Reptile House history

Built in 1926, our Reptile House advanced understanding of the natural world for nearly one-hundred years. Today we are working with species under threat from extinction from around the world at the Secret Life of Reptiles and Amphibians, from Philippine crocodiles and Chinese Giant salamanders, we have something for every reptile and amphibian lover.  

Our Reptile House was built in 1926. It was erected on the site of the Ape House, and two other Reptile Houses had existed previously, the first erected in 1849 (before London Zoo had even opened to the public) and the second in 1882.

The building itself was designed by Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter, Curator of Reptiles, with the architect Sir Edward Guy Dawber. The reptile sculptures at the entrance to the building are by the sculpture George Alexander. At the time, the building was hailed as one of the most sophisticated building of its type in the world.

Among other key features, the Reptile House has differentiated heating to provide "hot spots" for the reptiles and "aquarium principle" lighting which means the visitors walk around in relative darkness and lighting highlights the animals in their environments.

 

Joan Procter 

Her passion for nature began at a young age and in the ZSL Collection we have a book on reptiles gifted to her by her younger sister Chrystobel for her 13th birthday.

She kept many reptiles as pets, and entered into correspondence with George Boulenger who was the Keeper of Reptiles and Fishes at the then British Museum (Natural History). He was so impressed by the skills and knowledge of the young Procter, that he invited her to work with him in 1916, and acted as a mentor to her. When George Boulenger retired, Procter took over from him at the British Museum.

At 19 she authored her first paper for the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, about the Pit Viper and she was elected as a fellow of ZSL in August 1917.

Procter was friends with George Boulenger’s son – Edward – who was at the time Reptile Curator at ZSL London Zoo. Having grown tired of the work at the British Museum, she began to help Edward with tasks at the Zoo. With her artistic flair, and keen draughtswoman skills, she helped with plans for the new aquarium in 1923 – and after four months joined the staff as Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians – the first woman to hold this position. She started on a salary of £360 (about £20,000 in today’s money). 

Reptile House sign outside buildling at London Zoo
Inside the Reptile House

Reptile House design

Joan Protcter's Reptile House design included ‘vita glass’ which provided natural ultraviolet light needed by the reptiles, and was a high tech concept at the time. Procter’s deep understanding of reptiles helped to produce a design that was, at the time, very forward thinking.

Procter contributed to numerous other pieces of rockwork and outdoor enclosures in the gardens – including Monkey Hill (on the site of the old animal hospital), which contained 80 sacred baboons; and helping with the design for the main entrance gate. 

Procter corresponded widely with fellow reptile experts and enthusiasts around the world – in several languages. The letters written to her that we hold in the Archive show that she was well regarded by everyone from professional herpetologists, to neighbours, and school children.

She was an expert in the routine handling of animals such as large pythons, crocodilians and Komodo dragons. A dragon named Sumbawa became Joan Procter’s particular pet and accompanied her when she walked around the Zoo.

Sadly, Procter suffered from poor health for most of her life, and she went to Whipsnade for convalescence, but died in 1931 aged only 34. Whipsnade commemorated her with the road ‘Miss Joan’s Ride’ which still runs through the site today. In the reptile house at ZSL London Zoo, there is a bust of her by George Alexander [image ]

She also had two species of reptiles named after her: Buhoma procterae (snake) and Testudo procterae (tortoise)

Crocodile Feeding at Reptile House in London Zoo
Reptile House at London Zoo

Harry Potter at London Zoo

A famous scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was filmed in the Reptile House in November 2001. In the scene, a Burmese python speaks to Harry Potter, played by Daniel Radcliffe for the first time. In fact, the enclosure filmed is actually home to our black mamba.

Journey through our history

  • 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.

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

    Our famous animals

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

  • Penguins at Lubetkin penguin pool at London Zoo designed by Berthold Lubetkin
    Pioneering Berthold Lubetkin design

    Lubetkin penguin pool

    Our Lubetkin Penguin pool at London Zoo is iconic. The sweeping spiral ramps kick-started a new era for British architecture, and inspired an enduring love of penguins in the British public.

  • A view of London Zoo by James Hakewill from 1835 and featuring the Raven's Cage and the Llama House. In the background a bear is being fed by visitors. The Raven's Cage has since been relocated.
    A monument of our history

    Ravens' Cage

    Designed by London Zoo’s original architect, Decimus Burton, this ornate ironwork aviary dates back to our earliest days.

  • A portrait of the gorilla 'Meng'. London Zoo, June 1939.
    One of Britain’s first modernist buildings

    Round house

    Designed for gorillas by Berthold Lubetkin, the building was home to our first gorillas Mok and Moina.

  • Sketch of London Zoo East Tunnel
    War world II history

    East Tunnel

    One of the oldest surviving features at the Zoo, this tunnel was was served as an air raid shelter for employees and local people during World War II.

  • London Zoo history