How a Giant Panda – possibly called Grandma – ended up at Leeds City Museum.

Written by Clare Brown, NatSCA Membership Secretary & Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries, Leeds Discovery Centre.

On display in the basement gallery of Leeds City Museum is a stuffed Giant Panda. We’ve always known and referred to her as “Grandma”, the panda that died only a few days after arriving in London in 1938.

Photograph of a taxidermy giant panda at Leeds Museum.
‘Grandma’ the Giant Panda ©Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Grandma, named as she was the oldest of the group, and her compatriots Happy, Grumpy, Dopey and Baby (Snow White was released in March that year) were the first live Giant Pandas to arrive in the UK. They had taken a long and complicated journey out of central China. Trapped in the forests above Weizhou, Sichuan, the pandas were initially kept at Chengdu under the care of Elizabeth and Floyd Tangier Smith.

Over several weeks, paperwork was prepared and plans were put in place for moving six pandas across the country during a Japanese invasion. It was then Elizabeth who, leaving a poorly Floyd to catch a plane, navigated her way to the Hong Kong Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Dogs Home, a journey of some 1400km. One panda died en route.

From Hong Kong, they were shipped to London, arriving at Tilbury Docks just before Christmas 1938. Poor Grandma had suffered on the journey and, only ten days later, died of double pneumonia at London Zoo. Her skin was sold to the taxidermist Gerrards, a regular at the zoo at that time, who mounted her and sold her on to Leeds City Council.

“Baby” was re-named “Ming” by London Zoo and his skull is held at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. I don’t know where the remains of the other pandas ended up. Grandma’s been with us ever since.

Photograph of a taxidermy giant panda at Leeds Museum.
‘Grandma’ the Giant Panda ©Leeds Museums and Galleries.

…and that’s how most stories like this end. However, in early 2022 I received an email with the subject line “Floyd Tangier-Smith, preparation for estate sale”. A gentleman, representing the “heirs of Elizabeth Tangier-Smith” was getting in touch to find out what I thought they should do with a panda skin they have in their possession:

“In his estate there is a Giant Panda , also taxidermied by Gerrard in 1938 , and named “Grandma”. It seems to be the same size as your panda.”

It’s one of those emails you read a couple of times and then have to go for a short walk. It has also led to lots of amazing photos of the pandas, at least one is ours I’m sure, at Chengdu before they arrived in the UK. I am very grateful to the estate for allowing me to share these in this blog.

Black and white photo of 6 live pandas on a lawn with Elizabeth Tangier Smith
Six pandas and Elizabeth Tangier Smith at Chengdu in 1938 ©Estate of Elizabeth Tangier Smith.

My inkling is that the skin held by Elizabeth’s estate might be the “One panda died en route.” panda but I have no way to prove this.

Not long after the tranche of pandas arrived in London that snowy night in 1938, Sichuan province placed a ban on their capture.

Further reading:

Nicholls, H., 2011, “The Way of the Panda”, Pegasus Books : New York

Hussey, K. D., 2014, “Ming the forgotten celebrity: a giant panda skull at the Royal College of Surgeons of England”, Archives of Natural History, 41.1, pp. 159-175

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