03 August 2019

Cardiff : Billy the seal

Once upon a time (1912, to be more precise) there was a seal named Billy, who was accidentally caught in trawler nets off the Irish coast (though there is some doubt about that location) and brought to Cardiff to join the menagerie of a small zoo in Victoria Park (why they couldn’t just have let Billy go, I don’t know).

Billy had his own small lake and, because of his amusing antics, was a great favourite with all the children who visited the park. Stories are told of the many times Billy escaped the confines of the park: the River Ely used to flood, which in turn flooded Victoria Park and adjacent Cowbridge Road, and Billy took advantage of these artificial waterways to visit the Fish Market (of course!), to say hello to the Mayor in City Hall, to check out the waters of Roath Park Lake and the fountain in nearby Thompson’s Park. But, each time Billy made a break for freedom, he was found and captured and returned to the confines of Victoria Park.

Billy even survived being put on short rations for a time in 1917 (by a council trying to save money – nothing’s changed then) – it seems his many admirers came to his rescue by supplementing his rations with succulent titbits.

Billy finally died in 1939, not a bad innings for a grey seal. His body was sent to the National Museum of Wales (just a few miles down the road from Victoria Park) where a post-mortem showed that Billy was not a male at all. All those times she escaped, she might well have been looking for a mate. And Billy’s skeleton was put on display in the museum from time to time, to help educate the next generation of young kids.

And, because she had been so loved by the local Cardiffians, when the centenary of Victoria Park was being celebrated in 1997, Billy was also immortalised in stone (well, actually, painted galvanised steel). Almost sixty years after she had died, Billy the sculpture was created by Cardiff artist David Petersen and placed next to the paddling pond in Victoria Park, where she had lived all those years before. And, despite occasional plans to get rid of her sculpture (like during a recent redesign of the play area, when a splash pad was added to the park), Billy’s supporters and fans have spoken up for their beloved seal and stopped the council from trashing her.

And the physical Billy (or, at least, her skeleton) now lives in the Clore Discovery Gallery of the National Museum but, very occasionally (okay, just the once), Bill gets to see outside the thick walls of the museum. As you can read in Billy’s blog on the museum website, in 2012, one hundred years after being hauled in by that trawler, Billy was taken to the seaside. And, not only that, Billy got to star in the television programme Coast alongside presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff.

Sadly, Billy is now back at the museum, doomed (probably) to remain behind those thick walls for the rest of eternity. But perhaps (just perhaps) Billy knows about her statue in Victoria Park. And perhaps (okay, a bit fanciful) Billy can look through that statue’s eyes and see the fun the kids are having playing about in the water fountains of the park’s splash pad. And maybe (just maybe) Billy remembers the fun she used to have playing in the water there as well.

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