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Animals in London
During the 19th Century it wasn’t unusual to encounter wild and exotic animals in London’s streets. As the British Empire expanded and London’s Docks became a hub for international trade, animals began to arrive in large numbers, many of which were first destined for an animal dealer’s menagerie.
Charles Jamrach was one of these men and during the Victorian period, he became a world renowned dealer in animals, birds, artefacts and shells.
Based in the East End, near to the London Docks, Jamrach traded from a number of premises that were always bustling with exotic creatures from across the globe. This included a bird shop and museum in St. George’s Street East, a menagerie in Bett Street and a warehouse in Old Gravel Lane.
The Jamrach familyIn storage
For the Jamrachs, animal trading was very much a family enterprise. Charles had followed in the footsteps of his father and brother, while three of his own children, Anton Herman, Albert Edward and William also entered into the family business.
However, Jamrach’s second wife didn’t seem to share this passion; one report recalling him to have said how ‘she never took too kindly to the animals, why even in winter, she always made a fuss about the snakes sleeping under the bed.’
Supply and Demand
Imperial expansion during the 19th century gave animal dealers like Jamrach opportunity to source a huge variety of exotic species for which there was huge demand.
The animals and specimens Jamrach sourced were often sold to amateur and professional naturalists for display in the growing number of zoological collections, private menageries, circuses and natural history museums all of which had begun to display them.
Jamrach, the specialistIn storage
Jamrach was also able to provide customers with valuable information on the species they sought to obtain. His guidance was sought for species classification, techniques for capture and even dietary advice.
Charles’s son, Anton, explained to Dr Gunther at the British Museum (NH) how the tuatara, a species endemic New Zealand, was fast becoming extinct as a result of its disappearing habitat.
Knowledge was a tool of empowerment for an animal dealer and Jamrach built a solid reputation for himself.
In addition to museums and zoological collections, Jamrach is also understood to have sold to a number of high profile figures in Victorian society. For example, Rossetti’s wombat Top is believed to have been one of many animals Jamrach sold to him for his menagerie in Cheyne Walk. The Strand Magazine even claimed that the Prince of Wales had visited Jamrach’s, leaving ‘much surprised and pleased at all he had seen’.
Jamrach is often remembered in association with an incident that involved a tiger escaping and making its way onto the Ratcliffe Highway where it proceeded to attack a young boy, in October 1857. Jamrach led the pursuit, eventually subduing the animal and ensuring the boy’s safe release.
The story was highly controversial as it drew parallels with the Indian Mutiny and brought questions about imperial rule into the very heart of London.
Broadening tradeOn display: Horniman Museum
Jamrach’s business was a permanent feature on the Ratcliffe Highway for over fifty years. However, in the latter years of his life he had to contend with the complications that arose as a result of a decline in the trade.
Jamrach became increasingly dependent on agents stationed in overseas ports, and while he continued to trade in animals, he downsized to a single premises and subsidised his profits by trading in antiquities, artefacts and shells.
Closing doorsIn storage
After Jamrach’s death in 1891, his son Albert continued to run the business, still trading in rare and valuable creatures. In 1903, one report claims how Albert sold one of only two Red Ruffed Lemurs in Europe to a customer for the sum of £40 – the other having been sold to Lord Walter Rothschild.
Albert continued his father’s legacy, at least until the time of First World War, when the trade as it had been known collapsed. Shortly afterwards, Jamrach’s closed its door for the final time.