December 1, 2021

Music Arts

Spearheading Arts Excellence

Remembering when Glasgow had its very own zoo in Cowcaddens

3 min read

Walking down from Cowcaddens subway station, you might not pay much attention to the dreary red brick buildings that curve around the side of the M8.

Sure, the forest green signs for a snooker hall could catch your eye.

Or your attention might be drawn beneath snooker billboards, where a gigantic red sign with the words: “Chinatown Restaurant”.

Apart from the sheer size of the warehouse-like iron-framed building, 42-48 New City Road is not much to look at. At least at first glance.

If you look beyond the drab and inauspicious street, the peeling paint and long outdated signs are clues to unlocking a fascinating part of Glasgow’s history.

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Depending on their age, folk in Glasgow are likely to remember the industrial-sized building as the former Reardon’s game hall, or before that, a humongous Chinese shopping mall, with its own Chinatown restaurant , which opened its doors in 1992 and ran for 25 years.

But long before the shelves inside were piled high with thousands of unusual spices and sauces, the building was Scotland’s first ever zoo, home to an exotic assortment of animals from all across the globe.

E.H Bostock’s Scottish Zoo and Hippodrome, opened in May 1897 and featured a circus arena, theatre and roller skating rink inside the sprawling enclosure.

The founder himself was immensely proud of his epic entertainment complex, calling it “the cheapest attraction in the civilised world”.

Circus owner Edward Henry Bostock was not without his competitors – Arthur Hubner opened his own Hippodrome around the same time – but Bostock’s enterprise was considered by many as the biggest and best.

Showman Bostock has said: “I ran films as a side show from July 1897 onwards and, that winter, I showed them in the circus as part of my programme. At Christmas 1898, I presented a beautiful picture, Cinderella, hand coloured in Paris, and in August 1901, I exhibited the first fight film in the city, Fitzsimmons v Jeffries, which was a very big success.”

In September 1911 he closed the building for redevelopment and fitted a permanent cinema into his complex. On 4th December that year, the building reopened, with the cinema rebranded as the Joytown Grand Electric Theatre.

The building, partially financed and designed by Bertie Crewe and Thomas Barrasford, who would go own to create the Pavilion in Renfield Street, was originally clad in brick with stone dressings.

The exterior twin towers and domes at the entrances made sure there was room for up to 420 punters to enter each day – as well as a sizable amount of space for and a wide variety of exotic creatures.

The zoo’s most famous resident was Sir Roger who was the star attraction until he developed musth and became so aggressive that he broke the arm and several ribs of his zookeeper. He was quickly shot before being stuffed and gifted to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where he has welcomed guests at the museum’s entrance for over 100 years.



Sir Roger the Asian Elephant

But with their brightest star gone, E.H Bostock’s dream began to crumble and the Joytown Grand Electric only managed to keep the doors open until October 1918.

Undecorated since the snooker club closed in the mid 2010s, it has the dusty feel of an undiscovered tomb.



Joytown Grand Electric Theatre reopened briefly as a night venue in 2016
Joytown Grand Electric Theatre reopened briefly as a night venue in 2016

Hipsters tried to reclaim it as an entertainment spot briefly in 2016 when the former zoo was used as an events space for pop-ups with the likes of Bez of the Happy Mondays and Gerry Cinnamon both dropping by to check the place out. But in July 2017, organisers announced the venue was ‘closed for now’ and for the last few years, the once electric venue has been deathly silent.

Today, it remains in a bit of a sorry state, having been modernised several times over the years it is unrecognisable as the once grand theatre and zoo. If you look round the back of the building, facing the M8 flyover, you can see what appear to be large arches in the facade, which hint at the distant glory of it’s once glamorous past.

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