.

  • Famous hippo Obaysch
    The first hippo in Europe since Roman times

    Obaysch the hippo

    Obaysch took the country by storm when he arrived in 1850, and visitor numbers doubled that year.tor numbers doubled

  • The Reptile House at London Zoo in 1928 with formal flower beds along the paths to the entrance.
    Pioneering reptile understanding

    Reptile House history

    The Reptile House was designed by Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter, our first woman curator, and became hailed as one most sophisticated building for animal care and science.

  • Our history