In 1878 a local horticulturist – Mr JC Nelson, received the title deeds for the land which soon became known as the Botanical Gardens. From these humble beginnings the botanical gardens were officially opened in February 1890 by the visiting Governor Sir Henry Loch. The gardens had no official name and the Mayor asked the governor to suggest one, and so the gardens became known as Queen's Park. At the ceremony Norfolk pines and Silvertrees were presented by Mr Nelson (of the Cambridge Nurseries), planted by Sir Henry and Lady Loch and Sir Gordon and Lady Sprigg.
Queen's Park offered early settlers indigenous coastal bush and scenic drives down the harbour as well as an ornamental lake (known as the duck pond) and a small natural waterfall which only flowed after heavy rains(now lost in the name of progression).
In 1936 it was decided to start the Queen's Park zoo. Inexperience in those days lead to a tragic start with cold and damp concrete cages and animals fed only on sweet potatoes. A committee was selected to advise and monitor the situation and conditions began improving.
In 1973 when the threat of a new bypass road cutting right through Queens Park arose, members of the local community disputed this in order to protect the precious indigenous and exotic vegetation. An alternative route was allocated and Queen's Park was declared a National Monument.
To this day some of the most striking features of the zoo are the mix of indigenous and exotic vegetation, and our relics of a bygone era - the octagonal dovecote which used to be a bandstand on the beach front, the fountain behind the chimpanzee enclosure donated by magistrate GM Fleischer (when it was moved from Oxford street in 1894) and three sets of wrought irons presented to EL by Sir Donald Curry, Mr John Stroyn, and Mr James Georgeson, (of these two sets remain at the Park Avenue entrance to Queens Park zoo and the other at Gately House entrance).
The zoo has become a much loved asset of the city with memorable characters such as Pollo the African grey parrot which became the Zoo bouncer in 1988. Pollo could swear in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. The East London Zoological Gardens have continually upgraded with projects such as Operation Wingspan (1995) which looked at upgrading the birds of prey aviaries, in 1996 the bear enclosure was upgraded which saw the concrete torn up to make way for trees and lawn and much needed shade for mother and daughter duo Gina and Jenny.
In 2011 more extensive enhancements and upgrades are scheduled for the bear enclosure.
There have been numerous baby animals born at the zoo including a rare serval kitten in 1988 and 8 lion cubs in 2003, (born in two litters in which one male and one female were white lion cubs), thereafter subsequent litters of white lions.
In 1998 Round Table 1 proposed that the Smartie train, a fundraising vehicle, be removed from Marina Glen where it had been from the past 50 years, to the Zoo.
Also in the Zoo grounds is Gately House, built in 1876 this single storey house with a 3-sided veranda was home to John Gately – an Irish immigrant and successful businessman. Administered by the East London Museum it is one of the only house museums left in the country containing the original furniture.