Curious tale of bears living at a Noak Hill pub

The bear. Picture: Alanna Yeomans

The bear. Picture: Alanna Yeomans - Credit: Archant

Children fed it crisps, cigarette butts and halves of ale. It killed the landlord’s son. And it would regularly wrestle opponents.

The bear. Picture: Alanna Yeomans

The bear. Picture: Alanna Yeomans - Credit: Archant

These tales, exaggerated as they may be, regard the extraordinary presence of live bears at a Noak Hill pub.

That much is true. As recently as 40 years ago a bear lived in a cage at the aptly named The Bear, in Noak Hill Road.

Rhani, believed to be a Himalayan black bear, arrived in the early ‘60s and drew quite the crowd as families flocked from all over London and Essex to visit her and other animals kept in the pub grounds, including a menagerie of peacocks.

The Recorder has spent four months on a wild bear chase in an attempt to get a picture of the evasive beast. Scores of people called our reporter to recount fond memories of the bears. But none knew the whereabouts of an image.

This is the only photograph of Honey the Recorder has managed to track down. Picture: Paul Irven

This is the only photograph of Honey the Recorder has managed to track down. Picture: Paul Irven - Credit: Archant


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They did however share their recollections of childhood pub visits. Andrew Skingley, 61, of Upminster, reminisced: “I’d sit with a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps and watch this mangy old thing in a cage.”

While Joanne Nixon commented on the Recorder’s Facebook that she and her sisters used to feed the bear donuts on the end of an umbrella.

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One reader was grateful for the appeal as she had been trying to convince her husband for 30 years of the bears’ existence. He wasn’t having any of it – until now.

His relieved wife Marion Conway, 56, of Central Drive, Hornchurch, said: “I have memories of watching the huge, very furry black bear sit in its wooden cage and eat fruit and veg. He didn’t move very much and I can remember feeling a little sad for him on his own in the cage, but was always very excited when invited to go out to the pub.”

Cheetah article from August 2003

Cheetah article from August 2003 - Credit: Archant

While the stories of violence appear to be unfounded local legends, the tales of the caged bear drinking ale and eating crisps were recounted by many.

Imagining the bear in a pub today is a bewildering thought but to many it seemed perfectly normal. Alanna Yeomans, 54, this week provided pictures of the bear. She first visited it with her siblings in ’64.

“Nowadays you think you can’t keep an animal of that size in a pub garden – that’s ridiculous – but at the time it was an amazing thing,” the community support officer from Harold Hill says.

The pub landlords when the bear moved in were Ron and Rose Gipson. The story has it that in the 1950s Rose met a zoo owner named Fred in Harold Wood Hospital.

Rose acquired Rhani from Fred and it was promptly exhibited in a cage in the rear of the beer garden.

One book states that Ron would take Rhani out of the cage on Sunday lunchtimes and walk it around the garden using a scaffold pole to keep it a safe distance from him.

At some point in the 60s Rhani came to a sticky end and a new bear, Honey, arrived.

When the landlords retired in 1974 so did Honey. She went to Linton Zoo in Cambridgeshire where she lived out the rest of her days.

Throughout the story of the two bears it is often hard to separate the fact from fiction, partly because the fact itself seems so bizarre today.

But if the search for authenticity is put to one side, it is clear from the joy people recount their memories with, that the myth is a rich factor in the bears’ tale.

Read more:

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