Revealed: 1950s rag week students who stole Bristol museum’s stuffed gorilla
Mystery of Alfred the gorilla’s 60-hour escapade finally solved
• Steven Morris
• guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 March 2010 14.35 GMT
It was never as big a mystery as the disappearance of Lord Lucan or that of the racehorse Shergar. But for a few days in the 1950s the city of Bristol was agog after a 7ft-tall stuffed gorilla called Alfred vanished from the local museum.
Half a century on the puzzle over what happened to Alfred has been solved after the death of one of the culprits, Ron Morgan, a Bristol estate agent.
It turns out that Alfred was taken as a prank by three students who whisked Alfred away after hiding out in a belfry. They dressed the gorilla up in a variety of hats and wigs and took photographs of themselves with the beast before returning Alfred by leaving him in the waiting room of a student medical centre.
Alfred was the longest-living gorilla in captivity in the world when he died at Bristol Zoo in 1948. He was stuffed and put on display in a glass case at the city’s museum, where he became a popular attraction.
But Alfred vanished during Bristol University’s student rag week in March 1956, prompting a police investigation.
Fred Hooper, who was also involved with the theft, together with a third person known only as DS, today lifted the lid on the mystery after Morgan’s death, aged 79.
Hooper, 77, who now lives in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, said: “It was initially my idea. I was about 23 at the time and I thought it would be a great rag week jape.
“We took Alfred because he was such a big Bristol personality and he was close by. It took a bit of planning. We knew the porter and so we were able to get a key cut to the door that linked the museum to the university.
“Then we hid in the belfry until about 1am when everything was closed. It wasn’t such a good idea in hindsight as the bells were still ringing and incredibly loud.
“We got into the museum and then we used the side door to get him out. It was very early in the morning and we stuffed him into the boot of an old Vauxhall car and sped off to my bedsit.
“That’s where he stayed for the duration and we took pictures of him in different guises.”
The friends kept Albert hostage for 60 hours in their flat in Clifton.
Hooper added: “There were all sorts of stories going around, people thought Cardiff students had kidnapped him and there was a rumour he was in a cave somewhere but we never told anyone we had him.
“It was always our intention to return him and so the easiest thing was to take him to a doctor’s waiting room which was just across the road.
“It was midday on a Saturday and we just carried him over and left him there.”
Morgan swore his friends and family to secrecy because he feared he could be prosecuted. But he kept a scrapbook with dozens of pictures of the stolen gorilla as well as local newspaper cuttings from the time.
Tim Corum, the deputy head of Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives service, said they would not be pursuing the surviving pranksters.
“We are intrigued and pleased to hear about the revelations concerning Alfred’s ‘escape’ from the City Museum and Art Gallery in 1956,” he said. “Although we would never condone any such illegal activity as reportedly happened, the council will not be taking any action against the reputed perpetrators either. Instead we will be adding the latest reports to the bulging file relating to one of Bristol’s best loved figures.”
Alfred remains on display at the museum, where he is still a big draw.