Blackpool’s own Jungle Jim who lived and died at the tower

Jim had many unusual beliefs including his daily practise of taking sips from the aquarium’s water to benefit from its ‘medicinal properties’ where he was also found dead


Deborah Contessa, tour guide at Layton Cemetery, pictured at James (Jim) Walmsley's graveside
Deborah Contessa, tour guide at Layton Cemetery, pictured at James (Jim) Walmsley’s graveside (Image: Deborah Contessa)

This month marks 106 years since one of Blackpool’s well known and quirkiest characters passed away on June 17, 1915, at the age of 65.

James Walmsley, known to many as as ‘Jim’ was manager of the Blackpool Tower Aquarium, Menagerie and Aviary, created by former mayor and ‘father of Blackpool’ Dr W H Cocker in 1874.

A truly dedicated animal lover, Jim had many unusual beliefs including his daily practise of taking a sip from a cupful of water from his tanks to benefit from its “medicinal properties”.

Deborah Contessa from Blackpool is a tour guide for Layton Cemetery where Jim is buried and writes for UK True Crime.

She often marks the anniversaries of the passing of quirky and interesting characters in the Facebook group Friends of Layton Cemetery and was fascinated by Jim’s story.

She told LancsLive: “Blackpool is just such a unique place with an interesting history and I have a love for the Blackpool of the past rather than the town in modern day.

“Although Jim may have had quite usual beliefs it wasn’t uncommon for people to believe in strange cures and medicines. Jim may have just taken is a bit further with leaning into his tanks every day to get the medicinal properties from the sea water they were pumped with!

“The seaside, in those days, was associated with many health benefits”

Blackpool Tower named their indoor play area after 'Jim'
Blackpool Tower named their indoor play area after ‘Jim’

She added: “Blackpool does a have a special history with occultism and spiritualism too as there were many phrenlogists, palm readers and tarot readers who done really well in the town.

“Ada Boswell, Blackpool’s Queen of the gypsies is also buried here and was actually tarot reader to Queen Victoria.”

Born and bred in Blackpool. Jim was born in a cottage close to The Athenaeum Club in 1849 and had become involved with building the aquarium from an early age.

After assisting Dr Cocker, he became a permanent employee and by 1891 he was running the attraction as manager with what has been described as ‘a wide knowledge of wild beasts and various kinds of fish’.

Jim was incredibly dedicated and lived on site with his wife and daughters. The aquarium actually pre-dated Blackpool Tower by 19 years and the iconic structure was actually built around where her and his family were located.

The steel foundations of Blackpool Tower.

Dr. Cocker’s Aquarium, Aviary and Menagerie, as it was called, was kept open to earn revenue while the Tower building went up and it soon became one of its biggest attractions.

It housed 57 different species of fresh water and salt water fish, and the largest tank held 32,000 litres

After serving as an apprentice to his father who was a plumber, Jim inherited his talents and was incredibly resourceful.

He had an engineer’s skill with gas engines, electric lighting plants and hydraulic machinery and the 1901 census imaginatively described him as ‘Superintendent of Wild Beasts’.

His greatest talents were the care and time he put into the animals however and he was happiest whilst breeding lions and tigers in captivity, which included in his kitchen!

Blackpool Tower is famous for a lot of things, however few may know that because of Jim, the famous landmark had born and successfully reared more lion cubs than anywhere else in the country.

Embodying the qualities of an early Dr Dolittle, Jim could spot when an animal was in need or needed help and would send them to the hospital zoo in Lytham Road, a place where many of the sick animals from Blackpool circus used to go.

It was here that Jim managed to find and put into practise many unusual but successful cures.

A postcard from 1894, showing the newly build Blackpool Tower looking over the Fylde coastline.

A rather strange tragedy occurred here however when in 1905 a man called William Livesey, an employee of the Tower Company, was found mauled and partially eaten by Tower bred lionesses.

Jim was called to give evidence at the man’s inquest in which he stated that Livesey “had absolutely no right in the lions’ den.”

A verdict of accidental death was ruled and although the man had been drinking in the Dunes pub that evening he was apparently far from drunk.

Deborah added: “We usually add this as a little teaser at the end of the story of Jim as it’s very strange. It’s believed that Livesey may have been showing off as there were several metal gates which were opened to get into the lion’s den so he very much intended to be there!

“It’s still yet to be confirmed but there’s a belief that the Albert and the Lion poem by Marriott Edgar was inspired by this account!”

Tiger Cubs Greet The World, Four tiger cubs born at the Tower Zoo at Blackpool at their first public appearance.
Tiger Cubs Greet The World, Four tiger cubs born at the Tower Zoo at Blackpool have just made their first public appearance. ñ This tiger cub evidently did not appreciate the good company he was in, Blackpool. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Image: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images))

It was ten years later than another mysterious tragedy was to unfold which sadly, was that of his own death.

On June 17. 1915, Jim went, as he did most mornings, to drink the salt water from the filter beds. His daughter Jane had been waiting for him at the family’s apartments however her father was never to return.

He was discovered with no boots, hat or coat in the filter beds below the aquarium tanks in the basement of Blackpool Tower and had drowned in 3’ 4½” of water.

The next evening, a man called Dr Richardson was called to examine the deceased body and a case of drowning with no apoplexy was announced.

The Coroner was troubled by the fact that a 5′ 6″ man, who was compos mentis, should not be able to climb out of water so shallow.

There had been some questions around whether Jim had intended to kill himself in this way however it was quickly ruled out by a jury after a short consultation who ruled a verdict of accidental drowning.

A testament to Jim’s popularity, the route from his home at the Tower to the cemetery was lined with people with almost all blinds in windows drawn.

Employees from The Tower, The Palace and The Grand Theatre headed the cortege, with more uniformed employees standing in front of The Tower and The Palace ‘paying a last tribute of respect to a departed and much esteemed comrade’.

Though its been 70 years since his passing his legacy lives on in the from of many of Blackpool’s well-love attractions.

“He truly was a great man of his time,” Deborah said. “At a time when many businessman saw animals as a commodity he treated them like they were his family and the tunnels underneath Blackpool Tower were purposely built to take the animals out to the beach to exercise.

“He was a very popular due to his kind nature and could almost have been seen as a softie!”

A postcard advertising Blackpool to holidaymakers before the tower was even built.

Jim’s Menagerie, where he tended to his animals ‘as though they were his own children’, along with his aviary remained open until 1973 where Blackpool Zoo now is today

The Tower Aquarium lasted until 2010 when 200 fish were moved out to make way for what is now known as Blackpool Dungeons.

And his honour, Blackpool Tower’s play area, loved by generations of children was named Jungle Jim’s adventure playground in his honour.