Beasts On The Street (Jamrach's Menagerie)
The English love their animals. Wild or domesticated, little or large, cats or dogs, it really doesn't matter. Some like their pets feathered, some like them scaled, some like them covered in fur with the run of the house, others like them covered in latex and let out for the weekends.
But regardless of whether you like animals up close or behind bars, or whether you simply like to enjoy them between two slices of white bread and a touch of brown sauce, this next story is of interest to everyone.
Mr. Jamrach was chief of the Hamburg River police in the early 19th century. During his daily rounds of patrolling the waterways, he would board vessels and inspect them for customs. It was during this time that he discovered the lucrative trade in importing wild, exotic animals. Being a lover of animals himself, and especially of a quick buck, he entered the trade and began a family business.
In 1840 he died and his son Charles took over. Charles was by now deeply familiar with the family business, and with the mysterious, distant homelands of his father's cargo. Schooled in equatorial adventures and tropical mysteries, with a choice of the whole world open in front him like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" paperback from the 80's, (the 1980's when children read books, resolved their own conflicts and weighed under 13 stone) Charles left Germany and headed straight to the Ratcliff Highway in East London. Trading in the Amazon and the jungles of Borneo for opium dens and murder hotspots, he opened Jamrach's Menagerie, an animal emporium open to all.
Thanks to lax animal laws of the day, here you could buy pretty much anything you wanted. Sumatran rhinos, bears, lions. You want your house in Wapping to be guarded by an alligator? Cool. You want to ride down The Strand on a Dodo? Why not! Require a silverback gorilla as your plus one for the annual Plumstead Swingers soiree? Right this way, madam. Anything your heart could desire. Well, everything except koalas
'cause the little buggers never survived the 6 week boat journey. But don't worry, you could
always buy a dead one converted into a lamp stand.
Yes, one thriving Victorian fashion was to convert dead animals into furniture. And let me tell you, you haven't lived until experiencing the bliss of engaging with Kipling's "Jungle Book", whilst nestled firmly yet comfortably in the bowels of an Elephant carcass.
Orders flew in from all over the globe, New York, Paris, Tehran. Amongst his customers were H.G. Wells, Baden Powell, royalty and his shop is referenced in Charles Dickens' 'Martin Chuzzlewit', and even as a supplier of a Norwegian wolf in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'.
Over time Charles developed a reputation, not only as someone who could communicate with the animals, but also have power over the animal kingdom. Although this didn't prevent a customer from having his clothes ripped off by an irate monkey or from a python escaping
and making its home in Victoria Park, where it feasted on ducks and swans. And there is still to this day, a statue found in Tobacco Dock that marks the most fantastic tale of all.
One day during a routine delivery at the docks, a male Bengal tiger escaped his cage
and wandered off down Commercial St. A young boy, who'd never seen such a thing before, decided to wander over to give the big cat a pat on the head. Well he received a pat back, was knocked unconscious and dragged off in the jaws of this great beast.
Mr. Jamrach witnessed what was taking place, and gave chase to this tiger, leapt on its back. He attacked the tiger from behind, grasping at its throat with both hands, and driving his thumbs into the soft place behind the jaw. Which caused the tiger to choke, loosen its hold, and release its prey. Jamrach then gave it a couple of cracks with a crowbar for good measure, and returned the child.
And what of his grateful parents? Well they turned around
and sued Jamrach for £300.