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.
“I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/Tap the windows, awake in dread/Pray that you’d loved me instead/I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/And I’ll haunt you, sleep in fear…” – Seth Lakeman, ‘I’ll Haunt You’
Whether you are a true believer in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night or you are a complete sceptic on the subject, Halloween has always been a good time for telling a few scary ghost stories. This time of the year has long been associated with the supernatural; nights are getting longer and colder and the boundaries between this world and the next become more and more amorphous… Or something.
I confess that, personally, I fall in between these two extremes – I come from a family which claims some psychic ability and grew up fascinated by tales of haunted houses and spooky legends. I still love ghost stories, whether fictional or ‘real’, and I’ve had quite a few strange and seemingly inexplicable experiences over the years, but I am a bit too cynical and sceptical to immediately and unquestioningly accept these as being supernatural.
However, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe – and Halloween is as good an opportunity as any to suspend that disbelief and try to scare the crap out of you all…