Victorian lions and tigers and bears (oh my): Jamrach’s Animal Emporium

I’m a regular rummager of charity shop bookshelves – it really is amazing what you can discover gathering dust in forgotten corners. A recent bargain acquisition was Ed Glinert’s fascinating volume, The London Compendium, an engrossing guide to the hidden nooks and crannies of the capital. It’s one of those wonderful books that can be read cover to cover or, as I’ve been doing, dipped into at various points simply out of curiosity or personal interest.

And it was while dipping into the section on east London (an area that is currently in the news with the opening of the Olympic Games this week) that I discovered a remarkable story that I had never come across before. A story that I couldn’t resist sharing with you…

Meet Charles Jamrach, Victorian animal importer, exporter, breeder and retailer. And we’re not talking about kittens, hamsters and goldfish either – Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, on the East End’s then-infamous Ratcliffe Highway, was probably the only place in 19th century London where, almost unbelievably to our modern sensibilities, “the casual buyer could obtain, for instance, a lion, no questions asked”¹, as Glinert wryly puts it. Jamrach’s many customers included P.T. Barnum’s circus, London Zoo, various menageries and wealthy (and well-connected) individuals who wanted something more than just a moggie or a mutt.

Jamrach’s Emporium also contained a shop which stocked curios from around the world (particularly from the Far East), and a popular museum full of assorted oddities. An 1879 edition of the magazine Good Words describes the astonishing contents of this museum and shop in classic Victorian language:

[A] stuffed elephant… two bisons’ heads and an eland’s; African antelope horns; skins of the almost extinct owl-parrot, and the apteryx, or kiwi, that queer bird which looks so much like an old gentleman… The museum has, moreover, a Maori’s model, in wood and glass, of a Great Exhibition building; a mummy found in a saltpetre mine; Peruvian pottery… found in the tombs of the Incas; clay masks, with projecting chins and hideously grinning teeth – very like little death’s heads – found in the tumuli of Mexico, and supposed to be likenesses of a primeval pigmy race; repoussé work; implements of war with which the Crusaders and the Saracens banged and hacked and prodded each other; Japanese swords, with stone-ray handles, and “happy dispatch” supplementary daggers; waddies, nullahs, boomerangs, spears, womeras from Australia; more implements of war, and curious cloths, and podgy little idols… from Fiji, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, &c.; Sevres ware in satin-lined cases at £5 a plate; old bronzes; quaint and dainty ivory carvings – some of pagodas; grotesques carved in tea-root; droll, unperspective screens; porcelain Chinamen laughing from ear to ear; porcelain dragons with dimmed gilding; old China ware of all kinds…; vases in porcelain and in metal, some inlaid in curious patterns with ground turquoise, others that once belonged to the Great Mogul adorned with texts from the Koran, running from a foot to six feet in height; the price of these blue grenadiers being some £200 per pair.

But the main business appears to have been in live animals for private sale, a trade that was perfectly legal at the time. Being located so close to London’s docks, it was relatively easy for Jamrach to obtain and order both such exotic objects as described above, and what were then seen as strange, foreign creatures, mostly alien to British shores, as Good Words explains:

Runners board vessels at Gravesend and in all the London Docks, which are likely to have brought anything which Mr. Jamrach might wish to purchase; and he has agents at Liverpool, Southampton, Plymouth, Deal, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Hamburg, and other ports, who telegraph for instructions to purchase on the arrival of likely commodities. Masters of merchantmen, again, before sailing, call on Mr. Jamrach for a priced list of animals, &c., required, and bring back as many of the things ordered as they can lay their hands on.

If you had the cash, you could purchase almost any exotic creature that your heart may have desired from Jamrach’s. Fancy owning a bear? In 1879, that would have cost you anything from £8 (approximately £386 at 2005 prices) to £16 (approximately £723) – or £25 (approximately £1,208) if you wanted a polar bear. Twenty quid (approximately £966) would get you a leopard or a camel, forty (approximately £1,932) a giraffe. Zebras were £100 plus (approximately £4,831), as were lions. And you could even buy a tiger for a mere £300 (approximately £14,493).

It was a tiger that got Jamrach into trouble during the 1850s when a particularly ferocious example of that species managed to escape from the Emporium, much to the astonishment and terror of local residents. Some years later, and under the rather exciting headline ‘My Struggle With A Tiger’, Jamrach himself described the events of that day in an article published in the February 1st 1879 edition of The Boy’s Own Paper:

It is now a good many years ago, when one morning a van-load of wild beasts… arrived at my repository… I myself superintended the unloading of the animals, and had given directions to my men to place a den containing a very ferocious full-grown Bengal tiger, with its iron-barred front close against the wall…. [A]ll of a sudden I heard a crash, and to my horror found the big tiger had pushed out the back part of his den with his hind-quarters, and was walking down the yard into the street, which was then full of people watching the arrival of this curious merchandise. The tiger, in putting his forepaws against the iron bars in front of the den, had exerted his full strength to push with his back against the boards behind, and had thus succeeded in gaining his liberty.

Exactly what happened next is difficult to ascertain with any precision from the various existing accounts, but we can be sure that a young boy approached the tiger, possibly with the intention of stroking it. Unsurprisingly, the already annoyed big cat was not impressed by this youthful display of East End cheek and picked up the little lad in its mighty jaws, carrying him off down the road, “doubtless with lunch in mind”². Jamrach continues:

I dashed after the brute, and got hold of him by the loose skin of the back of his neck […] I tried thus to stop his further progress, but he was too strong for me, and dragged me, too, along with him. I then succeeded in putting my leg under his hind legs, tripping him up, so to say, and he fell in consequence on his knees. I now, with all my strength and weight, knelt on him, and releasing the loose skin I had hold of, I pushed my thumbs with all my strength behind his ears, trying to strangulate him thus. All this time the beast held fast to the boy.

While all this was going on, the sizable crowd that had gathered to view the cat being unloaded had grown and was, understandably, now in a state of mass panic. No-one knew what to do – after all, how many of us would know how to react if a tiger came padding down our local High Street even today? But Jamrach was nothing if not resourceful:

My men had been seized with the same panic as the bystanders, but now I discovered one lurking round a corner, so I shouted to him to come with a crowbar ; he fetched one, and hit the tiger three tremendous blows over the eyes.

It was only now he released the boy. His jaws opened and his tongue protruded about seven inches. I thought the brute was dead or dying, and let go of him, but no sooner had I done so than he jumped up again. In the same moment I seized the crowbar myself, and gave him, with all the strength I had left, a blow over his head. He seemed to be quite cowed, and, turning tail, went back towards the stables, which fortunately were open. I drove him into the yard, and closed the doors at once. Looking round for my tiger, I found he had sneaked into a large empty den that stood open at the bottom of the yard. Two of my men, who had jumped on to an elephant’s box, now descended, and pushed down the iron-barred sliding-door of the den; and so my tiger was safe again under lock and key.

Phew! Whether or not this was actually the way events unfolded is difficult to judge (this account is certainly very flattering to Jamrach, making him sound very heroic, plus the passage of several decades between the tiger escape and the writing of this article suggests that the tale may well have evolved into this form over repeated tellings). Despite the crowbar-assisted animal abuse, the tiger does seem to have survived (it was sold to a menagerie only a few days after the incident) – but what of the boy?

The boy was taken to the hospital, but with the exception of a fright and a scratch, was very little hurt […] Nevertheless, the father, a tailor, brought an action against me for damages, and I had to pay £300, of which he had £60, and the lawyers the remaining £240 […] At the trial the judge sympathised very much with me, saying that, instead of being made to pay, I ought to have been rewarded for saving the life of the boy, and perhaps that of a lot of other people. He, however, had to administer the law as he found it, and I was responsible for any dangerous consequences brought about in my business.

‘Dangerous consequences’ indeed! To be completely honest, I don’t blame the tiger for wanting its freedom at all – it had probably been stuck in a box pretty much ever since it had been captured in the wild. Under those circumstances, I think I’d be pretty ferocious and more than a little pissed off too. And then being repeatedly clubbed over the head simply for doing what tigers do when confronted with something that looks like prey – well, that’s just guaranteed to irritate the poor creature further.

Today, we see tigers as beautiful and endangered animals that should be protected, and quite rightly so. But Jamrach and his contemporaries lived in a world where the idea of finite resources, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, had barely crossed anyone’s mind. This was a society that had long seen itself as at the centre of an empire supplying a never-ending stream of almost anything you could imagine (from exotic foodstuffs to tigers – and everything in between) from all over the periphery straight to the heart of the metropolis. And this meant that many creatures like our poor feline friend here were seen purely as commodities that supplied the demand of a obviously economically viable market, not as a remarkable and essential part of a wider eco-system that needs to be protected and preserved.

¹ ² ‘The London Compendium: A Street-By-Street Exploration of the Hidden Metropolis’ – Ed Glinert (London; Penguin Books, 2004), p.299 and p.280.

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